Evaluating the Implementation of and Farmers’ Participation in Conservation Programs: A Case of Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Incentives Program

Final report for GNE20-227

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,921.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: The Pennsylvania State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Anil Kumar Chaudhary
The Pennsylvania State University
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Project Information


Agri-environmental issues due to intensive agricultural production activities are of concern across the globe and specifically in the United States (US). Agri-environmental programs have been implemented by governments in affected countries including the US to address the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. A suite of conservation programs referred to as Farm Bill conservation programs (e.g., Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) sponsored by the US Federal government provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and other rural land managers in exchange for their voluntary adoption of best management practices (BMPs) to address resources concern resulting from agriculture. The planning, policy development, and implementation of these programs encourage partnerships among government-sponsored conservation agencies and other public-private conservation agencies as well as public participation at the federal, state, and local levels of decision-making. Partnerships and public participation are encouraged in conservation policy since it helps to account for public concerns, increase understanding of resource concern priorities, increase acceptance of the resultant program, and improve the efficient use of program resources and achievement of program goals. However, there is limited research conducted to explore the extent of public participation in program planning and implementation as well as how farmers make decisions to either participate or not participate in these government-sponsored agri-environmental programs. Consequently, drawing on the environmental governance (EG) framework, this project sought to evaluate the implementation of and farmers’ participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program using Pennsylvania as a case study organized around three objectives:  

  • Examine how national priorities of natural resources conservation affect the structure and implementation strategies of the program at the state and local level and the overall program success overtime at these levels.  
  • Examine the different factors that facilitate and/or constraint the ability of NRCS and local conservation district field staff to conduct recruitment and outreach activities to secure the participation of farmers in EQIP. 
  • Identify motivators and constraints to farmers’ participation or non-participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. 

Environmental governance (EG) has been used as a conceptual framework to explain the arrangements between state and non-state actors in achieving collective natural resources conservation goals (Heikkila and Gerlak, 2005; Manfredo, Teel, Sullivan, & Dietsch, 2017). Focusing on four of the five key issues or concepts of EG identified by Armitage et al. (2012) including adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning; knowledge co-production from diverse sources; new actors and their roles; and accountability and legitimacy except fit and scale, the findings of the first objective showed the presence of certain components of the four concepts in program planning and implementation processes, mainly because program decision-making processes and implementation practices are informed by congressional mandates and legislation. There is the participation of diverse stakeholders and conservation agencies in program processes at all three levels of decision-making and stakeholders play diverse roles in enhancing the achievement of program objectives. The findings of the second objective showed that mostly government conservation agencies, their partners, and stakeholders work together and sometimes separately to conduct program outreach utilizing a variety of communication channels and delivery methods. The key outreach approach relied on by both government and non-government agencies is “word of mouth” to disseminate program information. The study findings indicate that farmer-related challenges (e.g., costs associated with program participation, anti-government sentiments, bureaucracy, and inadequate awareness about program existence and goals) and program-related challenges (e.g., staff capacity, attitude, and knowledge about agriculture, inadequate funding, bureaucracy, inflexible program rules, regulations, and internal policies, etc.) could hinder program implementation at the local level.  Finally, the findings of the third objective showed that program-related characteristics (e.g., cost share, environmental benefits, etc.) and personal reasons (e.g., environmental stewardship, social recognition for conservation efforts, etc.) as motivators for program participation.  Self-autonomy and distrust of government conservation agencies, inadequate information on EQIP goals and benefits, religious reasons, and perceived limited knowledge of the heterogeneity of farms among conservation staff were some of the barriers to program participation.  

In Summary, the study findings highlight program governance issues that could be improved to enhance public participation, support, and buy-in for conservation programs. Overall, the findings could improve understanding of how national-level decisions about natural resources conservation influence implementation decisions at the state and local level as well as farmer participation in EQIP. More generally the findings could enable states in the northeast region, particularly, Pennsylvania to secure conservation gains and enhance farmer participation in conservation programs such as EQIP over time. 

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Examine how national priorities of natural resources conservation affect the structure and implementation strategies of the program at the state and local level and the overall program success overtime at these levels. 

