MISSOULA – Two University of Montana faculty members recently won a $999,942 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for a project that will use social science and marketing tools to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the largest on the Atlantic Coast.
The project is a joint effort between Alex Metcalf, an assistant professor in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, and Justin Angle, associate professor of marketing and the Warren & Betsy Wilcox Faculty Fellow in UM’s College of Business.
Home to 18.1 million people living in six states and encompassing cities like Baltimore, Norfolk and Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake Bay watershed has incalculable economic impact, environmental importance and historical significance. As the country’s largest estuary, it provides vital habitat for more than 3,600 plant and animal species.
Local conservation groups have long worked to engage farm operations – the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the watershed – to encourage practices that can simultaneously help farmers and reduce pollution.
“Streamside trees and shrubs filter out pollution before it enters waterways and stabilize banks to prevent erosion,” Metcalf said. “Farm operations also can reduce sediment and nutrient pollution by using ‘no-till’ agriculture where crops are planted, grown and harvested without disturbing the soil, or carefully managing manure and poultry litter, which account for nearly 50 percent of nutrient pollutants entering the bay.”
But that’s easier said than done.
“It’s a massive watershed,” Metcalf said. “Encouraging change at that scale is incredibly challenging.”
To help solve the puzzle, Metcalf and Angle will apply social science and marketing concepts to inspire water-quality conservation behaviors on agricultural lands in the watershed.
“Instead of merely selling people things, we’re using modern marketing tools to inspire people to make better choices and move the needle on conservation outcomes,” Angle said.
The ultimate goal is to deliver customized messages to farmers who own pieces of property critical to conservation and who are most open to engaging in conservation behaviors, as predicted by a statistical model rooted in consumer analytics. This process is referred to as microtargeting.
“Tools like data analytics allow us to deliver customized messages to individual farmers across the entire watershed,” Metcalf said. “It’s the same type of technology that businesses use to identify likely customers, but instead we’re using it to deliver individualized conservation appeals and incentives. This approach is exciting because it can help achieve more restoration per dollar invested.”
The project will have three phases laid out over three years. The first phase will focus on collaboration with local conservation and agricultural partners. Phase two will include a pilot study testing different messages and appeals. Phase three will include outreach and assistance to tens of thousands of farmers in the watershed. Metcalf said they hope to learn a lot from the project and then to communicate those lessons to partners in the watershed to help improve outreach efficiency.
Metcalf and Angle will work closely with Stroud Water Research Center, a boots-on-the-ground partner in the watershed, and Farm Journal Media, a trusted source for agricultural information. The researchers will use the Farm Journal’s communications platforms to deliver the messaging, and Farm Journal Media will also serve as project advisers to ensure both messaging and conservation practices help agriculture and farm families in the region.
Metcalf and Angle said they’re also excited to employ interdisciplinary partnerships across the UM campus for maximum effect.
“We live in a time of extraordinary conservation challenges, and we need innovative social science collaborations to help find solutions,” Metcalf said. “We’re excited to combine our marketing and conservation expertise to see how we can help.”
“This collaboration is particularly exciting because it strikes at the core of our motivations as researchers,” Angle said. “Using the tools of our trade to help people make better choices and affect conservation outcomes is a tremendous opportunity.”
The grant was awarded through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, a partnership between NFWF and the EPA’s Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program. The Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund is dedicated to protecting the bay by helping local communities clean up and restore their polluted rivers and streams. The fund advances cost-effective and creative solutions with financial and technical assistance.
In early December, they announced more than $13.1 million in grants to support the restoration and conservation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The grants will generate nearly $21.9 million in matching contributions for a total conservation impact of nearly $35 million.
Chartered by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation protects and restores the nation's fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 4,500 organizations and committed more than $4.8 billion to conservation projects.