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Crops and Conservation

Nelson Institute alumna Alison Duff is studying the positive connection between agriculture and conservation in her latest role with the USDA

December 18, 2018

M.S. Land Resources (now Environment & Resources) 2005, Ph.D., Environment & Resources (2014)

Along the edge of America’s farmland is a lush border of trees, grasses, and wildflowers that often mark property lines or a break between crops. These wild areas are often deemed unusable, but according to Nelson Institute alumna, Alison Duff, they may be the key to improving economic and conservation outcomes for farms as well as the greater community.  In fact, studying the way in which working farms can serve as both production and conservation lands has been at the heart of Duff’s research since her early days as a graduate student at the Nelson Institute.

Duff began the Land Resources (now Environment & Resources) master’s program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute in 2003 after completing an undergraduate degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. Duff was looking for a graduate program that would allow her to explore her passion for restoration ecology, or the practice of renewing damaged ecosystems, while also allowing her to make a larger impact on the community. After learning about the interdisciplinary curriculum at the Nelson Institute, Duff decided to apply and she began work with her advisor, Nelson Institute Associate Director, Paul Zedler. While exploring her interest in community engagement and restoration ecology, Duff learned from Nelson alumni Curt Meine and Amanda Fuller about restoration plans at the nearby Badger Army Ammunition Plant.

Located near Baraboo, Wisconsin, the plant was once used to manufacture nitrocellulose-based propellants, but was declared excess in 1997 after living in stand-by status since 1977. With the support of then-U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the Sauk County Board of Supervisors established the Badger Reuse Committee (BRC), which consisted of local, state, federal and tribal representatives, the latter from the Ho-Chunk Sovereign Nation. This group was tasked with determining the final use for the closed plant. After studying a number of potential outcomes, the committee detailed their final consensus-based vision in the Badger Reuse Plan.

The Badger Reuse Plan describes a list of values for collaborative management of the more than 7,000-acre property, with compatible uses including ecological restoration, historical preservation, education, research, low-impact recreation, and agricultural production. Duff’s thesis research included a resurvey of sites with rare plant species identified by the Nature Conservancy in 1993, and study of the property’s potential for ecological restoration. She also became interested in community-based conservation, engaging with conservation groups, farmers, and those who were utilizing the land.

“We’ve had some really dynamic conversations,” said Duff, of her interactions with the community. “I appreciated the fact that people took the time to share their knowledge and energy to benefit the community and the state.”

Duff said she gained a lot from this experience and was also thankful for the support she received from her advisors and the staff at Nelson Institute.

“Being able to work on a wide range of courses that included case studies and networking opportunities was so important to my understanding,” Duff said. “The format of the degree allowed me to explore a wide variety of topics and select a curriculum that related to my interests. Nelson allowed me to be creative while meeting my professional needs.”

In fact, Duff enjoyed the Nelson Institute learning experience so much, she returned for a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. Continuing her passion of bridging conservation and agriculture, Duff teamed up with her previous advisor, Paul Zedler, and ecologist, Jeb Barzen, to study sustainability and the use of an eco-label among potato growers in Wisconsin as a part of her Ph.D. work.  

“Alison has the mix of qualities that allow her to work with diverse audiences,” said Zedler. “She is personable, an effective communicator, and has a great grasp on science.  This combination makes her an exemplar of what a Nelson graduate should be.”

Today, Duff continues to bridge agriculture and sustainability through her role as an ecologist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), studying how working farms can serve as both production and conservation lands. In fact, things have come full circle, as her research space at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Prairie du Sac is on land that was once a part of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant acreage she studied as a graduate student at the Nelson Institute.

“Those relationships that I cultivated while at Nelson have been important to my work,” said Duff. “That early work also helped me to understand how important relationships are in creating effective conservation programs.”

Duff is currently applying those lessons as she works alongside scientists, community members and farmers on her latest project, FarmLab. The vision for the project, which started in 2016, is a living laboratory that is modeled after a working dairy farm. From measuring and monitoring carbon pools to understanding the agroecosystem benefits of uncropped land, Duff is using FarmLab to study the ecological and economic trade-offs associated with whole-farm management. In the end, her hope is that this project provides useful information to farmers about dairy sustainability.

“Farms are full of biodiversity, and active stewardship of farm natural resources benefits the whole system, but, it’s difficult to be a producer right now,” said Duff. “There are a lot of year to year decisions that need to be made that impact the land as well as farm profitability. We want to provide research backed evidence and support tools that will make those decisions easier and benefit everyone.”

Duff is proud to work with farmers, who she says are eager to share their knowledge, learn, and partner on initiatives like FarmLab, which help to bridge agriculture and conservation.

“Farmers can be active stewards of the farm landscape,” said Duff. “It’s about expanding that stewardship from cropland to other land and showing the benefits of doing so.”

In addition to the farmers and community members, Duff is also proud to continue to connect with the Nelson Institute and UW-Madison, collaborating with Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences professor, Ankur Desai, who is working on eddy covariance research, Agronomy assistant professor Valentin Picasso, who is working on forage and grazing systems, and Agronomy professor Randy Jackson and Entomology professor Claudio Gratton, both of whom have served as advisors to the FarmLab project.

“UW-Madison has top-tier faculty and the Nelson Institute does a great job of applying the resources of the university to solve real-world challenges,” said Duff. “This approach benefits both Wisconsin communities and Nelson graduates.”