October 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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Strengthening Environmental Policy Education Through Qualitative Research: Experience with Pennsylvania's Nutrient Management Act Regulatory Review

Recent research documenting Pennsylvania stakeholders' views concerning nutrient management policy illustrates the opportunity for Extension to provide timely and useful information to decision makers and other audiences. Responses from 28 personal interviews provided insight into policy challenges, program performance indicators, and future policy directions. This article describes the qualitative research methods used to document stakeholders' views, presents key findings, and summarizes the demand for and utility of the findings. Finally, the article concludes with practical advice for Extension educators looking to strengthen their public issues education programs on environmental policies.

Alyssa Dodd
Extension Associate, Agricultural Environmental Policy

Charles Abdalla
Extension Specialist, Agricultural and Environmental Economics

Penn State Cooperative Extension
University Park, Pennsylvania


Environmental protection is one of the most critical and complex issues our nation faces. Many audiences--farmers, local governmental officials, watershed organizations, and concerned citizens--have questions about rapidly changing environmental policies. Extension has the opportunity to provide timely issues-oriented policy education programs "where people learn about public issues, policy-making processes, and opportunities for involvement and influence" (Hahn, 1990).

While educational opportunities exist, environmental policy education is challenging from both a content and educational process perspective. The issues are dynamic and complex. Educators are challenged with enhancing understanding and providing balanced information to diverse audiences. Additional challenges include transferring time-sensitive information and motivating individuals and groups to participate in decision-making.

Through our experiences in Pennsylvania, we have identified several "ingredients" we believe are essential to a "recipe of success." These include:

  • Internal Support--financial commitment and administration support to the educational program area;

  • A Presence--within the state-level nutrient and water policy decision-making arena;

  • Trust Building--between Extension and other stakeholder groups;

  • Timing--a policy decision in the near future; and

  • Objectivity--a balanced educational approach.

A recently completed project documenting the views of Pennsylvania nutrient management policy stakeholders illustrates the importance of these "ingredients" in environmental policy education. This article introduces the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Act and the window of opportunity that presented itself to provide timely and useful public policy information to key influential stakeholders and decision makers. It describes the qualitative research methods used to document stakeholder views, presents key findings, and summarizes the demand for and use of the report. Finally, the article concludes with practical advice for Extension educators working on environmental or related natural resources policy issues.


The Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Act (Act 6) was passed in 1993 and took effect in 1997. The Act requires all "concentrated animal operations" (CAOs) to develop and implement a state-approved nutrient management plan. A CAO is any animal production operation with more than 2,000 pounds of live weight per acre of land available to spread manure.

The State Conservation Commission is responsible for implementing and enforcing Act 6. The Commission relies on the Nutrient Management Advisory Board, a 15-member board established under the Act, to review and comment on regulations (Beegle, Lanyon, & Lingenfelter, 2001). Almost all of the 67 county conservation districts have accepted local program implementation responsibilities.

In 2002, the Commission began its required 5-year review of the density-based criteria for defining CAOs. The review has expanded to include an overall update of the regulations. Currently, policy discussions are underway, and changes to the Nutrient Management Act regulations are likely to occur in 2004.

A decade after passage of the Nutrient Management, the regulatory revision process provides an opportunity to provide timely and useful public policy information to stakeholders and decision makers. The Nutrient Management Act revisions will affect almost 1,000 CAO and over 800 volunteer (non-CAO) livestock and poultry operations with approved Act 6 nutrient management plans. The changes will also provide environmental benefits for Pennsylvania citizens.

Extension's Role

Penn State Cooperative Extension is actively involved in nutrient and water policy education. Historically, Extension has focused on providing technical nutrient management expertise during the policy development process. Extension specialists trained in soil science, agricultural engineering, and animal production continue to contribute in this important role. However, Extension's role has expanded over time to include specialists trained in the social sciences, providing public policy information to stakeholders and decision makers beyond traditional agricultural audiences.

Since late 2000, administrative leadership within Penn State Cooperative Extension has increased its capacity in this program area by hiring one full-time, fixed-term Extension associate (the lead author) for a period of 3 years to explore programming in this area. Additionally, one full-time, permanent Extension specialist (the co-author) devotes time to the agricultural environmental public policy programming area.

Our commitment to maintain a presence within the state-level nutrient and water policy arena led to identifying the opportunity to provide timely public policy education. Extension was aware that the process to update the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Act regulations was underway and was present during state-level policy discussions where diverse stakeholder perspectives were shared. Once the window of educational opportunity was identified, we organized quickly to document stakeholder perspectives, with the goal of providing a balanced educational resource that would lead to more informed policy discussions.


Qualitative research methods were used to document diverse perspectives, issues, and solutions related to nutrient management policy in Pennsylvania. Data were gathered through key informant stakeholder interviews. Several documents were used to create a semi-structured interview survey: the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Act and its rules, the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Program manual, and proceedings from legislative hearings held during the spring of 2001. All questions were open-ended.

