Saturday, June 24, 2017

Stop P[ing] in the Lake

There are a lot of things I am learning about this summer, but all of them come down to one pesky, little letter. P. It is the symbol for the element phosphorous. Phosphorous is usually a good thing. It is used to make ATP, which powers cells, and it is used to make DNA, which powers life. However, the phosphorous in the Red Cedar Watershed is a perfect illustration of the phrase “too much of a good thing.” The huge amount of phosphorous in the lake is what leads to the toxic blooms of cyanobacteria every summer. This phosphorous gets into the lake because of people.

'Til the Cows Come Home: Experiential Learning At Its Finest

This past week has been quite the fruitful continuation of an introduction to the world of academic research. After a week of gathering sources and reading through a plethora of literature regarding water quality policies, I got my hands dirty and worked with real data for the first time in my academic career (unless you count FRED data downloads for problem sets...). This week's appetizer came in the form of water quality data from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council, which proved to a delectable selection of information that will serve as the backbone for the remaining components of this project's particular approach. Once that data had been spruced up and made into workable sets, the entree awaited: data from the 2002-2012 USDA Agricultural Census, specifically farm counts and total acreage. And why stop at one dish? Throughout the week I was also making steady progress on a second plate of brain food: a literature review encompassing last week's readings, and representing a key component of this summer's research.

Dessert? Well, I'd have to say that it came in the form of the overall satisfaction derived from another week's work well done. Even though we've yet to fully delve into the modeling process of working with water quality data, I learned a lot from Zach about the finer aspects of economic research as well as the nitty gritty parts by engaging in active outlining. A lot of time was expended daily but that's what I signed up for, and it's been every bit as immersive and rewarding an experience as it can be through two weeks. 

As for big picture material, this summer I'll be actively learning about past and current water quality policies and their respective effects on nonpoint source pollution abatement (with some point source coverage inevitably sprinkled in here and there) as well as economic measures like monetary valuation and cost-effectiveness; that process will provide a large portion of background and comparative knowledge. More specifically, my project will be zeroing in on the Minnesota Phosphorus Lawn Fertilizer Law and its effects on water quality in the state of Minnesota, which will then be compared to water quality in Wisconsin over the same time period to see if there's any significance to the Lawn Fertilizer Law's effectiveness. This significance could arise in results like the degree of impact on phosphorus pollution abatement or lack thereof and the accompanying cost-benefit balance, all of which will be obtained from models based on data that we'll be continuing to extract in the next few weeks as we strive for robustness. 

As rewarding as this summer's worth of research experience alone is going to be, hopefully the end product of our collaborative efforts will be just as rewarding for water quality and be more than a synthesis of 8 weeks worth of work and learning. Not that there'd be anything at all wrong with that, it's just that Zach's ambitious goals for us and our research have apparently rubbed off quite a lot. I'd very much like to produce an impactful study by the end of the summer, one that can sway policymakers or even just the higher-ups in the world of academia to use it as a launching pad for their own water quality improvement efforts. It is through this goal that I plan to continue learning more about other similar efforts that have occurred or that continue to occur across the nation, in addition to honing my fledgling data analytics skills into an at least halfway-decent instrument of change. Here's to another 6 weeks of good academic eats!