Objective 2: Examine the different factors that facilitate and or constraint the ability of NRCS and local conservation district[1] field staff to conduct recruitment and outreach activities to secure the participation of farmers in EQIP.

Objective 3: Identify motivators and constraints to farmers’ participation or non-participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Objective 4: Develop evidence-based recommendations for practices and procedures that help conservation field staff effectively work with farmers to promote sustainable agriculture and improve environmental quality.

[1] Field staff of the local conservation district will be selected to participate in the study because their outreach activities include informing farmers about the different conservation programs available to producers. Hence, for this project, NRCS and local conservation district field staff are referred to as the conservation field staff.


The purpose of this project was to identify how EQIP planning and implementation decisions at the Federal, State, and Local levels affect program implementation at the state and local levels, examine the different factors that facilitate and or constraints the ability of NRCS and local conservation district field staff to conduct recruitment and outreach activities to secure the participation of farmers in the program and identify factors that promote or hinder Pennsylvania farmers' participation in the government-sponsored conservation program using EQIP as a case.

Farmers’ voluntary participation in incentive-based conservation programs such as EQIP and subsequent adoption of conservation practices can help address environmental problems as well as sustain farm productivity (Cocklin et al, 2007). Farmers’ participation in EQIP can help Pennsylvania reduce nutrients and sediment levels in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025 (Wright, 2006). The EQIP is implemented by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to help farmers address environmental problems and promote sustainable agriculture production by providing monetary and technical assistance for the installation of conservation practices on working farmlands (Wright, 2006; Oliver, 2019). Given the crucial role of farmers’ voluntary participation in achieving EQIP outcomes, it is important that research is conducted to understand what type of farmer participates or does not participate in EQIP (McCann & Nunez, 2005). These research findings are important for addressing barriers that hinder farmers’ participation decisions. Previous studies have shown that constraints including financial costs (Carlisle, 2016; Yang & Sharp, 2017); lack of or inadequate knowledge about the existence of EQIP and its purpose (Oliver, 2019), limited knowledge about the how the adoption of conservation practices can benefit farm enterprise and improve environmental quality including water quality and soil health (DeVuvst & Ipe, 1994; Feather & Amacher, 1999; Liu, Bruins, & Heberling, 2018) affect farmers’ participation. In addition, historically underserved farmers are less likely to participate in such programs (Gan et al, 2005; McCann & Nunez, 2005).

Furthermore, program implementation strategies such as visits of conservation field staff to farmers (Obubuafo, 2006), choice of outreach and farmer recruitment strategies (Bruening & Martin, 1992; Mancini et al., 2008; Sosa et al, 2013), and unavailable support to farmers for completing required enrollment paperwork (Oliver, 2019) could inhibit participation. For Pennsylvania, non-participation of farmers in EQIP could hinder the number of conservation practices adopted which in turn affect its nutrition reduction goals in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. Few studies have examined limitations to farmers’ participation in EQIP in the context of Pennsylvania (e.g. Wright, 2006). Furthermore, few studies have focused on examining recruitment and outreach practices used by conservation field staff and how these relate to farmers’ participation in these programs.

This project filled these gaps by (1) examining how national priorities of natural resources conservation affect the structure and implementation strategies of the program at the state and local level and the overall program success overtime at these levels,  2) describing recruitment and outreach strategies of conservation field staff involved in EQIP as they relate to farmers’ participation decisions, and 3) identifying motivates and or hinder farmers from participating in Pennsylvania EQIP. Additionally, the project makes recommendations for how NRCS can more effectively engage farmers to adopt conservation practices that improve water quality and secure the socio-economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture through increased participation in EQIP.  It suggests ways the federal government through its mandated agency for farm bill programs implementation, the NRCS, can work with other conservation agencies and the public to increasingly make conservation policies tailored to local needs, agri-environmental and climatic conditions.


