Recently, a variety of public and private initiatives have been launched, seeking to increase adoption of environmentally-friendly farming practices. A slew of carbon-market initiatives are prominent and potentially promising, but while hundreds of thousands of acres have already been enrolled in various programs, it’s much too early to know if they will truly move the needle on reducing CO2 emissions and how much farmers could be paid for implementing carbon-reducing practices.

Aside from lowering CO2 emissions, the reduction of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) runoff from agricultural fields into the county’s waterways is among the primary concerns of conservation practices.

Historically, efforts to convince farmers to take up conservation practices have focused on voluntary actions. But this strategy requires a definitive benefit for farmers, and many times the benefit isn’t that obvious or great enough to instigate real change.

The USDA recently announced that it is amping up efforts to get farmers to enroll land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by increasing rental rates and paying farmers to implement certain practices. The agency is also launching a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the CLEAR 30 Pilot Program that would take land out of production for 30 years at a time.

Incentives are undoubtedly a more positive way to impact change than taxes or fines. One “pay-for-performance” (PFP) conservation program that was tested by Winrock International, a nonprofit organization focused on “providing solutions to some of the world’s most complex social, agricultural and environmental challenges,” paid farmers per pound of nutrient loss reduction in specific fields.

Ohio farmer Frank Hill participated in the program in 2018 and 2019 and was paid $35 per pound of P reduction and $5 per pound of N reduction as a result of growing cover crops and making changes to his tillage timing and intensity. The changes resulted in an estimated reduction of almost 70 pounds of P and almost 4,000 pounds of N, netting him a payment of almost $22,000. The costs associated with implementing the changes was $14,000, resulting in a net payment of $8,000.

After the program was over, Hill indicated he would continue using covers “because it is good for the land and good for the lakes,” but chances are without the incentive, he wouldn’t have been motivated to make these practice changes.

No-tillers, of course, are often at the forefront of adopting soil-health practices like cover cropping, reducing synthetic inputs, increasing plant diversity and integrating grazing livestock, frequently undertaking the practices voluntarily.

Many have seen that while there are usually some costs associated with the practices, the costs are oftentimes shifted from one practice to another. For instance, the costs associated with seeding cover crops can often be offset at least partially by reduced herbicide or fertilizer costs. Or perhaps, higher cash crop yields can absorb the impact of the cover crop costs.

Additional conservation efforts, like riparian buffers, bio-reactors and grass waterways are often tackled with assistance from county extension agencies, the NRCS or other organizations, frequently with cost sharing.

This all begs the question of how to best drive agricultural conservation efforts.

The motives and reasoning for implementing conservation practices are complex, to be sure, and there’s no easy answer. I’m encouraged by what seems to be a growing awareness that these efforts have costs and farmers should be compensated for implementing them. The current administration has telegraphed that increased incentives are forthcoming.

Do you foresee implementing new conservation practices with the promise of pay-for-performance incentives?