As a veteran farm magazine editor told me years ago, no-tillers have such a good thing going economically, why do they get so discouraged when neighbors refuse to switch to less tillage? Despite the fact that no-till offers tremendous economic and environmental benefits, many growers still shy away from the practice.

Data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture show 279 million U.S. tillable acres. Some 96 million acres were no-tilled and 77 million acres were farmed with more intensive conservation-tillage practices. That left 106 million acres still being farmed with conventional tillage.

Over the past 5 decades, no-till has grown from 3.3 million acres in 1972 to more than 100 million acres today. Most farmers who have moved to no-till have done so without government payments or incentives. It’s because they’ve simply recognized that no-till can result in much higher net returns.

Lots of Dollars Involved

So what would it take to convince farmers using a moldboard plow, chisel plow, field cultivator or disc system to make the switch to no-till? That’s the question Nicole Widmar, a Purdue University economist, and Ben Gramig, a University of Illinois economist, set out to determine.

They found Indiana farmers using a more intensive conservation tillage system wanted a guarantee of increased net revenue of $10 per acre to make the switch to no-till. This jumped to $40 per acre before growers would be willing to switch from conventional tillage to no-tillage.

Even with guaranteed incentives, farmers wanted to know where the money comes from and for what purpose. Such dollars could include funds from government agencies for moving to no-till and dollars from utilities and firms seeking ways to offset their carbon problems.

Instead of deciding to develop new government incentives, limited payments for switching to no-till are already available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Unfortunately, available payments for moving to no-till are less than the amounts it will take to encourage farmers to switch tillage systems.

When this survey was conducted, EQIP payments in Indiana for a maximum of 2 years were only $4 per acre for switching from conventional tillage to conservation tillage and $14 per acre for adopting no-till or strip-till.

Carbon Plays a Role

Farmers who have switched to no-till are already sequestering significant amounts of carbon in the soil. On the other hand, intensive tillage releases sizeable amounts of soil carbon into the atmosphere when breaking up and turning over the soil.

If soil carbon sequestration were to become part of U.S. climate change legislation, farmers could be asked to adopt no-till based on a much more favorable per-acre incentive. Another option would be carbon trading, which would allow carbon-emitting businesses to pay no-tillers to reduce emissions based on the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil when eliminating tillage.

While farmers in the Indiana study had a negative feeling in regard to government subsidies for no-tilling and other environmental practices, they disliked carbon credit payments even more. Instead, they would prefer to earn higher net revenue per acre from adopting no-till without receiving government or carbon trading payments.

The Purdue study showed farmers would rather give up potential carbon payments of $2.48 per acre or $12.78 per acre from either respective payment source if an increase in net revenue after adopting reduced tillage practices is possible without a carbon payment.

These growers also didn’t like the idea of accepting multi-year no-till contracts, likely because they want a safety net since they aren’t convinced no-till is the ultimate answer. In fact, they would be willing to give up $10.47 per acre in additional payments to stay in a year-by-year contract. Widmar found that surprising since many farmers favor longer contracts in an effort to lock in favorable prices.

“If you’re going to try to compensate farmers to make changes that are positive for the climate, securing longer contracts will come at a price,” adds Gramig.

There’s no doubt but what no-tillers are on the right track when it comes to sequestering carbon. Unfortunately, carbon payments aren’t large enough to encourage the widespread adoption of continuous no-till.

Until the incentives are increased, many farmers likely won’t get excited about signing up for either no-till or carbon sequestration payments.