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Materials and methods:

Review of the literature 

January to July 2020 (not covered under NE SARE grant) - This project began with a review of the scholarly work related to agri-environmental conservation programs and their impact of promoting sustainable agriculture and conservation of natural resources. The review process focused on identifying publications that have documented the structure of conservation programs and strategies employed by conservation agencies in the implementation of programs. It also identified studies that documented the experiences of farmers who participate in conservation programs as well as the outreach and recruitment practices used by conservation field staff to recruit farmers in the conservation programs. This literature shows that conservation practices adoption by farmers through Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can contribute to water quality improvement goals in local waterbodies. EQIP is one of the largest working lands programs among a host of conservation programs in the United States (Congressional Research Service, 2019; Reimer, Gramig, & Prokopy, 2013). It was created by the 1996 Farm Bill to provide cost-sharing, technical, and educational assistance to improve farmers’ voluntary participation in the program (Lubell et al., 2013). For EQIP, farmer participation is defined as the adoption of any or all recommended conservation practices that address the environmental effects of agriculture. Studies have shown that EQIP participation has yielded benefits to the farmer such as improved soil fertility, yield improvements, and nutrient retention on the farm, critical for sustained agricultural productivity and farm profitability (NRCS, 2019). In addition, EQIP participation has yielded environmental benefits such as improvement in local water quality (Agourdis, Workman, Warner, & Jennings, 2005; Lui, Wang & Zhang, 2018) and economic stability of farms (Bruce, Farmer, Maynard, & Valliant, 2017). Consequently, farmers’ improved participation in EQIP could serve as a crucial avenue for Pennsylvania to address water quality goals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. To be able to improve farmers' participation in EQIP, NRCS and its partner implementation organizations should understand the factors that influence farmer’s participation decisions.  

The literature on farmer participation in conservation programs has shown challenges such as farmers’ inadequate access to information on the existence and purpose of conservation programs (Oliver, 2019; Carlisle, 2016; Reimer, Weinkauff, & Prokopy, 2012; Yang & Sharp, 2017), limited knowledge about how conservation practices benefit farm enterprise and environment (DeVuvst & Ipe, 1994; Feather & Amacher, 1999; Liu, Bruins, & Heberling, 2018), inadequate visits of NRCS staff to farmers (Obubuafo, 2006; Oliver, 2019), farmer challenges for completing required enrollment paperwork (Oliver, 2019). Addressing the challenges that hinder participation in conservation programs could improve farmer participation (Reimer & Prokopy, 2014), which is critical to improving agricultural productivity and profitability and improved environmental health (NRCS, 2019). A growing body of research strives to recognize how recruitment strategies employed by conservation agencies staff relate to farmers’ participation in programs (Bruening & Martin, 1992; Mancini et al., 2008; Sosa et al, 2013). By identifying how NRCS staff responsible for EQIP farmer recruitment carry out their duties and the challenges that hinder staff from performing their duties, this project made recommendations for outreach that could help conservation agencies and thier field staff work more effectively  to sustain conservation gains and the sustainability of the agriculture sector through adaptation of recruitment and outreach practices. 

Following the literature review, I submitted an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application to the Pennsylvania State University IRB office. I developed the IRB protocol for human subject research for this project. The protocol documented the project objectives, scientific background and gaps in current knowledge, study rationale, the criteria for inclusion and exclusion for potential project participants, and the participant recruitment methods. In addition, the project’s consent process, details the project’s study design and procedures (details described below), and a confidentiality, privacy, and data safety and management plan for information collected during the project’s timeline are documented in the IRB protocol. Further, I submitted interview guides which included questions that will be asked to study participants during the interviews. All the documents were reviewed by a designated Penn State IRB officer. The IRB application was approved after revision (one time) at the “Exempt” level. The project IRB was approved on September 21, 2020. After conducting a majority of the farmer interviews, I submitted an IRB application for the Farmer survey on December 30, 2021 and this application was approved on January 14, 2022 at the "Exempt" level. 

August 2020 to January 2021 (NE SARE funding for this project began on August 1st, 2020) - As stated in the submitted proposal, this period was designated for data collection for this project. However, due to the Coronavirus Pandemic and changes in data collection procedures at Penn State University, this activity could not occur as planned. Nonetheless, the period was spent consulting with the USDA NRCS staff including, State Conservationist, Supervisory District Conservationists, and District Conservation Directors to identify and recruit potential participants among farmers and conservation field staff respectively from Centre, Bedford, and Lebanon Counties. 

