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The View from Here: Artful interpretation of planning

Mike Gangwer Published on 31 March 2014

Conservation planning is based on science and art. As readers of this column know, I often write about deductive reasoning based upon what is already known and inductive thought based upon what is not known but rather intuitive.

Recently at a planners meeting, we discussed the lengthy topic of how to identify a resource concern. Yes, we have charts and forms and helpful flowcharts to help us.



We have photos of resource concerns on other farms, and we even can take a sample of water or soil and measure a contaminant, like manure or soil or metal, to determine if the contaminant in question is quantifiably high enough in concentration to reach a regulatory pollutant load.

Yet we know that the identification of resource concerns (e.g., surface water quality or soil particles moving off the field) is matched with the planner’s evaluation of impact.

Written another way, the planner draws a technical conclusion that, yes, this site does have a resource concern, and then helps the landowner figure out what structural or management practices will mitigate the resource concern.

The I&E, the inventory and evaluation of what we see on the landscape at a particular scale, is therefore a combination of science and art.

At my meeting in our service center, the dozen of us explored this combination by discussing the various tools we have to help us identify the resource concern as a function of inventory, but we left the evaluation determination up to the planner. No two people will see the same thing.


For instance, mitigating a resource concern of manure runoff from a concrete pad may be a combination of containment by building storage, treatment by using vegetation downslope or reducing the animal loading or stocking density based upon the spatial size of the pad.

Often, storage is used as an engineering practice, but the landowner is still required to draw down the manure in storage at prescribed times of the year. If not covered, the rainfall on this storage is added, as there is no way to keep it clean.

Some landowners choose vegetative treatment as a mitigation, and this practice may not fit our NRCS conservation practice standards but is used because the planner and the landowner used a technical conclusion that includes a higher level of management of the contributing area and the quality of the vegetation.

Lowering stocking density is a distant third option; most landowners maximize the number of animals on a concrete pad because animals are out of the mud and slope and they can be fed there.

However, each of these solutions for mitigation is largely based upon the planner’s ability to imagine what will work the best based upon experience and planning history. The landowner has ideas too, and we fully explore this early on when we are conducting our initial I&E of the landowners’ goals and objectives (the farm family).

I do suggest here that much of this work is not found in our I&E tools, or assessment tools, but is found by using inductive thinking based upon knowing, without being able to truly capture the knowing part quantitatively.


For many people, especially those responsible for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of programs, the use of such “knowing” is unacceptable because it cannot be easily measured. It is the art portion of planning that is derived from decades of experience in the field and is manifest by the planner “seeing what is not there.”

The obvious question here is: How do we teach planners to use inductive thought when nearly everything they learned in college was based upon deductive reasoning? Or is this true … are students being trained in the use of both deductive and inductive processes? My perspective is they are not.

I strongly suggest that inductive thinking or thought is brought about not by sitting in the classroom but rather by years of field experience. This is why mentors are important. The new planner walks with the experienced planner to learn art. Yes, the new planner may have a lot of technology and digitization of helpful tools, but these are deductive tools.

The experienced planner can take a blank piece of paper with a pencil and calculator and use deductive reasoning and the art of seeing what others, including the new planner, do not see. The result is (in my opinion) an efficient procedure for planning that unencumbers the planner from a lot of procedural work to document the breadth of the I&E process.

Many planners and program managers will not agree with this attempt of planning art to this level. The group in my meeting did not agree with this approach, although most of them understand that sometimes the I&E work on a farm or landscape is not black and white, or clear cut, or easy to define quantitatively.

The experienced planner also understands the relationship of resolution. One member of our group uses the term “exact” when describing certain metrics on the farm. I disagree.

Even animal numbers change from day to day, so defining the herd size is done by whole numbers, as in 300 cows, but the understanding is this number is an artifact, and on any given day the actual number of cows can be more or less than 300.

Inventorying runoff as a flow volume is also influenced by many factors, and yes, our models use a prescription of parameters to find a volume. But the actual volume varies from day to day and even hour to hour. Our attempts to model the physical world is an estimate only, for the physical world of a farm is dynamic and therefore constantly undergoing changes.

Many colleagues seek to understand the world in black and white terms – and on a farm this cannot be done. This is why the art of planning is as important as the science of planning. This is why planners must use both so that they can understand the dynamics of the family farm in the terms of inventory and then how these inventory terms are evaluated.

In many cases, the most challenging inventory item of all is the farm family itself. So often we train our planners to fully complete the I&E of the family farm (physical attributes) but spend too little time on the farm family (human attributes).

n the design phase of planning, we must have a thorough understanding of the human attributes or we fail. If the list of options for mitigating a resource concern lacks the items related to how these mitigations will be managed after they are installed, the list is a failure.

I see this all the time. And this is a lack of good planning to ask the question: After the mitigation item is installed, how will it be managed?

The answer to this question requires some insight by the planner; it is evaluated not by a spreadsheet or flowchart but by the inductive thoughts of the planner based upon years of experience. This is artful interpretation, and my premise here is that we cannot teach this in the classroom. It is learned in the field.

We do not have an NRCS field manual for planning that includes a chapter on artful interpretation. If I could, I would add it with the requirement of its application done in the field following in the footsteps of a planner and a landowner as they walk the farm, looking, seeing and listening to one another.

We are in sorry shape if we forget these steps and remove ourselves from the field. And the artful interpretation of planning. PD

mike gangwer

Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist