“The Find My Cover Crop Incentive tool is a way to turn a lot of really complex information into something usable. Farming is a job all by itself, and we can't expect farmers to also be reference librarians, ecologists and soil scientists.”
— Michaela Lubbers, IPM & Sustainability Communications Specialist, University of Georgia
Federal and state incentive programs for cover cropping can be hard to find and difficult to navigate. That’s why Maria Teresa Tancredi and Michaela Lubbers, researchers at the University of Georgia, created an online cover crop incentive tool to organize information about the programs and make it easier for no-tillers to be rewarded for adopting cover crops.
In today’s episode of the podcast, brought to you by The Andersons, assistant editor Mackane Vogel talks with Tancredi and Lubbers about developing the Find My Cover Crop Incentive tool, which states it currently represents, and the pros and cons to federal vs. state programs.
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No-Till Farmer podcast series is brought to you by The Andersons.
A thoughtful, well-designed nutrient management program is essential to maximize crop productivity. Providing the right nutrients at the right time throughout the growing season is key to achieving high yields. The Andersons High Yield Programs make it easy to plan season-long nutrient programs for corn, soybeans, wheat and many specialty crops. Visit AndersonsPlantNutient.com/HighYield to get instant recommendations to improve your nutrient efficiency and yields.
Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by the Andersons. I'm Michaela Paukner, managing editor at No-Till Farmer. In today's episode of the podcast, assistant editor, Mackane Vogel talks with Maria Teresa Tancredi and Michaela Lubbers, researchers at the University of Georgia who created a cover crop incentive tool to help no-tillers easily navigate the federal and state incentive programs available to cover the costs of cover crops.Maria Teresa Tancredi:
My name is Maria Teresa Tancredi. I usually go by Maria. I'm a third year PhD student at the University of Georgia. I am originally from Central Italy where I grew up. I grew up on a small family farm, more like a homestead type of situation where my family has some livestock, a garden, some fruit trees. We mostly produce food for our own consumption. My grandparents were proper sharecroppers and after they retired they focused primarily on our family farm. My parents are not farmers, but they've always helped out around the farm because that's where we all lived as a family.
But I actually became interested in agriculture only after moving away from home and moving to college. And part of it was probably the fact that all of a sudden I had to buy food at the store. I couldn't just go outside and harvest some vegetables and things like that. And so I started thinking more about where does the food that I eat come from? And I became interested. And then while I was getting a undergraduate degree in environmental sciences, I was lucky to be able to attend courses on animal production systems and also do a small project on theory production in the Italian Alps. And that's where I really understood that I wanted to learn more about agriculture.
And so I decided to do a master's degree in sustainable agriculture. That's how I decided to come to the US. So in 2019, I moved to the US for that program, which was a dual master's degree between the University of Georgia and University of Padua, which is the university in Italy. And then while I was doing that degree, I was able to do a course in social sustainability of food systems with Dr. Jennifer Thompson. And I realized that I was very interested in that part of agriculture.
And so once I graduated, I decided to stay and work with her on a PhD. So now I am working with her, studying with her and learning about farmer's opinions on cover crops and impacts of different policies on farmer's adoption of conservation practices.Michaela Lubbers:
I'm also a sort of a farm kid once removed, if you will. My dad grew up on a farm out in Kansas, and he is not a farmer professionally, but he is an agricultural researcher. So we've always been kind of about growing stuff. We're very much on the plant side of things. And when I was in... So I'm from Tifton, Georgia, so I'm from sort of southwest Georgia, the land of cotton and peanuts. And when I was in high school, I was like, "I'm going to get out of here. I'm not coming back. I'm going to go be a bench bio technologist and I'm going to go live somewhere where there's people and stuff to do." And then I got to college and was like, "Oh. No, this is actually really cool and really important. Just kidding." And ended up with an ag degree.