Lesson #2: Never Trust a Cabbage

Lesson #2: Never Trust a Cabbage

Team Biology has wasted no time in beginning an experiment to biogeochemically remediate lake Menomin. Toxic conditions at this lake have been accredited to Microcystis aeruginosa, a freshwater cyanobacteria, who fully takes advantage of the overabundance of phosphorus in the lake. Our plan is to introduce a plant species who will uptake the phosphorus before the Microcystis can. Preparation for this experiment has been long and labor intensive as our team has worked tirelessly shedding blood*, sweat, and tears in the name of science. The plants will sit atop rafts constructed from 2X4s, chicken wire, and pool noodles. We will be using collard greens in this experiment considering they are known to uptake a considerable amount of nutrients and are fairly hardy plants.
While prepping for the experiment, our team had to rinse the soil off of, measure root length, measure shoot length, photograph, and label 80 collard green plants. About 75 plants into the process one teammate noticed a cabbage plant label among the mix. Soon after we had discovered that a large amount of cabbage plants had been rinsed, measured, and photographed. My heart dropped and unspoken curses filled our minds then seeped out into the chilled air. We had all been betrayed by the cabbage plants, whose juvenile stage much resembled that of the collards. Although we had lost hours of labor, defeat was not accepted. After a quick trip to fleet farm, the measuring, photographing, and labelling resumed until 80 collard green plants had been processed.
As soon as our last raft was launched today, I was overcome with a great sense of relief and gratitude to everyone who helped us**. In the upcoming weeks team biology will be monitoring the test sites to see how well the collard greens are at remediating the lake. In addition to our plant experiment, we will also be trying to germinate seeds using varying levels of sediment from the lake. I am really looking forward to finding out what will happen!

Our Rafts!

*Side note: no one seriously bled, just a bunch of pricked fingers from hardware cloth*

**Shout out to Amber, Kayleigh, Jimmy, Madison, Stephanie, Elise, and Saide!!

Manure Economics

This summer I’ll be looking at the effects of manure use on water pollution. Manure is often used as a substitute for commercial fertilizer, but its impact on water phosphorus levels is somewhat unclear. In the literature on the subject thus far, manure use and relevant regulations have been shown both to increase and decrease pollution (depending on the assumptions and conditions of the study). Many are case-studies, meaning the results of which are of limited generalizability. To my knowledge, the project I’m undertaking will be the first empirical analysis of manure use’s relationship to water phosphorus levels using data from the U.S. Midwest.
      After looking at these effects, I will run some policy simulations to try to determine the optimal regulations for manure use in the area. The hope is for this paper to be published and noticed by policymakers who will use these results to make an informed decision on how to improve the quality of our water.

Curiosity and Questions: A Methodology for Accessing Our Greatest Resource

How do you transform a problem into solutions? This is what I want to know. But if a straightforward answer existed I feel like more of us would be screaming it from the rooftops and making spending every living moment doing it and the world would be a happier, cleaner, safer place. But that doesn’t exist. The answer is elusive, complex and specific for different issues. So where does one even begin?

Building a Sociological Atlas: Interviews and Surveys

           After a week of learning everything ranging from how to analyze data using statistical software to how to conduct interviews with farmers to get the most authentic responses, it seems as if my head is practically bursting with unexpected knowledge of all sorts.  That being said, the most startling of all these developing new insights seems to be concentrated in the form of maps.  By “maps”, not only do I mean as in physical roadmaps of land (as there has been plenty of that in the past few days with Sadie partnering with me to navigate through multiple Wisconsin counties in order to survey farmers), but also “maps” of all the interconnected pieces that are building my own growing knowledge about farmers’ livelihoods and the daily realities they face.

            Around 6 AM this past Friday morning, I had the pleasure of meeting with one farmer, who is actively involved in promoting conservation agriculture practices such as no-till farming in his town.  I had the opportunity to ask him some very broad over-arching questions regarding what he perceived to be some of the biggest challenges in farming today, as well as who he typically trusts for discussing these issues that affect his personal livelihood so significantly.  In our conversations, he shared with me how everything from changing climate patterns—this spring had been a very wet one for farmers in Wisconsin overall—to the ever-increasing tightness of economic margins today, all have enormous effects on how he manages his daily decisions as a large-scale corn and soybean producer.  He also commented on the interconnectedness of his trusted advisors that he often consults on these struggles—everyone from real estate agents to agronomy experts to equipment dealers to county conservationists and risk-management specialists.  The morning of my interview that day, it became clear to me just how complicated his social and economic web must be, as with many of his contemporaries, in the face of the concerns coming from the multiple aspects of farming in Wisconsin today.