Extension's presence within the state-level nutrient and water policy arena made it possible to identify key informant interviewees. Key informants were identified on the basis of their involvement in current nutrient and water policy discussions or the stakeholder organization they represent. Additional interviewees were contacted through "snowball sampling," a technique where each key informant was asked to identify other knowledgeable individuals to interview. Snowball sampling is appropriate when a study is primarily explorative, qualitative and descriptive (Atkinson & Flint, 2001).

Special emphasis was placed on documenting diverse interests in nutrient management policy to support a balanced educational approach. Individuals represented the perspectives of farmers, agribusiness, agricultural consultants, government agencies, environmental interest groups, public interest groups, and educators. Twenty-eight personal interviews (22 in person, 6 phone) were conducted in July and August of 2002. Interviews took no more than 90 minutes. Interviewees were assured that all responses would remain confidential and that no ideas or perspectives would be attributed to specific stakeholders.

Because of the potentially controversial nature of the subject matter, responses were recorded in writing by the interviewer instead of with a tape-recorder. While there may have been some loss of data, we believe the approach created a more comfortable informal interview, allowing greater information exchange. In most cases, the authors interviewed respondents as a team, with one responsible for note-taking.

We believe four major factors increased interviewee participation.

  • First, approximately half of the interviewees were interviewed 5 years earlier during a previous Extension effort to document nutrient management policy legislative development and administrative rule-making (Favero & Abdalla, 1997).

  • Second, we built and maintained relationships with many of the individuals through state-level nutrient and water policy related workgroups.

  • Third, the project was inclusive of diverse stakeholder views and was rooted in a balanced approach.

  • Finally, the project was "informal" in the sense that there was no funding source. We identified a need, chose to devote considerable time to the project in a timely manner, and supported travel expenses with our individual Extension budgets. This lack of specific funding also contributed to a perception that the project was balanced and objective.

Stakeholder responses were assembled and analyzed. Steps in the time-intensive analysis included compiling all responses to specific questions; identifying key phrases, words, and concepts; and summarizing emerging themes. As themes emerged, the information or views obtained were not attributed to specific stakeholder groups.

To ensure perspectives and ideas were appropriately documented and to emphasize the importance of each stakeholders view, all interviewees were asked to review the draft research findings. Several interviewees provided written comments on the draft report. Interviewees not responding in writing were contacted via e-mail and/or telephone to ensure the draft report was received and to document additional comments.

Key Findings

Key informant interviewee responses provides insight into nutrient management policy challenges, identifies key indicators of program performance and success, offers broad conclusions about nutrient management policy-making in the state, and identifies future policy directions.

While we strove to include representatives of stakeholders to nutrient management issues, we were not able to be exhaustive in terms of including all possible groups and individuals. However, due to the number and diversity of interviews, we believe the findings are comprehensive and balanced from a statewide perspective.

Key findings include the following.

  • Protecting water quality was perceived to be the ultimate goal, but not the only goal of the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Act. Other goals include providing assurance that agricultural nutrients are properly managed; creating practical and understandable regulations; protecting the environment without putting farmers out of business; balancing nutrients at the farm level with crop needs; and creating uniform state-wide nutrient management standards.

  • The majority of interviewees supported preemption of local manure storage, handling, or land application ordinances or regulations that are more stringent than the state requirements. Support was based on perceptions of local officials' limited knowledge of agriculture and the practical need for requirements to be uniform and consistent across municipalities.

  • Most interviewees viewed the export of manure off CAOs as a necessary part of the solution to protecting water quality. In principle, exporting and redistributing manure geographically to achieve on-farm nutrient balances was acceptable to them. Most interviewees supported manure export, but believed additional tracking of where the manure is going and assurance that it is being applied properly were needed.

  • The majority of interviewees acknowledged the need for phosphorus management, but raised concerns about managerial and financial impacts of implementing a standard that included both nitrogen and phosphorus. Some interviewees believed the P (Phosphorus)-Index, a tool that identifies farm fields with a high nutrient pollution risk, is the appropriate tool to reduce these impacts. They believed this tool may make phosphorus management more acceptable in Pennsylvania.

  • Most interviewees agreed that the Nutrient Management Act program has been successful. Inclusiveness, leadership, education, and funding were viewed as key to this success. However, most interviewees identified at least one factor limiting success. Examples of these perceived barriers include a regulatory implementation process viewed by some as non-inclusive; a lack of education to segments of the agricultural community; and county conservation districts perceived by some as too friendly toward agriculture.

  • Interviewees envisioned an ideal nutrient management program to be comprehensive, addressing all farms causing water quality problems, adapting to new problems such as phosphorus, using a "systems" or watershed approach, and addressing all nutrient sources.