February 2021 to August 2022Primary data collection for this project began in February 2021. A multimethod research design using in-depth interviews, document analysis, and participant survey was utilized in data collection. 

Project Methods

Research Approach: This socio-behavioral science project used an exploratory sequential multimethod research design to collect data that addressed the project objectives. Exploratory sequential multiple methods allow the researcher to gain an in-depth understanding of an under-researched topic and compare the results of the qualitative and quantitative research approaches (Creswell & Clark, 2017; Kolar, Ahmad, Chan, & Erickson, 2015). To collect data, this project used in-depth interviews in combination with surveys of farmers and conservation professionals, service providers, and field staff operating in Pennsylvania’s part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. At the US federal level, a suite of conservation programs referred to as Farm Bill conservation programs (e.g., Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and other rural land managers in exchange for their voluntary adoption of best management practices (BMPs) to address resources concern resulting from agriculture. The planning, policy development, and implementation of these programs encourage partnerships among government-sponsored conservation agencies and other public-private conservation agencies as well as public participation at the federal, state, and local levels of decision-making. However, there is limited research conducted to explore the extent of public participation in program planning and implementation as well as how farmers make decisions to either participate or not participate in these government-sponsored agri-environmental programs.  

Drawing on the environmental governance (EG) framework and the diffusion of innovation theory, this project sought to address the research gaps by utilizing qualitative and quantitative methods (multi-method) of inquiry to address the project objectives.  Environmental governance (EG) has been used as a conceptual framework to explain the arrangements between state and non-state actors in achieving collective natural resources conservation goals (Heikkila and Gerlak, 2005; Manfredo, Teel, Sullivan, & Dietsch, 2017). Environmental governance is a framework that refers to the means and arrangements by which society determines and achieves environmental management goals (Dreissen, Dieperink, van Laerhoven, Runhaar, & Vermulen, 2012). It encompasses mechanisms, regulations, and processes that guide decision-making and implementation (Dreissen et al., 2012). EG is used as an analytic framework to evaluate institutions that bind different actors together in collaborative arrangements and highlight the rules which guide interactions and actions among and between actors (Evans, 2012). It can also be used to identify which stakeholders participate in governance decisions and examine the extent to which sustainable environmental management policies are representative of the inputs of the state and non-state actors (Benson and Jordan, 2017; Bridge & Perreault, 2009, Folke, Hahn, Olsson, and Norberg, 2005). State actors represent government interest and institutions, while non-state actors represent the interests/needs of society. Through EG, state and non-state actors work together to improve understanding of environmental problems among stakeholders, provide support for innovative policy for addressing environmental problems through voluntary mechanisms as well as identifying relevant resources for implementing policies and enhancing successful policy implementation (Scott, 2015).   

Armitage et al. (2012) present five key issues or concepts of EG following a detailed review of the literature including adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning; knowledge co-production from diverse sources; new actors and their roles; and accountability and legitimacy and fit and fit and scale. This study focuses on all the key issues/concepts identified by Armitage et al. (2012) except fit and scale to assess the extent to which the decision-making process and implementation of EQIP follow the tenets of EG.    Adaptiveness, flexibility and learning concept encompasses the ability of the governance system and decision-making processes to be amenable to change in the face of uncertainty or disturbances (Armitage et al 2012). Key to achieving adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning is through monitoring, learning by doing, and developing and sharing knowledge through collaboration between the different governance actors (Armitage et al, 2012; Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005; Scott, 2015). An EG arrangement can be considered to be adaptive when structures for revision and deliberation are established through practice or officially recognized through organizational practice or customs. Thus, there are established processes to revise and develop policies, institutions, and adjust management decisions/actions to reflect uncertainties and new knowledge (Bennett and Satterfield, 2018). The knowledge co-production concept reflects activities aimed at generating knowledge from different actors across complex and unstable systems to achieve collective goals. Co-produced knowledge from diverse sources and types could be important for identifying and understanding common environmental issues (Manfredo, Teel, Sullivan, and Dietsch, 2017; Rathwell, Armitage, and Berkes, 2015) as well as ensuring that policy for tackling environmental problems represent a fair balance of local conditions and values and scientific knowledge (Lockwood et al., 2010).  

