Reimer, A. P., R. C. Denny, and D. Stuart. 2018. The impact of federal and state conservation programs on farmer nitrogen management. Environmental Management 62:694-708.
The U.S. federal government, as well as many state and local governments, operate a number of conservation programs aimed at ameliorating the environmental problems associated with agriculture. While motives and barriers to conservation program participation and adoption of conservation practices have been extensively studied, the direct impacts of programs on ongoing farm operations remains underexplored. To examine the effects of conservation programs on nitrogen management, an aspect of crop production with significant environmental impacts we conducted interviews with 154 corn producers in three Midwestern U.S. states with a range of program experiences. We found that programs shifted farmer N management behavior through three social processes: (1) engaging farmers in the conservation system by introducing them to the state and federal conservation agencies, (2) incentivizing trialing of specific N management practices, and (3) increasing practice adoption through continued program engagement. Working-lands programs were far more effective at shifting on-farm nutrient management practices than land retirement, certification, or outreach-based programs, though all programs had the indirect benefit of increasing farmer familiarity with conservation agencies and programs. Working-lands programs directly motivated practice adoption; including soil testing regimes, implementing nutrient management plans, and splitting nitrogen applications to improving availability; by reducing producer risk and providing technical assistance, especially whole-farm planning. The additional benefits of all programs were moderated by participant selection bias, in particular that program participants were more predisposed to conservation efforts by existing stewardship and innovation attitudes.
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