Multifunctional perennial cropping systems (MPCs) integrate multiple fruit, nut, timber, and/or bioenergy crops into the agricultural landscape. These systems are gaining interest throughout the Midwest for their ability to generate a diversity of ecosystem services while simultaneously producing nutritious food. Previous studies revealed that landowners lack adequate information to make informed decisions regarding adoption of MPCs. This research aimed to fill that gap by identifying the design preferences, information needs, and adoption barriers and motivators of 15 pioneering rural landowners within the Upper Sangamon River Watershed of Central Illinois. Researchers constructed three designs for each participant based on a set normative scenario and feedback from agroecologists, foresters, and the participants themselves. The three scenarios were classified as (1) Fruit and Nut Production, (2) Conservation, and (3) Cultural. Participants received realistic design visualizations as well as detailed information on system management, environmental impacts, economics, and marketability of MPCs. The methodology allowed landowners to test implications of land use transformations before taking the risk of investing in a new system. Two semi-structured interviews (one ex-ante and one ex-post) were used to understand participants’ design preferences, adoption behaviors, and decision-making throughout the study process.
Landowners expressed interest in these novel approaches to agricultural design, especially the integration of edible production into the rural landscape. During ex-ante interviews, intensive perennial production was revealed to be the preferred design scenario. The strongest motivators for MPCs adoption were found to be the potential for profit, systematic design, increased species diversity, improved environmental services, and the divergence from conventional cropping. However, these motivators were coupled with an expressed lack of practical application. Findings demonstrated that a lack of reliable economic, marketing, and management information severely inhibits adoption potential of MPCs. Despite these barriers, the process of designing future rural land as it “could be” rather than “will be” provided valuable information to inform research of the ever-shifting agricultural community. Farmer preferences and needs identified in this study will be used to help improve decision-making tools, system designs, and future strategies for facilitating the adoption of MPCs.