Closing the Financial Information Gap in Conservation Agriculture

Progress report for ENC21-206

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2021: $89,185.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Univ of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Jenny Seifert
University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension
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Project Information


North Central Region Water Network (NCRWN), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and partners will educate Extension educators, agricultural lending institutions, and conservation professionals about the financial implications of agricultural conservation practices for farming operations to enhance farmer and lender knowledge and abilities to invest in conservation profitably and achieve soil health and water quality improvements. Our train-the-trainer approach will target educators who can play a powerful role in closing the financial information gaps: 1) educators from land grant university Extension and technical colleges who focus on farm financial management; 2) educators at agricultural lending institutions; and 3) conservation professionals who support farmers, including those in local government and conservation-focused Extension educators. We seek to increase their knowledge about the financial impacts of conservation practices and how to best support farmers’ investments in them. We also seek to improve our audiences’ knowledge about good practices for financial data gathering related to conservation production systems that can help lenders and farmers assess investments. Our activities will include 1) collecting and synthesizing existing resources about the financial impacts of conservation practices and making them available in an online hub, 2) developing and distributing methodologies to enable better financial data gathering on conservation production systems, and 3) developing replicable trainings that empower our educator audiences to share this knowledge with lenders and farmers. These short-term outcomes will lead to more accurate understanding of the financial impacts of conservation practices, more lenders collaborating with farmers to invest in these practices, and more farmers practicing conservation profitably. 

Project Objectives:

The project will deliver an accessible collection of educational resources, trainings, and crop budget data gathering methodologies.

Online resource collection about conservation practice profitability. The project will publish an online collection of resources in conservation finance tailored to ag lending institution educators, farm finance educators, and conservation educators to help them support farmers in financing conservation practices. We will organize this collection into a centralized online location that leverages the project partners’ existing visibility in the region and ensures traffic from our target audiences. We will also produce 5-10 original educational materials, such as fact sheets and budgeting spreadsheets, based on learnings from our activities to contribute to the resource library.

Trainings and training materials for farm finance educators, conservation educators, and ag lending educators. We will deliver sets of training curricula and related resources tailored for 1) farm finance educators, 2) conservation educators, and 3) ag lending educators. These materials will help these audience groups educate farmers and lenders on the financial impacts of conservation practices, best practices for budgeting and financing these practices, and available tools to support their conservation investment decisions. With in-person and online components, the trainings will be designed for replicability by others, to ensure their use and impact beyond this project. In the project, the trainings will reach at least 40 farm finance educators, 40 conservation educators, and 40 ag lending educators, with the potential to reach many more beyond the project. Moreover, we will deliver at least one peer learning opportunity that brings together all three of our target audiences in conversation to learn from each other about how they each can support farmers better and build stronger connections between these groups. For this opportunity, we aim to reach at least 30 total participants.

State conservation production system crop budgets. The project will deliver at least two state crop budgets, one for conservation tillage/cover crop production systems and one for grazing systems, in collaboration with Extension economists. These state crop budgets will ultimately be used by farmers and lenders for budgeting purposes. Extension educators and others will also use them to educate farmers on the expected costs and cost savings associated with conservation production systems and provide state-specific benchmarks.

Stronger cross-sector collaboration potential between Extension, conservation NGOs, and farm financial institutions. We will enhance cross-sector collaboration between Extension, conservation NGOs, and farm financial institutions by exemplifying the value of cross-sector collaborations for advancing conservation agriculture solutions. We will produce at least one communications product and one educational event, such as a webinar, to share what we learned from our partnership to inspire subsequent partnerships.  


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Educational approach:

We are using a train-the-trainer approach, training conservation educators, farm finance educators, and ag lenders in the financial impacts of conservation agriculture, so they can feel more empowered and informed in advising and supporting producers. We are in the process of developing these trainings and will be conducting in-person and virtual workshops to each of these audiences in the next year. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Crop Budget Workshop

Discuss barriers, opportunities, data sources, and methodologies for developing crop budgets that incorporate conservation practices (cover crops, conservation tillage, grazing) to envision how to develop these budgets.


Annual crop budgets produced by Extension economists are valuable tools used by farmers, lenders, and policymakers to understand the costs of crop production. Budgets that capture the costs of crop production using conservation practices have been identified as tools that would assist in closing the financial information gap for farmers and the target audiences. They would help farmers and lenders project the financial impacts of adopting cover crops into the farmers' operations and inform management and lending decisions. To explore the development of these budgets, Extension economists were convened on July 13, 2022 for a two-hour workshop to discuss data collection, methodology, opportunities, and barriers.

Outcomes and impacts:

Through this workshop, the project team was able to identify applicable data sources and next steps for developing crop budgets that incorporate conservation practices. In the next year of the project, the team aims to collaborate with an Extension economist to pilot a crop budget in one of our project states (Wisconsin or Minnesota). 

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

2 Extension
7 Researchers

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

We completed three focus groups with farm finance educators, four with conservation educators, and nine interviews with agricultural lenders to understand their information and learning needs regarding the financial impacts of conservation practices. This research is informing our development of trainings targeted at these audiences. 

We completed a workshop with 9 Extension educators and researchers to understand barriers, opportunities, data sources, and methodologies for creating crop budgets that incorporate conservation practices. This workshop produced next steps for creating a pilot crop budget.

We conducted an extensive search and synthesis of existing resources (e.g., reports, case studies) about the financial impacts of cover crops, conservation tillage, and grazing, to be incorporated into a forthcoming online resource hub.

Our remaining project activities are still in development, and thus we do not have further outcomes to report at this time. Those activities include: 1) developing and piloting trainings for our three audiences, 2) developing fact sheets based on the aforementioned resource synthesis, 3) developing an online hub for resources about the financial impacts of conservation practices, 4) developing a pilot crop budget that incorporates conservation practices, and 5) analysis of a survey of agricultural lenders about their knowledge and perceptions of conservation agriculture and financial impacts (the survey has been developed and disseminated).

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.