Recently, I read an interesting take on how technology and economic criteria appear to be reshaping decisions farmers make about conservation efforts — in this case, shelterbelts installed in fields to prevent erosion.

Cheryl Wachenheim, a professor of agribusiness and economics at North Dakota State University, says she’s found in interviews with farmers in the Prairie Pothole region that it’s economics — not necessarily convenience — that drives decisions about shelterbelts and other conservation efforts.

One grower who removed shelterbelts from his farm explained that branches from the trees require a machinery operator to stop and remove them, and that current spacing between shelterbelts doesn’t accommodate the increased size of farm machinery and can make aerial spraying difficult.

Shelterbelts also require maintenance, including weed control, and can also result in wet areas in adjacent fields because they trap snow and shade the soil, the farmer said. The simple fact that shelterbelts take productive farmland out of production was less of an issue than she anticipated.

Wachenheim also heard that it’s no longer economically viable for some farmers to maintain the machinery and equipment required to accommodate shelterbelts, and anything that slows down planting or harvesting is a production cost.

Precision technology plays a hand in this, too, she points out, because it lets farmers define the cost of using specific inputs on non- or less-productive acres. Conversely, this technology also lets growers operate around obstacles like shelterbelts.

Countless growers who’ve switched to no-till frequently cite conservation as the motivation, but savings in labor, fuel and input costs have also been major factors. Precision technology has made it easier for these growers to measure the impact of their management decisions on the bottom line.

“Farmers have demonstrated it’s time to step back from our long-held understanding about conservation decision making and evaluate farmer decisions as they are made,” Wachenheim wrote in her column that appears on page 26 in its entirety.

I think Wachenheim raises an interesting question here: Do conservation policies need to be adjusted to the changing nature of farming?

On your farm, how do economics factor into your decisions about conservation projects? Feel free to send me an e-mail. I’d like to know what you think.