The next concept relates to actors and their roles in EG. Actors include state actors and non-state actors including local communities, non-governmental organizations, private industry, individuals, scientists, and other relevant stakeholders with an interest in conservation (Bennet and Satterfield, 2017; Lemos & Agrawal, 2006). Clearly defined roles and interactions of non-state actors in EG could potentially increase their ability to support effective decision-making (Armitage et al, 2012). Participation of non-state actors could provide the capacity needed for addressing the agri-environmental problem, through partnerships that build mutual engagement among stakeholders and potential actors and enhancing the identification of problems across all levels of government decision-making (Lockwood et al., 2010). The final concept is accountability and legitimacy which is reflected as clearly defined roles and responsibilities; penalties for performance; responsiveness; transparency; free flow of information and improved communication between participating actors (Bennet and Satterfield, 2017). The practice of EG in addressing environmental issues could promote information sharing, trust building, and learning among actors which are necessary for developing innovative, adaptive, and resilient responses to environmental problems (Benson and Jordan, 2017). 

 In this project, we use EG as an analytical framework to explore the extent to which formal institutions guide the partnership or collaborative arrangements between Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other state and non-state actors and the boundaries within which these actors interact (Evans, 2012) with respect to EQIP planning and implementation. Further, we use EG to identify who participates in governance decisions as well as examine the extent to which policy and proposals for addressing environmental degradation are inclusive of diverse inputs from both state and non-state actors that represent the interests of society (Bridge & Perreault, 2009; Manfredo, Teel, Sullivan and Dietsch, 2017; Rathwell, Armitage, and Berkes, 2015).   

The multimethod research approach allowed the of use several data collection methods to investigate the research objectives (Seawright, 2016). Given the complexity of conservation program implementation as well as farmers’ decision to participate in these programs, the use of multimethod approach allowed the researcher to comprehensively document “reality” and develop a nuanced understanding of the complex research problem and context (Brewer & Hunter, 2006; Meijer, Verloop, Beijaard, 2002). Further, the multimethod approach enabled the researcher to combine different data collection methods based on the needs of the individual research objectives rather than mixing qualitative and quantitative methods for each objective (Brewer & Hunter, 2006). Finally, the multimethod approach provided a basis for enhancing the validity of the study findings by enabling the researcher to understand the relationship between program structure and implementation practices and farmer participation from multiple perspectives (farmer, public conservation agencies, and private conservation agencies) (Laplante & Nolin, 2014; Meijer, Verloop, & Beijaard, 2002; Seawright, 2016).   

Research Questions: Informed by the research objectives enumerated earlier, the following questions listed below were developed to guide the research: 

  1. To what extent does EQIP planning and implementation processes at the federal, state, and local levels follow the tenets of environmental governance?  
  2. What are the outreach and recruitment practices used by conservation agencies such as the NRCS and their field staff in securing farmers’ participation in government-sponsored conservation programs such as EQIP? 
  3. What factors facilitate and/or constrain the ability of conservation agencies to conduct outreach and recruitment for conservation programs? 
  4. What are the perceptions of conservation field staff about the factors that could hinder the successful implementation of conservation programs? 
  5. What motivates farmers to participate in government-sponsored conservation programs such as EQIP? 
  6. What are the barriers farmers face in making decisions to participate in government-sponsored conservation programs? 

Data Collection 

This section describes the different data collection methods used in this research and is organized according to the three research objectives. 

Objective One: The data needed to address this objective were collected through in-depth interviews with key persons who are involved with the planning and implementation of conservation programs and through review and analysis of program documents (Yin, 2014). I conducted sixteen interviews with representatives from government conservation agencies and non-profit organizations including USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), an organization for commercial farmers in the nation (Medina, Isley, & Arbuckle, 2020; Lenihan & Brasier, 2010), the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the lobbying and advocacy branch of the national sustainable agriculture movement (Lenihan & Brasier, 2010), USDA Farm Service Agency, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission, which provides support and oversight responsibility to all the county conservation districts for the implementation of conservation programs, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a regional partnership program that spearheads effort to restore water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, one Technical Service Provider, Pheasants Forever Inc. and Berks Nature, both representing non-profit conservation organization. These agencies and organizations play diverse roles in the planning and implementation of EQIP at the national, state, and local levels.  