And so beginning in my senior year, I realized I was doing a lot of wet lab bench science and realized, "Hey, you know what? People are actually a lot more fun to do research about than sales and stuff." So I also now work with Dr. Jennifer Jo Thompson at UGA in the social sustainability of AgriFood Systems Lab, which is kind of a mouthful. And so I'm working with Jen and Maria on this cover crop adoption big project, which we'll get into a little bit later. And I realized that I like growing stuff and I like talking to people. And so that's kind of why I'm here.Mackane Vogel:
I think it's really interesting just kind of what brings people to where they're at in the world of agriculture today. So love to start with all that. Let's talk a little bit more about the precision sustainable agriculture, PSA group and then also getting into what Michaela sort of teased a little bit with this cover crop tool.Michaela Lubbers:
Yeah, so as you said, it's precision sustainable agriculture, PSA. And so what that is is a network of several universities, farmers, industry reps, nonprofits that work with farmers, a couple of agency folks. And so PSA works to develop tailored cover crop knowledge, information, and outreach to support the effective adoption of cover crops at scale. So it's a bunch of folks looking at cover crops from a bunch of different perspectives.
So there are six different teams as part of PSA that focus on these different aspects of cover crop adoption. And so there's the on-farm and on-station teams that are doing experimental field research. There's the extension team, the education team, and the technology team. And they do things like develop decision support tools, which is mostly what we'll be talking about today. And then the social science team, which includes us. We work on integrating farmer perspectives into the research in multiple ways, including direct farmer feedback on our cover crop experiments and farmer interviews and surveys. And PSA is supported by the US A National Institute of Food and Agriculture. So got some grants.Mackane Vogel:
And then so this cover crop tool, I want to kind of get into the details of this because this is something that I think our listeners are going to be really interested in. How did that kind of come about? What was the first moment that this idea kind of sparked from? And if you want to just give an overview of what this tool does.Maria Teresa Tancredi:
For my research, I travel around the country and I interview farmers to learn more about their opinions on cover crops. And in the last year, I've had a chance to travel to nine different states. I was able to go to Maryland, Vermont, and Pennsylvania for the northeast; Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina for the southeast. And then this spring I was in Missouri, Iowa, and Ohio for the Midwest. And I was doing interviews with farmers and we were talking about several different things, both farmers that use and don't use cover crops. And one of the things that I noticed is that across the board, sometimes no matter how long they had been using cover crops, there was a lot of confusion about what kind of financial incentives are out there for farmers in trying to support them in their use of cover crops. I noticed that sometimes farmers were not aware that there were programs available to them. Or if they were aware that the programs were available, they were usually showing some level of frustration because the information around the programs were not clear enough.
And so last fall, I had decided to do an independent study with a professor at UGA. His name is Dr. Nicholas Basinger. He's our weed specialist at the University of Georgia. And I wanted to do that study to learn more about the agronomic side of cover crops so that I could better understand what farmers were telling me and what worked and didn't work on their use of cover crops. And I decided to use that time to create a very basic version of this tool. And so what I did was basically look at federal and state programs that support cover crop adoption through different kinds of financial incentives and try to summarize their main points. So that could be one central place that farmers could land on to start getting a better idea of what's out there for them. So that's where we came up with the idea of the tool.Mackane Vogel:
And then how did it kind of evolve from there? So what are each of your roles in this project and how did you go about actually compiling all this? Because there's obviously so much information available. And so how'd you go about making it something that's going to be readable and easy for farmers to access and understand?Maria Teresa Tancredi:
So the first step was deciding which programs I was going to focus on. Like you said, there's a huge amount of them out there. There are state programs, there are federal programs, there are companies that run private programs, there are nonprofits. And so I decided personally to focus at federal and state programs for the state. I looked only at the states where I conducted the interviews. And so again, that's going to be nine states total. And the first thing that I did was just look back at my notes and see which programs farmers had mentioned to me. And then I looked up online, I started writing cover crop programs followed by a state and see what would come up. I looked at past research. I know that some other researchers have looked at a couple programs here and there. And so I tried to see if they were still existing or not.
And then because PSA is such a big project, I reached out to several collaborators that I knew were probably going to be familiar with what was available in their states. And so once I had this list of all the programs that I was going to look at, I started thinking about what questions could have been important to farmers. So things like, okay, how does the application process work? Who can apply and who do they need to talk to apply? Or things like what kind of support will they receive? Is this a discount on crop insurance or is it a cost share or is it a tax rebate? And then things like what do they practically need to do when they're managing the core crop to be able to receive the financial incentive? And so I jotted down all those questions and then I started looking through all the different websites out there, made a couple phone calls when I had questions just to try and find the answers to all those different questions.
