Guide to Outcomes Estimation Tools - American Farmland Trust

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Guide to Outcome Estimation Tools

Quantifying water quality, climate, social, & economic outcomes to accelerate conservation practice adoption

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The guide features 14 tools and two methods that provide quantitative estimates of outcomes associated with farm conservation practices. It offers tips to project managers on selecting the right tool. It also makes recommendations for government, academic, foundation, and corporate sectors to further refine the tools and methods, provide more training to project managers, and establish a nationwide calibration dataset to continually improve the tools. AFT also partnered with the tool developers to bring this information to project managers in the form of an outcomes estimation tools training webinar series.

Advancing the adoption of conservation practices and keeping farmers viable is a fundamental goal of the farm conservation community. This community includes producers and landowners, farm and environmental groups, agricultural retailers and crop consultants, government representatives at federal, state, and local levels, academics, supply chain sustainability leaders, environmental market developers, research and charitable foundations, etc. Together, this diverse community supports farmers in reducing unintended environmental effects of agriculture through educational, financial, and technical assistance projects to adopt conservation practices. These practices can result in improved soil health, better water quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a boost to the farmer’s bottom line, and other benefits.

Quantifying these outcomes is important because it’s a powerful tool to help the local conservation community “sell” conservation to producers better, faster, and across more acres. However, the community struggles to quantify their project outcomes due to a lack of knowledge about which direct monitoring or indirect modeling estimation methods, models, or tools they should use. This is in part because there are numerous options available and finding the right one can be daunting. Furthermore, actually conducting the monitoring, modeling, or using an outcomes estimation tool can be very hard.

To help project managers achieve this essential step, AFT identified, described, and compared readily available outcomes quantification tools and methods.

Tools and Methods Featured in the OET Guide

This study discovered nearly 50 models and tools that might be appropriate for use by a project manager of a USDA-NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) or any other farm conservation project. Many tools are only available to members of a collaborative. Other tools are available to the general public but have largely remained in the purview of government or academic users due to the significant training required to run the tool. The featured tools and methods were chosen based upon their availabilityapplicability, and usability by the conservation community and met the following five criteria:

  1. Provide quantitative estimates of water quality, climate, social, or economic outcomes associated with agricultural conservation practice adoption
  2. Available to the public, either free of for a fee
  3. Meant for direct use by conservationists or farmers
  4. Do not require users to have a modeling background
  5. Available to users in more than one state

The table below lists the 14 tools and two methods featured in the report:

Quantifying Outcomes May Increase Conservation Adoption

There are many reasons for project managers to quantify outcomes at the project level that may make efforts to increase conservation practice adoption even more effective, including:

  1. Generate new evidence-based outreach and education materials
  2. Develop new farmer engagement activities
  3. Report on collective success

We envision a “self-strengthening cycle” where quantification opportunities result in more farm conservation adoption, which then offers more quantification opportunities inspiring even more adoption. The idea is that if local project managers are able to quantify outcomes of practice adoption by some farmers in these projects, it will help raise awareness, increase positive attitudes, and make them more successful at persuading other farmers within and outside of the project area to adopt the desired conservation practices. That is, outcomes quantification may help project local leaders to dialogue more persuasively with local farmers and develop more effective outreach and educational events to help “sell” conservation better, faster, and across more acres.


We hope this analysis stimulates efforts by government, academics, foundations, and the private sector to further refine existing tools and methods, provide additional guidance and support to project managers, and build a national dataset to continually calibrate and validate outcomes quantification models and tools. Based on our assessment of the tools and numerous discussions with fellow conservationists, we concluded there are 14 key areas that need to be addressed to improve the quantification of outcomes from farm conservation practices and projects.

Recommendations for Tool Developers
  1. Develop more helpful guidance for project managers so they can easily assess whether the tool is right for their needs
  2. Develop instructions on how to use existing tools to evaluate project-scale outcomes or develop new tools to do that
  3. Include a list of projects that have used your tool to quantify outcomes to encourage other projects managers to use your tool
  4. Continue updating and expanding the geographic accessibility of the tools
  5. Signal to NRCS, EPA, states, the foundation, and the sustainability supply chain communities that you are ready to implement some or all these recommendations to gain the support you need
Recommendations for Project Managers
  1. To set up for success, connect with the tool developer to make sure the tool will work for you, seek training, and request a coaching partnership
  2. If you cannot use existing tools, consider back-of-the envelope and other simple methods to estimate water quality and social outcomes
  3. Signal to NRCS, EPA, states, the foundation, and the sustainability supply chain communities that you need more guidance and support to quantify outcomes and want access to tools that are not yet operating in your area
Recommendations for USDA-NRCS
  1. Develop an outcomes quantification handbook for RCPP and other project managers to use to guide estimation of project outcomes
  2. Facilitate social outcomes training and coaching
  3. Facilitate frequent and on-going training on existing outcomes estimation tools and offer coaching
Recommendations for Congress, USDA, EPA, the States, Academics, Foundations, and Supply Chain Sustainability Leaders
  1. Support the tool developers and tool users to implement the activities recommended in this paper
  2. Support additional research and assessments of tools and methods for measuring outcomes beyond this initial assessment
  3. Establish a nationwide dataset for calibrating and validating outcomes quantification tools


If you have questions about this guide or webinar series, please feel free to contact Michelle Perez, PhD and Aysha Tapp Ross.