Comparative Analysis of Cover Crop Incentive Programs in the Northeast

Final report for GNE18-166

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2018: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Cornell University
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Matthew Ryan
Cornell University
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Project Information


Farmers are increasingly interested in planting cover crops to improve soil health, reduce nutrient losses, and enhance pest suppression, and government agencies support the use of cover crops by offering cost-share programs. This research examined cover crop incentive programs and adoption rates in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont to better understand the relationship between farmer adoption and incentive program structure, payment, and restrictions. Our team examined existing literature on the barriers to adoption, cataloged cover crop incentive programs by gathering data of six incentive programs, and conducted a survey of growers to understand the various benefits and challenges of participating in cover crop incentive programs.

Findings revealed that farmers who participated in incentive programs differed from non-participants in their demographics, farm type and size, perspectives about incentive programs, challenges they faced using cover crops, and reasons for cover crop use. Farmers using cover crop incentive programs had a notable increase in cover crop use from 50.7 prior to program participation to 101.0 ha during participation. Furthermore, among participants who no longer were enrolled in an incentive program, cover crop use on average remained 37.2% greater than before enrollment. Overall, participants were satisfied with the incentive program's communication, application, and species options and less satisfied with the amount of money offered, planting dates, and certified seed requirements. Results highlight the role of incentive programs in facilitating adoption and provide insights for increasing program participant satisfaction, expanding participation among different farmers, and increasing overall incentive program impact. 

Project Objectives:

To better understand cover crop incentive programs and to help improve programs, our team pursued the following objectives:

  1. Characterize farmers who have participated in programs,
  2. Assess the effects of programs on cover crop adoption, and
  3. Assess farmer satisfaction with programs.

To achieve these goals, we compiled available data on cover crop incentive programs for the last five years to compare program costs, payment structure, implementation or evaluation mechanisms, and farmer adoption rates. Surveyed over 300 farmers to understand perceptions about cover crops among farmers in each of the four states. And, developed policy recommendations to enhance positive and reduce negative externalities of the incentive programs and identified mechanisms that could improve policy, increase adoption rates, and intensify farmer benefits.


The purpose of this project was to analyze cover crop incentive programs in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, and to identify challenges and opportunities to make the cover crop programs more appealing to farmers. This is important because cover cropping is an ecologically based practice that is a possible solution to some of the challenges that farmers currently face. Throughout the 20th century, farmers across the United States increased their reliance on fertilizers and pesticides (MacDonald et al. 2013) and research has shown that increased use of these off-farm inputs has led to negative consequences. This includes weeds, insects, and pathogens developing resistance to pesticides (Mortensen et al. 2012), soil erosion and nutrient losses into waterways (EPA NPDES 2015), and reduction of soil quality to below the bare minimum critical for nutrient cycling (Lemaire et al. 2014). Poor soil quality results in a consequential cycle that requires increased inputs, which further deteriorates soil health.

Cover cropping provides a sustainable way to mitigate climate change and can help farmers to increase production while regenerating existing farmland (Foley et al. 2011). Farmers that have adopted the use of cover crops have found that it improves soil health, reduces soil erosion, and increases soil organic matter (CTIC. 2017). The 2016-2017 Annual Cover Crop Survey revealed that farmers are seeing yield gains from cover crops with 1.3 and 3.8 percent increased yield in corn and soybeans, respectively. The report also showed that 66 percent of farmers indicated that cereal rye helped suppress weeds (CTIC. 2017). Therefore increased adoption of cover crops can improve ecosystem services.

While the majority of farmers who plant cover crops recognize the benefits noted above, other farmers are reluctant to adopt the new practice because of uncertainties in practices and outcomes (CTIC. 2017). The most significant issue is that many cover crop experiments have been on research farms at land-grant universities and the results are not always reproducible. Some farmers are therefore unenthusiastic about spending the time, money, and energy needed to establish the new practice. To increase cover crop performance and the overall benefits relative to costs, researchers and extension educators have been testing cultural practices, breeding new cover crop varieties, and developing online decision support tools to help farmers. Government and non-governmental organizations are also offering financial payments to farmers to compensate for the seed, labor, and equipment costs associated with planting cover crops. However, limited research has been done to evaluate these programs in terms of their effectiveness, impact, and opportunities for improvement.