  • The key indicators of program success identified were water quality improvement, farm-level compliance and implementation, economic acceptability, and public acceptance.


Hard copies of the report, Nutrient Management Policy: Pennsylvania Stakeholder Views About Progress, Challenges, and Future Directions (Abdalla & Dodd, 2002), were distributed to over 100 stakeholders. The publication was also made available on the Internet at Penn State Cooperative Extension's Nutrient and Water Policy Web site <http://agenvpolicy.aers.psu.edu>. A Web statistics program, WebTrends, provides detailed information on the number of people who access the Web site and download the publication. Between December 2002 and May 2003, the report was downloaded more than 2,000 times.

State-level Extension educators have formally presented the qualitative research findings to the Nutrient Management Advisory Board, the State Conservation Commission, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Chesapeake Bay Advisory Committee. The project highlighted Extension's commitment to agricultural and environmental public policy education and increased visibility and political support. For example, the State Conservation Commission invited Extension to present the Stakeholders Views report at four Nutrient Management Planner meetings held around the state. More than 225 nutrient management planners, county conservation district staff, farmers, and government agency staff attended.

Several key agency members provided unsolicited feedback on Extension's involvement and contribution to the meetings, demonstrating an increase in political support. As a result of impact from this project and other nutrient and water policy programming efforts, the Penn State Cooperative Extension administration has extended the Extension associate position to mid-2004.


Penn State Cooperative Extension's commitment to balanced public policy education approaches that meet the needs of diverse audiences, to maintain a presence within the state-level nutrient and water policy arena and to build trust between Extension and diverse stakeholders has proven useful in identifying and exploiting opportunities for timely public policy education. The use of qualitative research methods to document nutrient management stakeholder views was instrumental in creating a useful educational resource that resulted in more informed policy discussions.

Our educational philosophy is that improvements in policy come about through exchange of facts and perspectives about issues and solutions and effective participation by all interested and affected parties and when public decision makers carefully consider this input. Extension, as demonstrated in Pennsylvania, has an opportunity to facilitate this exchange, participation, and informed decision-making.

For Extension educators in other states looking to become involved in nutrient and water policy education we suggest the following.

  • Conduct a needs assessment:
    • Are nutrient and water policies and programs changing in your state?
    • Are new groups affected by the changing policy?
    • Are there opportunities for public participation in the decision-making process?
    • Are other groups, agencies, or organizations providing education?
  • Inventory organizational capacity:
    • Do administrators and colleagues value balanced public policy education approaches and broad stakeholder participation in decision-making?
    • Are interdisciplinary efforts valued and encouraged?
    • Do diverse stakeholders value and use Extension's educational resources?
    • Is funding available to support educational efforts?
  • Inventory human resources:
    • What are the educator's values and beliefs about human behavior, the democratic process, and the role of education? To be effective in public policy education, the educator must be willing to believe in "enlightened self-interest" and the democratic process and that a well-informed citizenry and the democratic process will produce a choice that is right for society (Barrows, 1993).
    • Is the educator a good listener? Active listening is essential to understand the issues, identify the stakeholder representatives, and identify educational opportunities.
    • Can the educator effectively build and maintain working relationships with diverse stakeholder groups? Does the individual enjoy meeting new people? Is the individual willing to learn and acknowledge diverse values and perspectives? This will likely lead to a better understanding of the educational needs among the diverse audiences Extension serves.
    • Is the educator willing to devote time and resources to serving on state-level advisory committees and workgroups where diverse stakeholders are represented? Individuals who serve on these workgroups are often leaders in the state. We found that "rolling up our sleeves" and working side-by-side with diverse stakeholders strengthened working relationships and demonstrated Extension's commitment to education and the protection of water resources.


Abdalla, C., & Dodd, A. (2002). Nutrient management policy: Pennsylvania stakeholder views about progress, challenges, and future directions. Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Penn State University. Available at: http://agenvpolicy.aers.psu.edu/Documents/NMAstakeholderviews.pdf

Atkinson, R., & Flint, J. (2001). Accessing hidden and hard-to-reach populations: Snowball research strategies. Social Research Update [On-line], 33. Available at: http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/sru/SRU33.html

Beegle, D., Lanyon L. E., & Lingenfelter, D. D. (2001). Agronomy facts #40: Nutrient management legislation in Pennsylvania: A summary of the regulations, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Department of Crops and Soil Sciences, Penn State University. Available at: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uc111.pdf

Barrows, R. (1993). Public policy education. North Central Regional Extension Publication No. 203.

Favero, P., & Abdalla, C. W. (1997). Creating workable implementation rules to meet the complexities of manure management: Pennsylvania's nutrient management law. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 52(5), 320-322.

Hahn, A. J. (1990). Issues-oriented public policy education. Journal of Extension [On-line], 28(1). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/1990spring/a3.html

The Nutrient Management Act, title 3, Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, sections 1701-1717 (2002).