            In terms of how these developing mental “maps” of mine fit into the larger context of the research that my team is charged with this summer, the knowledge that I am gaining conversations with farmers like the one mentioned above are becoming more than applicable and quite critical for our project.  Our job is to use the data we are collecting from surveying and interviewing farmers to devise a sociological atlas of farmers’ relationships with one another—as well as outside agents—in order to see how the problem of phosphorus pollution has developed (and can be mitigated) in the Red Cedar watershed.  Every detail that I can manage to collect from the volume of firsthand information that these farmers have to share with me will only provide a more accurate and complete picture of how to begin to approach solving their problems and that of the larger Red Cedar watershed community beyond.  Moving into the future to accomplish my research goal effectively, I am quite excited to enrich my own mental “maps” with even greater detail, color, scale, and symbols (just as any decent, dog-eared, and well-loved road atlas might be).  Considering the willingness and openness to share that the farmers I have met this week alone have had, I have no doubts that my “sociological atlas” on farmer social networks can only grow from here.

Learning how to drive Dan Prestebok's heirloom tractor this past Tuesday evening.  Dan, otherwise known as the county conservationist for Dunn County, affectionately calls his farming operation his "full-time hobby". 

Kites are cool!

Creating our own aerial photography is one of the things I am learning this summer. This consists of flying a kite and attaching a camera to it, via a rig, setting it to automatically take continuous images. This meant testing out our 7 foot and 9 foot kites this week! Getting the kite to take off was quite the challenge at first but, thanks to consistent wind this week, I’ve gotten the hang of it, plus its really fun! We made a rig out of a water jug, pool noodles, and rubber bands. There were high hopes that the kite would be able to carry the rig with a digital camera to it but quickly learned it wouldn’t when we were testing it out at 11 PM one night. We did, however, attach an iPhone to it (with no protection whatsoever which was super scary and we were nervous it was going to fly off and crack), and successfully the kite took it away with no problem. Here, we learned that we needed to get a lighter camera, that will hopefully get here next week so we can finally start taking pictures. By the end of these couple of days experimenting with the kite, I can say that I’m pretty darn good with a kite. I need to put these skills to display and join some sort of kite club! If that's even a real thing. 
I’m also learning all sorts of GIS techniques I didn’t even know existed (which shout to those people who make YouTube tutorials about these sort of things, keep doing your thing its helping people like me out!) Yes, it can definitely get frustrating, especially when the program decides to crash in the middle of your work, but I’m learning things that could potentially help me out in future situations. We’re using GIS to obtain our site locations of where we would like to do field work and take our aerial images of buffer zones, to determine whether it is or isn’t healthy, and take water quality data. This means, Macroinvertebrate testing! I cannot wait to learn about this procedure when we start testing for water quality. This method basically tells you if water is polluted by the organisms that are not present. Its field work that I think I can gain several skills from that sounds super fun! Plus, I’ll be able to learn some biology information from doing this type of work. Though, shout out to the biology team this week for teaching me how to use a drill!
Apart from that I would love to learn a little bit from each team to gain a basic understanding of what their project consists of and what it takes to accomplish their projects. Such as learning what questions you need to ask people and surveying techniques from the anthropology and sociology team. Also, hope to learn more about what people have to say about their lake, what they know, and what they would like to see change. Learning more about the community itself. But this isn’t everything I want to learn and will learn these next couple of weeks. There’s things I won’t even know I want to learn until I want to learn about them and there’s things I’ll learn about I didn’t expect to. Regardless, there’s no doubt I’m going to learn a lot this summer!

                                                  Photo taken by Madison Biggs 

#TeamNels Takes the Watershed by Storm!