And that's how we created the structure of the table, which is what the farmers will see when they check out the website. And one thing that I realized is that I am not able to make this a pretty looking functional tool. So right now it has hopefully useful information to farmers, but it's a little rough to navigate because there's a lot out there. And so this is where Michaela comes in and she's actually going to take ownership of this tool and she can talk more about how she's going to use it to make it better for farmers.Michaela Lubbers:
I'm a part-time grad student and a full-time staff member at the UGA Center for Invasive Species in Ecosystem Health, which is way too long. So we call it Budwood. And what we do at Budwood primarily is develop decision support tools. We don't really call them that, but in doing this DST work, I've realized that's what we do here. We create web tools to help track and map invasive species, and then we try to make all that data useful and contextualize it so that land managers and policy makers and landowners can make decisions about what to do about invasive species in their area. And so I have this kind of public sector tech background and expertise. And so when I started working with Jen and working with this with PSA, I was really interested in what the tech team is doing to develop DSTs, particularly on the front end, the user side of things. Like how it works for users.
And so we realized as I was continuing to work between the tech team and the extension team and the social sciences team, that I have a real interest and some skills in sort of doing this front end work. And so we sort of convinced the director of the team to give us the time and the money to work through this tool and take it from basically a spreadsheet into a user-friendly tool that's much more convenient, accessible, and has not just the information that we as researchers think farmers need and want, but rather to get farmers and agricultural advisors involved really early on in the design and development process so we can make sure that this tool is useful and has everything that farmers want and not just what we assume they want.Mackane Vogel:
So going off of that, what's next for the tool? Where are we at in the process right now and what's still to come in developing this tool?Michaela Lubbers:
Yeah, great question. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about that lately. So we're going to be using a co-design process. So that's really just having us and the farmers get together real early on and really center their needs. And so what that'll look like roughly is that we'll get together an advisory group of growers and agricultural advisors, both public and private, so extension agents and our CS folks, crop consultants, seed dealers, people like that. And then have small group and one-on-one discussions. And so we'll start by asking about initial information about, "Hey, what do you guys want and need? How do you think you want to access it? What do you think you want on it? What is missing right now? What kind of explanations do you maybe need for these different programs or application processes?" Stuff like that.
So then I'll take that initial information, kind of go back to the social science and tech teams and think that through some more, and then make a prototype or a mockup kind of thing, and then take that back to the advisory panel and have some more conversations about, "What do you like? What do you not like? What do you think could make this better?" Because the goal here is to make something that is useful and that farmers and ag advisors are going to want to use. Because a lot of researchers kind of have this idea of, oh, build it and they will come. And no, it doesn't really work that way. You have to build something that people like and want to use.
So it's a way to get a lot of information, really complex information kind of condensed into something usable. Because farming is a job all by itself. And we can't expect farmers to also be reference librarians and ecologists and soil scientists. That's why PSA exists is to make stuff for people to be able to parse that information.Maria Teresa Tancredi:
And if I can add one thing just to maybe make it clear, the tool is out there and there's information that farmers can already look at. So there is something for you guys to check out. And like Michaela said, this work is going to take place in a more structured way, but we already put out there a couple ways to give us feedback because we know that the way the tool is right now is not perfect. It's definitely far from perfect. But we want to make it, like Michaela just said, as much as possible what farmers want. And so we're absolutely welcoming any kind of feedback. We want everyone to tell us what does not work so that we can make it useful.Michaela Lubbers:
And so the website is covercrops-incentives.org. My understanding from our chief data engineer, fancy sounding, we call him Brian, but my understanding from Brian is that both of those links will take you to the same place. And so on the website is the tool as it is in a spreadsheet form, so sort of the raw, rough form of really just the information itself. And then we'll have a place where you can email us if you want to give some longer form feedback, a little quick little form, like three question form. And we're working on setting up a voicemail only phone number so that you can call us and leave voice feedback. So that'll all be right there on the website.Michaela Paukner:
I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, the Andersons. A thoughtful, well-designed nutrient management program is essential to maximize crop productivity. Providing the right nutrients at the right time throughout the growing season is key to achieving high yields. The Anderson's high yield programs make it easy to plan season long nutrient programs for corn, soybeans, wheat, and many specialty crops. Visit andersonsplantnutrient.com/highyield to get instant recommendations to improve your nutrient efficiency and yields. Now let's get back to the conversation.Mackane Vogel:
