RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops

Iowa Learning Farms believes that the most productive way to reach farmers with our message is to engage with them, and encourage them to engage with other farmers. ILF utilizes several methods to facilitate two-way, open communication at our events. One of our favorites is the Rapid Need Assessment and Response (RNR) technique.

A modified, amped up version of the carousel brainstorming technique often used by educators, RNR is a method for engaging participants in small groups to share their knowledge with one another on a specified list of topics or questions. This technique serves to identify what participants already know about certain topics, and encourages them to interact in small group settings to exchange ideas that will later be offered up to the larger group. Rather than making assumptions about attendees’ knowledge base on certain topics, RNR allows us as event facilitators to actually identify what attendees know, and directly gage our information toward their misconceptions and lack of knowledge on water quality and conservation topics.

Iowa Learning Farms most recently used RNR in September at an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach meeting for absentee landowners, to identify participants’ views on assignment of responsibility for conservation practices on rented agricultural land, to measure their general knowledge of water and soil quality issues, and to identify what methods they believed to be most useful for addressing those issues. By using RNR, ILF was able to observe landowners’ level of understanding of water and soil quality challenges.

The ILF team identified six questions they wanted participants to focus on during the activity. Six large sheets of paper were taped to walls around the room’s perimeter, each with a question written at the top. Small groups of seven people each rotated through the six stations to discuss the questions and add their thoughts onto the sheets of paper. This type of active engagement inspired participants to talk and engage with each other.


A small group of landowners discusses practices for minimizing nitrogen loss on land as part of the RNR activity.

The questions asked during the absentee landowner meeting, and the answers indicated as most effective during the large group discussion that followed, were:

1)    Whose responsibility is it to pay for edge of field conservation practices?


Joint responsibility between landowner and tenant, and also watershed cooperators; possibly should be written into land rental contracts
2)    What practices are most effective in preventing soil erosion and phosphorous loss in your area?


No till practices, waterways, and cover crops
3)    Whose responsibility is it to pay for infield practices?


Landowner (their asset; their responsibility), cooperation of landowner and tenant, or landowners should establish practices and tenants should maintain them
4)    What are the barriers to water quality improvement in Iowa?


Cost, lack of technology or knowledge of implementation, and apathy
5)    What are the leading causes of water quality issues in Iowa?


Surface run-off, too much tillage, stream bank erosion, and lack of conservation practices
6)    What practices are most effective for minimizing nitrogen loss in your area?


Buffer strips, measuring nitrogen and phosphorous levels, utilizing crop rotation and nitrogen stabilizers

In addition to encouraging landowners in attendance to interact with each other on these important issues, the Iowa Learning Farms team was able to identify some misconceptions held by several participants. Regulated tile flow, bioreactors, and wetlands were listed by some small groups as practices that help to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous loss. In fact, these practices help to filter nitrates, but do nothing to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous loss. Likewise, many groups believed the leading causes of water quality issues in Iowa stem from practices causing increased erosion, when in fact a lot of work has been done already to address surface water run-off and erosion, but less work has addressed the issue of nitrates at the root level.

Identifying these misconceptions and knowledge gaps before moving forward with the meeting was tremendously helpful, as water quality experts, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning, could speak to the group about current scientific studies on these topics, and help dispel myths or misunderstandings of the issues. It also encouraged greater participation during the remainder of the session, since everyone in attendance had gotten a chance to really engage with the focus material, and get a sense of other attendees’ points of view. The rest of the workshop was based on what participants still needed to learn about water quality and conservation practices.


The large group reconvenes in a discussion lead by Dr. Matt Helmers to go over ideas that were exchanged during RNR.

RNR is one of the many ways Iowa Learning Farms encourages interactive participation at our events, and makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard as we move forward in our efforts to improve Iowa’s water and soil quality through increased adoption of conservation practices! Watch our website, http://www.iowalearningfarms.org, for opportunities across Iowa to participate in an RNR workshop in February and March this year.

Brandy Case Haub