Two weeks in and I am feeling oh so good! It has been amazing to switch up the regular learning routine of daily classes and instead delve into the life of a researcher. I have already learned so much and become so close with my peers, it is difficult to quantify what these two weeks have meant to me. Even on the tough and long days, I am so grateful to be here! Back home in Massachusetts I attend Hampshire College and study sustainable agriculture. At Hampshire, students develop their own study of interest (rather than choosing from a list of majors) so I have also been able to foster my interest in studying community. My partner Elise and I are working with our mentor Nels Paulson (#TeamNels) on the sociology piece of this LAKES project to create social networks and examine how these social networks affect the adoption of best management practices (BMPs). Since my background is not directly in sociology, I was a little intimidated by the amount of math involved in social analysis and modeling, but after a few long days of learning statistics, the fun has begun!
These past two days, Elise and I hit the road and began giving surveys to farmers throughout the Red Cedar Watershed. These surveys were developed by previous LAKES REU students and ask questions about landownership and renting, what types of conservation agriculture are practiced on the farm, what groups of people farmers would be interested in working with (agencies, farmer led councils, one on one consultations), what educational programs would be beneficial, and how farmers perceive the current environmental issues in conjunction with their livelihood. Elise and I have visited farms in Menomonie and Ridgeland so far and have had very positive interactions… I was surprised at how eager people were to share their experiences and opinions with us, and it makes my heart sing! It is one thing to collect the data from these surveys, but it is another thing entirely to hear personal stories and make connections with these local farmers. Hearing about how farms operate in a state so far from home is a wonderful opportunity for me, and it makes me feel like this work is doing a lot of good. I can see that there is a genuine passion for improving the local environment and this is another testament to what a caring and wonderful community there is in Wisconsin.

            Elise and I are also developing our own research interests off of this main project. What I will be researching is whether or not social connections affect farmer BMP use. Narrowing down to this research topic proved to be quite difficult because I have so many questions! Are most farmers in the area from farming families? Why do younger people choose to farm? What characteristics do sustainably minded farmers share? Hopefully I can answer a lot of these questions and the many more that I continue to think of through my conversations with farming families and by analyzing the data from the surveys! I feel so inspired and rejuvenated through this learning experience and I hope these remaining six weeks don’t fly by too quickly! Keep an eye out for #TeamNels, coming to a farm near you:

Friday, June 23, 2017

Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings

During the course of week, I’ve had the pleasure of attending various meetings pertaining to the policies in the county of Dunn as well as talking to the people who are affected by them. This also includes learning about how the county and community currently work towards land and water conservation, who gets a say when constructing certain policies, and how different boards will communicate to the public about these issues. Overall it’s quite interesting seeing how policies are perceived through the eyes of different individuals and their takes on what is actually important. Along with my group members Amber and Kayleigh we got to see a bit into the history of water use in Lake Menomin thanks to the Dunn County Historical Society. In order to improve the water quality here in Menomonie in addition to other areas I think it’s important to identify the social infrastructure as well as the community capacity that will help attain more measurable and sustainable results.

 Another thing that I was able to improve on this week was on interviews. With my mentors help and my fellow peers I learned more about how I should conduct interviews and determine what should go into formulating questions that we ask and what shouldn’t. I’ve personally conducted interviews in the past, but I wasn’t taught much about structuring them or how to effectively get a respondent to produce more information. I also got to use a transcriber foot pedal for the first time and questioned why I hadn’t ever used one before? They make it so much easier to do transcriptions instead of just using your mouse and keyboard all the time. As I continue doing my research I hope to delve deeper into regulations and policies pertaining to water quality that affect dairy farmers. This includes both smaller family farmers and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). From what I have already looked into Dunn County has round six CAFOs which are regulated under state statues. These statues have certain regulations that require permits for a pollutant discharge elimination system. In addition, there is also a manure management ordinance that’s in place to help protect the waters quality. I plan to get in connection with the individuals who run these farms as well as the policy makers themselves. I want to understand how the development of these policies and the phases it must go through to become official. I’m positive that this research will help me develop my skills as a researcher if it hasn’t already.