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Materials and methods:

This research bridged the gap between cover crop programs and implementation by building upon existing knowledge and gathering preliminary data. Our focus was to deepen our understanding of the cover crop incentive programs across Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont by examining which farmers participate in these programs, how participation impacts the amount of land planted with cover crops, and how satisfied farmers are with incentive programs. By understanding this information, our goal was to highlight how programs could be improved to increase adoption rates and enhance benefits.

For our initial study, we had conversations with farmers and program administrators to ensure that we have considered all relevant factors. As part of the proposal development process, we reached out to members of the Northeast Cover Crops Council. We also contacted representatives at the agriculture departments in New York, Maryland, and Vermont and they agreed to answer questions to help complete our research. Additionally, we have been in touch with individuals at Cornell University, The Pennsylvania State University, The University of Vermont, University of Delaware, and the Economic Resource Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service at the USDA all whom agreed to collaborate on this study.

To better understand how incentive programs influence cover crop adoption within a region, an online survey was conducted from September 2019 to January 2020 and targeted farmers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont. Our objectives were to 1) characterize farmers who have participated in programs, 2) assess the effects of programs on cover crop adoption, and 3) assess farmer satisfaction with programs. Assistance with survey distribution was requested from incentive program administrators and university extension agents as well as non-governmental organizations (farm bureaus, the National Young Farmers Coalition) in each state. The USDA Organic Integrity Database and the USDA Community Supported Agriculture Directory were also used to collect contact information and send farmers email messages asking for their participation.

A transdisciplinary team of researchers with experience creating surveys for farmers related to policy issues, as well as surveys that specifically focus on cover crops created the survey instrument. A draft survey was circulated to program administrators for feedback to ensure that their programs were accurately represented. A pilot survey was also distributed to farmers and revised accordingly. The final survey was anonymous and included questions about farm characteristics, use of cover crops, use of incentive programs for cover crops, satisfaction with incentive programs, and demographics. A combination of multiple-choice, Likert Scale, and open-ended questions were included (Supplemental Material). Logic functions were included so farmers who had used cover crops and had participated in programs were asked additional questions. For the question about the use of cover crop incentive programs, farmers who answered “Yes, I use one whenever feasible” and “Yes, I used one in the past” were combined into one category (“has used an incentive program”) while “No, but I would consider using one in the future” and “No, and I do not plan to use on in the future” were combined into another category of “never has used an incentive program”.

A total of 331 farmers completed the survey: 75 from Maryland, 94 from Pennsylvania, 100 from New York, and 62 from Vermont. Four respondents were excluded because they reported more acreage planted to cover crops than they indicated as their farm size, for a final n = 327. Farmers were geographically dispersed within and across the four states. The majority of farmers in our survey (54%) were 51 years or older, while the national average farmer age is 59 years (USDA 2017). The average farm size among survey respondents was larger (172 ha) than the average reported for these states (69ha) (USDA 2019). Census of Agriculture methodologies have changed over the years, giving more weight to “small-scale” farms in recent years (Rosenberg 2017), which may account for the differences between our survey and the Census. The majority of respondents (64.2%, n = 210/327) were organic farmers or operated farms that were both organic and conventional, and nearly half of the respondents (46.8%, n = 153/327) grew vegetables. Disproportionately more organic and vegetable farmers responded to our survey than would be expected based on USDA Census of Agriculture data (nationally, certified organic farms account for less than 1% of all agricultural land and farms; USDA 2017). More respondents in our survey partly (45.3%) or fully rented (11.5%) the land they farmed compared to respondents to the USDA Ag Census (25.5% and 5.6%, respectively) (USDA 2017).

Research results and discussion:

We compared six cover crop incentive programs in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont and analyzed findings from 327 cover crop users to 1) characterize farmers who have participated in programs, 2) assess the effects of programs on cover crop adoption, and 3) assess farmer satisfaction with programs.

