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Farmers Using More Conservation Techniques Despite Lower Enrollment In Federal Programs

Cover crops emerge early on fields and help keep soil and nutrients in place.
Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media file photo
Cover crops emerge early on fields and help keep soil and nutrients in place.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture data show the amount of land in the largest federal conservation programs has decreased nationwide and in many Midwest and Plains states. But that doesn’t mean farmers are ignoring soil health, nutrient runoff or erosion problems.

The census asks about federal conservation and wetlands programs, which Michigan State University researcher Adam Reimer said typically refers to land retirements — taking marginal lands out of production in exchange for money. The largest one, the Conservation Reserve Program, doesn’t allow as many acres now as it did before the 2014 farm bill.

“The program actually shrunk in size,” Reimer said. “So (the decrease) reflects a change in congressional priorities more than reflecting any sort of farmer desire to engage in programs.”

Looking deeper into the census, Reimer said, shows farmers are using more cover crops and tilling less, both of which have environmental benefits..

“A lot of farmers have adopted these conservation practices probably outside of programs, reflecting kind of an increased awareness that these are good for production as well as protecting environmental quality off-farm,” Reimer said.

Source: USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture
Credit graphic: Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Source: USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture

That’s what 500 conventional farmers in Iowa told researchers from Iowa State University’s Ivy College of Business. Professor Priyanka Jayashankar looked at farmers’ adoption of so-called “internet of things” (IoT) technologies that use big data, such as precision agriculture and GPS field mapping.

“Some of these applications have a direct benefit in terms of sustainable agriculture practices,” Jayashankar said. “So for instance, there are some tools, IoT tools, which enable farmers not to overuse pesticides or fertilizers. And this definitely has an impact on environmental stewardship.”

Jayashankar and her colleagues were particularly interested in how farmers weigh the risk and value of new technologies, especially when it comes to sharing data gathered on their farms with the companies that make the technology. The researchers have also looked at how trust develops between farmers and those companies.

“What we feel could be a potential game-changer going forward would be co-creation,” she said, “because farmers are not just passive recipients of that technology service, but they’re actually generating the data and they’re also making things work on the ground.”

Reimer noted it can take years —even decades — to measure the impacts of farmers’ conservation decisions.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes

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Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.