Another thing I want to talk about is some of these programs that already do exist and just get a better understanding of what they have to offer. I know there's different federal programs and different state programs, so maybe it'd be helpful just to kind of hash out some of the main differences in some of these programs and just kind of a brief overview of what these programs look like as they are right now.Michaela Lubbers:
So one of the main benefits of the federal programs is that they change a little bit from state to state. There is a little bit of flexibility in that, but they're available to every farmer in every state. And so if you're somewhere that doesn't have a state program like Georgia or Ohio, right now your state doesn't offer a program. So one benefit of the federal programs, and there are a couple, and I'll let Maria talk a bit more about what those actually look like. But there's the big benefit of everybody can... Everybody has access to some programs. And the cons of course of that is that some states... states can also have really wildly different payouts. So for instance, Maryland, the base pay in Maryland is $55 an acre, and there's a different Maryland program that pays $115. While Iowa's cost share program is $25 an acre. So that's a huge difference. But some of these states have multiple options, like Iowa, again has two different programs, and so they can choose which program is better for them, which is more convenient or fits their needs better. So it's kind of always pros and cons with having multiple options with having only one option.Maria Teresa Tancredi:
For the state programs, sort of like what Michaela was just saying is some states offer only one kind of program, but states like Maryland and Iowa for example, offer two different kinds. In Iowa, for example, farmers can decide to apply for a cost share program or a crop premium discount. They don't pay the same, but they're quite different in the way that they work and a little bit also in the requirements that they have. And so I personally like this because it means that it gives farmers more flexibility to choose what program fits better with their schedule and their targets and their goals. And so that's a nice way to look at that.
On top of it, one big con that I found about federal programs is that I feel like usually those are the ones that tend to have the least clarity when it comes to information. Which is, in my opinion, a big issue. I had to navigate several different websites and webpages to find the information that I wanted to. And again, for me, maybe it was even different because I was trying to look at them at a federal level, and then if one just looks at their state, it could be a little bit narrower, but there's still a lot to navigate through.Michaela Lubbers:
You mean a federal program? Because you access federal programs like through your local or state agent, right?Maria Teresa Tancredi:
Yeah. Well, what I mean is that if you look at, let's say for example, the EQUIP program on NRCS, you can find a general description for EQUIP on the USDA page, but then you can also look at your USDA NRCS page for your state, and there you're going to also have a description of EQUIP, which for 90% of the content lines up with what is on the federal. But there are a couple details that states can decide to implement differently based on their targets. One example, one very simple example is with EQUIP, not in every state farmers are allowed to graze their cover crops. Some states let farmers do that, others don't. And so that would be a difference that a farmer would have to find out at their state level, even though the program is federal, if that makes sense.
And one other fairly big barrier with the federal programs was that I came across several links. If you want more information on this one thing, click here. And then that link would send me either to a page that had not been updated for several years or the page wasn't even there anymore. And so that was a little frustrating because again, it sends you down this rabbit hole. And another thing that I'm going to talk about it as a pro for a state program is that when it comes to state programs, I feel like it's usually a little bit easier to find out upfront how much in dollar amounts farmers are going to receive for the practice. Even when it's a tier system, usually it's explained I feel like a little bit better than when it comes to federal programs. And so I think that's also an important parameter is that farmers are going to look at when they decide if they want to invest time and energy in applying for the programs or not.Mackane Vogel:
And so having kind of examined all these different programs and comparing them all, and maybe there isn't a good answer to this, but I'm curious, what would the perfect cover crop incentive program look like to you? Or would it really just kind of vary too much from farmer to farmer based on what their schedule is and what their production looks like?Maria Teresa Tancredi:
I feel like there's not going to be a perfect incentive program out there probably. And it's partially because from what I'm learning from my farmer's interviews is that different farmers like different things. I mean, we think of farmers as one group, but they're people. They're like any one of us. They like different things. And so I think we'll always have some farmers that might like cost share type of support better, and others that might prefer going through something like crop insurance discount or receiving a premium on their cash crop that they grow on acres where they also use cover crops.