The interview participants were selected using purposive and snowball sampling, based on their role in EQIP program planning and implementation and their experience with program decision-making processes (Babie, 2015; Bernard, 2017; Moon et al., 2017). Participants were interviewed using an interview protocol guided by the research questions, literature review, and the theoretical framework that informed that study. The interview guide had questions that asked about the role state and non-state actors play in the planning and implementation of EQIP, participants’ perspectives about the receptiveness of NRCS to the inputs of diverse actors in program planning, and inclusion of diverse perspectives in program implementation, the role of partnerships and public participation in affecting program changes and adjustments. The interview questions also sought to identify the factors that facilitate successful delivery of the program and participants’ concern about program planning, administration, and implementation (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003). The interview guide was reviewed by a panel of experts with experience qualitative research, human dimensions of natural resources management, and agricultural extension. The interview guide was revised to improve the readability and the ordering of the questions to improve flow of the interview process. The interviews were conducted virtually over zoom and Microsoft teams and lasted between 30 – 90 minutes. All interviews were recorded with the participant's permission and transcribed using a professional transcription service. The EG concepts that guided the study were operationalized as follows:  

  • Adaptiveness, learning, and flexibility: adaptiveness was operationalized as the changes and adjustment in program practices and processes resulting from new knowledge and expertise shared by the diverse participating stakeholders in planning and implementation processes. Leaning was operationalized as new knowledge and experiences useful in learning about natural resources priority of concern and solutions for addressing them drawing from diverse stakeholder perspectives. Flexibility referred to the authority given to NRCS by Congress to make program decisions 
  • Knowledge co-production was operationalized as both formal and informal laid down processes and avenues that allow diverse conservation agencies and stakeholders to engage with NRCS to achieve conservation program goals.   
  • Actors were conceptualized as other state conservation agencies, non-state conservation agencies, agricultural institutions, and other relevant stakeholders with interest in agricultural conservation. 
  •  Legitimacy was operationalized as acceptance of the authority of NRCS in making conservation program decisions by the different categories of stakeholders, as backed by legislation and programs, who participate in the governance processes for EQIP. Accountability was operationalized as the different activities were taken to measure the efficient use of program resources and determine program outcomes. 

Policy statements and legislative documents, (Medina et al., 2020, 2021; Lenihan & Brasier, 2010), and program implementation documents were also analyzed as part of this study. These documents included the 2018 Farm Bill (Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018), EQIP Manual, 7 C.F.R. part 1466 (7 C.F.R. § 1466) and 7 CFR Part 610. The documents were obtained through a search of the government database for public laws and the Code of Federal Regulations (Del Rossi, Hecht, and Zia, 2021). 

Objective two: To address objective two, in-depth interviews were conducted with 17 conservation field staff from both government sponsored organizations and non-profit conservation organizations whose work involve outreach and education activities to farmers about Farm Bill Programs such as EQIP located in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The interviewed conservation field staff for the government agencies included representatives of United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS), an agency mandated with the planning, administration, and implementation of the EQIP, and representatives from the County Conservation District. Representatives of non-profit environmental groups interviewed included Pheasants Forever, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Clearwater Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy, representative of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), an organization for commercial farmers (Medina, Isley, & Arbuckle, 2020; Lenihan & Brasier, 2010). The organizations were selected for the interviews based on their support for the development and implementation of EQIP through their conservation outreach activities (Medina, Isley, & Arbuckle, 2021). The representatives were selected using purposive and snow-ball sampling methods based on the criteria that their work involved participating in EQIP development and implementation processes across the counties as well as conducting outreach or communicating the program to potential participants to secure farmers’ participation in conservation programs, particularly EQIP, and have spent at least one year working in that capacity. Purposive sampling is appropriate for this phase of data collection because it allows the researcher to explore the outreach and recruitment practices of conservation field staff who have relevant knowledge and experience about the research topic (Babie, 2015; Bernard, 2017). Each interview was conducted remotely via zoom and/or telephone, lasted a minimum of 25 minutes and was audio-recorded with consent from each participant.   