  1. We found that program participants were more likely to be male (p < 0.001), have a high school education only (p < 0.001), and have farms much larger than the state average (i.e., mean farm size was 304 ha for participants compared to 87 ha for non-participants, p < 0.001). Farmers with more than 30 years of farming experience were more likely to participate in cover crop incentive programs, whereas more inexperienced farmers (i.e., farming for less than 10 years) were much less likely to participate in cover crop incentive programs (p < 0.001). Farmers who participated in incentive programs differed from non-participants in their perspectives about incentive programs, challenges they faced using cover crops, and reasons for cover crop use. Farmers who participated in cover crop incentive programs also tended to operate conventional rather than organic farms (p = 0.006).
  2. We found that participation in cover crop incentive programs had a substantial impact on cover crop adoption, including legacy adoption after farmers stopped participating in cover crop programs. On average farmers roughly doubled the area of cover crops planted from 50.7 ha prior to the incentive program to 101.0 while enrolled. For the subset of farmers who were no longer enrolled in a cover crop program (n = 36), our findings show that on average farmers planted 34.0 ha of cover crops prior to program enrollment, which increased to 55.8 ha while receiving financial incentives, then dropped to 49.4 ha after the program concluded. Therefore, relative to pre-adoption rates, the area cover cropped increased by 55% during program enrollment.  
  3. We were pleased to find that overall farmers were satisfied with cover crop incentive programs. We asked farmers to rate several factors from extremely dissatisfied (= 0), somewhat dissatisfied (= 1), somewhat satisfied (= 2), and extremely satisfied (= 3). The overall satisfaction rating was 2.06. The highest-rated attributes were ‘Communication with program administrators’ (2.26), ‘Application requirements’ (2.24), and ‘Cover crop species options’ (2.20), while the lowest-rated attributes were ‘Amount of money offered per acre’ (1.85), ‘Planting dates’ (1.88), and ‘Certified seed requirement’ (1.90).
Research conclusions:

Results highlight the type of farm and demographic of farmer that participates in incentive programs, the role of incentive programs in facilitating adoption, and provide insights into farmer satisfaction and potential for increasing program impact. The research highlighted that farmers that use cover crop incentive programs tend to be male, with at least 30 years of farming experience, and owners of large-scale and conventional farms. Program administrators should consider farmer demographics and ways to recruit younger farmers, farmers of color, and organic and small-scale farmers to make incentive programs more inclusive. 

Participation in incentive programs significantly increased the land cover cropped highlighting the impact of financial incentive programs, even after programs participation ends. The amount of farmland cover cropped doubled during participation. Furthermore, among participants who no longer were enrolled in an incentive program, cover crop acreage on average remained higher than before enrollment in an incentive program. Results suggest that although continuous financial support may maximize cover crop use, incentive programs that provide limited support may have lasting effects and contribute to sustained adoption.

Additionally, farmers participating in cover crop incentive programs were generally satisfied with communication with program administrators, application requirements, and cover crop species option, they were unsatisfied by the payment amount, the stringent planting date requirement, and the required use of certified seed. Cover crop program administrators should weigh the various challenges farmers face when planting cover crops with the benefit to the land and consider relaxing planting dates and the certified seed requirement. Further interdisciplinary research is needed to improve cover crop management practices and refine incentive program rules to ensure both the delivery of ecosystem services and that programs are farmer-friendly in terms of management and requirements.

Participation Summary
331 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Journal articles
2 Other educational activities: Poster presentation at the Northeast Cover Crop Council Conference

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
200 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The research generated in this project is soon to be published and will contribute to a somewhat limited body of work related to cover crop incentive programs. The research not only highlights the impact of cover crop programs but also farmers' experiences including the reseasons for enrolling in a program, key attributes that were challenging or beneficial, and acreage planted before and after program enrollment. The report was generated from farmers' responses to our survey with the intention that program administrators use the findings to update programs to better serve the needs of growers. We worked directly with cover crop program administrators who are anticipating the final report. Changes to programs may include more flexible seed or species requirements, more flexible planting timelines, increasing the payment to farmers, or increasing the number of years that farmers can be enrolled in a program.

Knowledge Gained:

The assessment of cover crop incentive programs in the Northeast was a first-of-its-kind study that illuminated useful information about which farmers use cover crops, why they use them, and how satisfied they are with the programs. All of the findings brought to light new ideas about cover crop incentive programs and highlighted the need for further research and changes to existing programs.

At the start of the research -- Barbara was new to the field of sustainable agriculture -- learned about key government agencies, organizations, and researchers in the field while also gaining valuable research skills. Barbara built relationships with cover crop program administrators who assisted her with accessing historical data from programs. She also established a network with farming organizations and university programs, which aided her in recruiting farmers to the survey. Barbara was responsible for crafting the cover crop survey including seeking feedback from experts, organized the data, and analyzed the results with guidance from a transdisciplinary team. The skills gained during this research laid the foundation for her current role as a Research Analyst and Survey Specialist with the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy.

Information Products

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.