In the heartland of the United States, intensive agricultural production and practices have led to environmental issues and gradual decreases in land productivity. To combat these challenges, some farmers implemented conservation practice techniques.
While these practices have proven to have long-term benefits to the land and farmers' profits, adoption rates—in eastern South Dakota specifically—are relatively low. Why?
That is the question that Tong Wang, an associate professor in South Dakota State University's Ness School of Management and Economics, set out to answer with her research. In 2018, Wang and her research team sent out a survey to 3,000 farmers in eastern South Dakota, asking them about the potential challenges of adopting conservation practices such as conservation tillage and cover crops. Her team received—and used—about 600 responses in its analysis.
"The goal of this research was to understand why the adoption rates of these two practices have not been increasing in recent years," Wang said.
The research results were recently published in the Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems academic journal under the title, "Farmer perceived challenges toward conservation practice usage in the margins of the Corn Belt, USA."
Conservation tillage and its perceived challenges
Conservation tillage is a conservation practice that relies on crop residue buildup to minimize the impact of water and wind erosion. The minimum requirements for this practice, as defined by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, is a tillage and planting system that covers 30% or more of the soil surface with crop residue, after planting, to reduce soil erosion by water. To prevent soil erosion by wind, SARE recommends that any system practicing conservation tillage must maintain at least 1,000 pounds per acre of flat, small-grain residue on the soil surface.
There are a number of conservation tillage-specific techniques, including no-till, in-row subsoiling, strip-till and ridge-till. The benefits to this practice, per SARE, include enhanced soil quality, restored ecosystems, increased water availability and conservation, enhanced pest suppression, decreased runoff and enhanced crop productivity and profitability, among others.
According to data cited in Wang's research, conservation tillage in the Corn Belt region of the U.S. led to a positive effect on corn and soybean yields. The major challenges of adopting conservation tillage techniques cited by the farmers include spring weather issues, like wet fields, and reduced yields.
Nearly half of the respondents had experience with conservation tillage, with 45% of them utilizing the technique for more than 10 years.
Differences were noted in the perceived challenges between those who had experience with the practice versus those who had never used conservation tillage. Farmers who had never attempted conservation tillage cited reduced crop yields as the biggest barrier, while those with experience were more concerned with spring weather factors and the increased use of herbicide/fungicide.
Researchers concluded that farmers who had experience with conservation practices were more likely to respond to the survey than those who did not have any experience.
Cover crops and its perceived challenges
Cover crops are a conservation practice intended to increase the long-term viability of the soil. Following the harvest of "cash crops," cover crops are then planted to protect the soil. These crops are not intended to produce a yield. Rather, they are used to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, control pests and increase biodiversity, among other factors, according to SARE.
According to Wang, cover crops are not widely used in South Dakota. Between 2017 and 2020, only less than 10% of row crop acres in the Midwest were planted with cover crops.
For farmers, the perceived challenges to the adoption of this technique are the size of the farm, climate challenges, potential yield reduction and resource constraints. Because of South Dakota's relatively short time period between harvest and winter ("fallow" period), cover crops can be especially challenging due to a small planting and growing time window.
Another existing challenge to cover crop adoption was the appearance of cover crops on farmlands. Because they give off a weedy, messy appearance—as opposed to the neat, weed-free rows—some farmers were unlikely to adopt. The researchers concluded that farmers with "higher levels of place attachment/identity" were likely to cite appearance as a reason for not adopting cover crops as a conservation practice.
Researchers found that farmers who had experience with and used cover crops for long periods of times were not likely to perceive yield reduction and narrow planting windows as major challenges.
Upon further review
While conservation practices are proven to have long-term benefits for farmers, some of the perceived challenges have made adoption unlikely for many. However, Wang and her research team did identify some areas where farmers’ opinions on these challenges could be changed by utilizing outreach programs and social networks.
A key underlying assertation from this research was that farmers have a common goal of a maximizing their yield, as almost all farmers cited "yield reduction" as a barrier to conservation practice adoptions. While maximizing yields, on a surface level, may seem to go hand-in-hand with maximizing profits, as Wang notes, that is not always the case. Adopting conservation practices, despite a yield reduction, could actually benefit farmers with higher profits through reduced labor and input costs such as fuel and fertilizer.
"Helping farmers adjust their goals toward improving profit, rather than yield, may be a key strategy for promoting conservation tillage and cover cropping practices," Wang said.
Further, Wang said outreach programs, run by Extension professionals and others, could address these perceived challenges and help shift perception amongst the farming community. Because 87% of the croplands in South Dakota are run by large-scare farming operations (per the USDA), targeting education and efforts at these operations could be highly impactful in amplifying outreach efforts.