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Cover crop adoption

Cover crops

Photo by Christy Mannering

UD researchers look at programs to incentivize cover crop adoption among growers

Federal and state agencies have been offering farmers economic incentives to adopt best management practices (BMPs) to help deliver environmental services from agriculture, and yet adoption — though increasing — lags behind government targets.

A new interdisciplinary study led by the University of Delaware is going to investigate what aspects of BMP programs — specifically those related to cover crops — that farmers in Maryland and Ohio prefer.

The study is designed to find out what farmers take into consideration when entering BMP incentive programs with the hopes of one day being able to offer a larger number of contract options tailored to meet the particular needs of a given farming operation.

“The hope is that by making the contracts more amenable to farmers, we can end up getting far more adoption at a lower cost,” said Joshua Duke, professor of applied economics.

The $498,434 study is being led by Duke with Amy Shober, an associate professor and nutrient management and environmental quality extension specialist in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; Robert Johnston, director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute and professor of economics at Clark University; and Emerson Paradee, a master’s degree student in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational program, and administered by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Cover crops

For this particular study the research team will conduct a large-scale survey of farmers in Maryland and Ohio about their adoption of cover crops as a BMP using a “choice experiment” — a specially engineered survey that allows farmers to tradeoff many different options in cover crop contracts.

The statistical analysis will reveal what contracts would best fit the preferences of individual farmers. The researchers will also compare the survey results to observational data of what farmers actually planted.

Shober said that cover crops are important for a number of different reasons, such as improving the organic matter in soil and scavenging nitrogen — planting deep rooted crops to pump the nitrogen back to the surface — and also in weed suppression, disease suppression and fighting erosion.

Farmers have different reasons for planting different cover crops. An organic farmer, for instance, might plant them as a way to manage weeds. In Ohio, Shober said, a farmer would likely utilize cover crops for the soil health benefits, while in the Mid-Atlantic the main focus of cover crops is for nitrogen scavenging during the non-growing season.

“In this region, the focus has been primarily on nitrogen scavenging and so you’re going to see a lot of people that are planting small grains, mainly wheat,” Shober said. “State agencies prefer early planted cereal rye because research has shown that it is a particularly good nitrogen scavenger.”

Duke said the researchers selected Maryland and Ohio because both have water quality issues and while Maryland probably has the nation’s leading cover crop program, Ohio has a contrasting pattern of less cover crop programming and fewer adoptees.

Cover crop adoption

Duke said one reason farmers might hesitate to adopt cover crops is that the times they are planted could conflict with the planting of the cash crop.

“What we’re wondering is, how many more farmers would adopt if we could allow them to plant in November instead of October? Maybe the cover crop wouldn’t be the best cover crop you could have, but it might get a lot more farmers interested and they might be willing to accept a lower payment if you give them a little more flexibility on the planting date,” said Duke. “We’re going to figure out what farmers think about cover crops and what kinds of things they value, and then we’re going to estimate models that show the best contracts to offer — a whole suite of them, and the farmers can pick the ones they want.”

Duke said that policy makers will be able to take the results of the study and look at how they can get better adoption rates by being a little bit more flexible in their guidelines.

Shober said flexibility is key, as farming is tough work and subject to many uncontrollable factors.

“Farming is difficult. There are so many decisions you have to make, especially if you’re participating in cost share type programs,” she said. “They give you planting windows and if you fall outside of those planting windows, they don’t give you a payment if you plant cover crops late in the season — we’re a little worried about that this year because of how late everybody planted corn — and once you get past November, you’re probably not going to establish a very good cover crop. When cash crops come off the field late, farmers may choose not to plant cover crops since it costs money to buy and plant the seed. There are lots of factors that drive decisions to plant cover crops, just like any other decision farmers make during the season.”

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Program, Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities, grant number: 2015-07637.


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