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Economic Incentives Are Not the Sole Answer for Conservation

Tara Daun Watershed Coordinator

Sometimes I get frustrated by the answer I receive when I ask farmers, “what will it take to encourage more farmers to invest in conservation on their farm?” Almost every time, their answer has been, “Pay them for it.”

When I ask those same farmers why they adopted conservation practices, their answers vary widely. They admit to hating to see soil loss. They will talk about their fathers’ conservation ethic. They will talk about their education. They will talk about protecting the farm for their kids. Do they mention economics? Usually as an extra benefit (conservation often saves money in the long run), among many others reasons. Because of this, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that our emphasis on financial incentives for conservation isn’t enough.

I am the first to admit that farms have to make a profit. And I will not encourage adoption of any conservation practice that, in the end, doesn’t reduce costs or increase income in some way. But in truth, we know that farming isn’t just about maximizing profits. Why take on all that debt and the risks of farming if this were just about dollars and cents? Why work those long hours at the whims of the weather, with the uncertainty of a harvest if you just want a paycheck? Because farming is an identity first and a career second for many farmers.

We all know farmers who sell seed on the side or have a foot elsewhere in the industry, but there are also many others with mail routes, trucking jobs, or even full-time office jobs which help them cover the cost of farming and the slim profits. That’s not to mention the farmers who depend on their spouse to provide most of the family income and health care. I had one farmer tell me while on his lunch break at his office, “well some people golf, I farm.” Despite this, headlines continuously will tout the economics of certain practices. This new policy will cost farmers X. That new input will save farmers Y. Yield will dip by Z with this Q.

I too have fallen into this trap many times, because it’s hard to pinpoint what other values, beyond economics other farmers do care about. Implement dealers know, they advertise based on status and power. The farmer in the ad will stand in front of his tractor, with his feet wide and fists on his hips, like he’s about to conquer a dragon. A message of conquerer doesn’t seem to fit right when advertising for humble no-till or soil testing practices. Because of this, many people trying to promote ecological farming have trouble finding cues beyond economics to speak to farmers about changing their practices.

Conservation Practices Usually Do Increase Profits

And at the end of the day, conservation does make financial sense for most farmers. Precision management of products through testing, inhibitors, split applications, yield monitoring and other practices has proven cost effective to many farmers. I’ve known multiple farmers who started these nutrient management practices over a decade ago through cost-sharing programs, and keep up with them today out of their own pocket, because it makes financial sense.

One farmer I recently corresponded with has been no-tilling and cover cropping for five years. He recently told one professional, “I think this is working. I skipped my last nitrogen pass on the field last year because the crop looked so good.” Skipping that pass saved him $20,000 directly, not including the other benefits he was receiving from soil protection and enhancement, and how his soils are mellowed to carry his equipment better.

This farmer’s experience supports the results of a Cargill-funded study done by the Soil Health Institute (SHI). They surveyed 100 large-scale farm operators who had been practicing no-till and cover cropping for at least 5 years (an average of 9 years) . 85 percent of those Midwestern farms reported an increased net income and 97 percent reported increased resilience to extreme weather, which they attributed to conservation practices.

So Why Aren’t Farmers Doing More Conservation?

Every farmer I know who is implementing conservation best management practices (BMPs) says that the new practices take more management. No-till requires you to be Johnny-On-The-Spot with weed control, especially during the first couple of years. Furthermore, it’s a different system. And change is scary. That might sound patronizing, but I don’t mean it to be; we all struggle to make minor and major changes to our lives even when we know they’re the right thing to do. Add in the uncertainty and financial risk of farming, and changes to operations get a lot bigger and a lot scarier.

Making changes to the operation also requires questioning practices normally taken for granted. One young farmer told me about the importance of soil tests in managing their costs. He showed me their binder full of field maps and said “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we learned that this field behind the barn was really high in phosphorous. It was pretty clear when we saw the tests; we’ve got to stop just spreading manure just where it’s easy.” He and his dad looked at each other and nodded, slightly embarrassed, as we stood in their machine shed, paging through field data. Spreading manure near the farm wasn’t a question of saving costs for them, it was a question of knowing the facts and being intentional. And once they knew better, they decided to do better.

Beyond the practical concerns, most farmers operating sizable acreages live and work in a complex social network with their colleagues and are very cautious to share their opinions widely. Indeed, this is why you won’t see me attributing specific names to the anecdotes I’m sharing in this article. Many farmers feel the sting of derision when trying non-conventional practices on their farms. And I’ve had more than one farmer say his first attempts at no-till had to be fields far away from the eyes of his neighbors.

Farmers take part in a no-till demonstration organized by their local watershed council.

The farmers I meet are wary to disrupt relationships with their neighbors, deep relationships which often span generations of shared connections and hardship. “I wouldn’t touch talking about that with a 10-foot pole,” one farmer told me from his combine when I called to ask him his opinion on his council reacting to recent media. Another told me, “I’d like to talk about how my neighbor is greening up our pond with his practices, but he’s my uncle. So I’m not the one who’s going to speak.” These farmers would much rather just do the right thing and let the outcomes of their actions speak for themselves: Successful farms that carefully manage nutrients and make a profit.

Sometimes Farmers Know Better

“Yes, Tara,” one dairyman told me when I said farmers know best how to handle their operations. “Farmers know best. But sometimes, farmers know better. They’re not all doing everything the way they should.” I blinked at him, not just because of the fodder dust that was blowing in my eyes. It took me a few moments to understand his point. Most farmers know how to take care of the land, but that certainly doesn’t mean they all do their best to do so. And even though many farmers are going the extra mile, there are still bad actors literally and metaphorically muddying the waters for everyone.

Farmer-Led Councils: Social Support and Learning

Field Day
Farmers gather for a field day in at the Lake farm in western Wisconsin.

Voluntary farmer adoption of practices is the best-case scenario to ensure effective and sustained conservation. It’s also very attractive to any politician who wants to show support for farmers and the environment without creating ungainly regulation. For this reason, DATCP has allocated funding $1 million each year for the next two years to support Producer-Led Watershed Councils, hoping that their success will enhance water quality enough to prevent the need for clumsy state-wide policies.

Councils leverage the deep connections between neighbors to motivate farmers learn about conservation together instead of depending on government employees to do the education. However, for a successful council to thrive, farmers must take on leadership roles they haven’t experienced before. They have to think strategically, and have honest and often uncomfortable conversations instead of talking about the price of corn and the weather.

Council membership does not mean that a farmer is doing everything right for conservation. But it does mean a farmer is willing to learn, ask questions, and try. Even this can be a big ask for farmers, who are often juggling day jobs, family time, and myriad other responsibilities. However, members realize that if they don’t start asking the big questions and trying to mitigate pollution, the public cost will cause more regulation.

Tara Daun is the Watershed Coordinator for Wisconsin Farmers Union. She can be reached at

“When one considers the prodigious achievements of the profit motive in wrecking land, one hesitates to reject it as a vehicle for restoring land. I incline to believe we have overestimated the scope of the profit motive. Is it profitable for the individual to build a beautiful home? To give his children higher education? No, it is seldom profitable, yet we do both.”

– Aldo Leopold, Round River

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