But from this said, I think there are some points that I hear farmer talking over and over again that would make an incentive program a better program, maybe not a perfect program, but a better program. For example, I think one of the things that are important to farmers is that the application process should be easy to understand and simple to fill out. Something that again, I hear from growers is, "I don't have time to spend hours or days or even weeks to fill out a form because I'm busy doing other things." Or I had this farmer tell me, "I don't know what the right answer to a question is because I know how my farm works, but I don't understand how they're asking certain things." And so making the application easy to understand and also quick to navigate through is an important thing.
Similar to this, I think it's important to have clear information about the requirements so that when farmers sign up from the programs, they know right away what's expected of them and they can evaluate if that's something they want to put up with even before they register for the program. And similarly to that, I think clear deadlines right away so that farmers don't just miss out because, oh, there's this awesome program, but I just found out about it and it closed a week ago.
So if those could be, and I speak mostly for deadlines per application, but not only. I've, for example, heard farmers who had taken advantage of a crop insurance discount program telling me, "Well, I was able to do it last year, but I missed it this year because they changed the deadline and nobody told us. And so I just assumed that it was going to be the same." And so I think keeping deadlines consistent and being very clear about them is also important.
And then the last thing that I've heard from farmers is I think we need to advocate or make sure that they are brought to the table when those programs are developed or revised. What I'm hearing is that usually states that have farmers advisory panel or maybe a couple farmers that are listened to for the program tend to work better, they tend to make farmers better, they tend to have more, I don't want to say reasonable requirements, but maybe a little bit that way. And also generally I see frustration and I hear frustrations from farmers when there's maybe a hundred people panels created for the programs and there's not even a farmer. And I mean, farmers bring important expertise, and so we should definitely make an effort to include them in those conversations.Michaela Lubbers:
And that's kind of big picture. What we really care about doing on the social sciences team of PSA is really getting that farmer perspective and farmer expertise. And that's sort of the whole point of what I'm trying to do with this cover crop incentive tool. So trying to get farmer voices at the table as soon as possible.Mackane Vogel:
Well, great. I think you guys have really shown a lot of great insight and great information, a lot of good points being made here. Is there anything else you guys want to talk about involving the tool or involving anything else we've been over before we wrap up?Maria Teresa Tancredi:
I feel like I'm probably going to be preaching to the choir for kind of people that listens to this podcast, but I guess one thing that I've heard from a couple farmers that was very new to me and I hadn't thought about it, is how big of an impact growing cover crops has on their community, how it's not just about the farmer, but how it makes neighbors happy. It makes landlords happy to see something pretty growing. And I had a couple farmers telling me that sometimes we apply manure or during harvesting season we're on the road and I mean, we're big and bulky. We're blocking the road, we're going slow. And so we feel like we need to do something to the community so that they can be more patient with us during those times. And I feel like they feel cover crops are a way to do that. I've heard, for example, farmers who get a chance to grow sunflowers or crimson clover, the usual cover crops that have beautiful flowers telling me how they have seniors go take pictures or graduating kids go take pictures in the fields or off the fields because they're beautiful.
And so, I don't know. I feel like that's something that maybe it's not so important necessarily as battling erosion or battling herbicide resistant weeds or things like that, but I think it brings a nice addition to cover crops, which makes them something yeah, even more interesting to use.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, that's really good. I think we often... Oftentimes we think of the obvious benefits where obviously it's really important for soil health, but yeah, I haven't thought of it from more of a community aspect before. So that is really interesting.Michaela Lubbers:
And it's true. I was driving by clover fields yesterday and I was like, "oh, those are so pretty. I love them." I'm like, "oh, the bugs are so happy. I love them."Michaela Paukner:
Thanks to Maria Teresa Tancredi, Michaels Lubbers, and Mackane Vogel for today's conversation. We'll have links to the cover crop tool and other references from Maria and Michaela at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. A full transcript and video of this episode will be available there as well. Many thanks to the Andersons for helping to make this No-Till Podcast series possible. From all of us here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.