A semi-structured interview guide was developed following the research questions and a review of the literature to elicit information from the study participants. The interview guide had questions that asked participants to share their experiences and perspectives regarding 1) what roles they play in creating awareness among farmers about the existence of conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program; 2) what specific communication channels they use in conducting educational activities for farmers about EQIP and encourage them to participate in the program, 3) what are the constraints (if any) they face in conducting recruitment and outreach activities for farmers, and 4) what are their perceptions of weaknesses of EQIP in relation to program administration and implementation. 

Objective three: Data for this objective were collected using a multimethod approach to address the research questions. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected during the study period (Creswell & Plano-Clark, 2007) in two interrelated phases. The results from both phases were given equal value and integrated into addressing the research questions by comparing the two forms of results. The use of these two data collection methods has several advantages. First, the researcher could explore EQIP (non-) participation from the farmer’s lived experience using both qualitative and quantitative data to overcome the limitations associated with using either a qualitative or quantitative approach only in exploring the topic (Hammond, 2005; Johnson & Onwuegbezie, 2004). Second, the use of both qualitative and quantitative data allows the researcher to gain an in-depth understanding of different factors that influence farmers’ behavior and perspectives by comparing the results from the interviews and the survey (Hoshmand, 2003; Kelle, 2006). As posited by Reimer and Prokopy (2014), the use of multiple methods allows the researcher to move from solely depending on quantitative factors related to program participation to explore influencers of and/or constraints to participation considering the context within which farmers’ participation decisions are made and their lived experiences. 

Study Site and Target Population: The target population consisted of livestock and crop producers with operations in Pennsylvania’s part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as shown in Figure 1. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA-DEP) (2019), there are 33,000 farms located in 43 counties in the watershed. These producers could help address 80% of water quality degradation in the Bay mainly through the adoption of BMPs that reduce nutrients and sediment runoff from farms and at the same time improve farm productivity (PA-DEP, 2019, 2020). Thus, the Chesapeake Bay watershed provides an optimal location for this project. The 43 counties in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have been categorized into four Tiers based on their contribution of agricultural non-point source pollutants into the Bay through local water sources (PA-DEP, 2019). According to the categorization, Tier one counties are perceived as the high contributors of agricultural non-point pollutants to the Bay (PA-DEP, 2019) followed by Tier two, three and four counties. This study focused on tier two counties because we wanted to avoid participants' fatigue in Tier one counties because there was an ongoing survey in the Tier one counties to assess non-cost share adoption of BMPs at the time of developing and implementing this research. Out of five counties in tier two counties, three counties, Lebanon, Bedford, and Centre County, were randomly selected as for the research. 

Figure 1: Map of Pennsylvania
Map of Pennsylvania showing the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and study counties

Lebanon County 

The county is mostly drained by the Swatara Creek into the Susquehanna River. Approximately 1,993 farmers are managing 1,149 farms in the county (United States Department of Agriculture, 2017). The average farm size in the county is slightly more than 90 acres with a total of 107, 577 acres of land under agricultural production (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS, 2017).  Poultry is the common livestock raised by farmers in the county. More than 80% of the county falls within the Chesapeake Watershed (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 2018; Wright, 2006). As of 2017, the total earnings from agriculture were approximately $351 million dollars, placing the county among the top five agricultural producers in Pennsylvania (USDA NASS, 2017). 

Centre County 

The county as its name suggests is in central Pennsylvania. The county is drained by the Susquehanna River which forms part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  As of 2017, 1,183 of the population in the county were engaged in agricultural production. There are 1023 farms in the county that are operational on approximately 150,000 acres with an average farm size of 146 acres (USDA NASS, 2017). Crop production represents a major agricultural land use activity covering an estimated 59% of the agricultural land. As of 2016, the total earnings from the sale of agricultural produce were $ 91 million, placing the county at the 24th position among the counties in the state (USDA NASS, 2017). 

Bedford County 

The county is part of southern Pennsylvania and is drained by the Juniata River and tributaries of the Potomac River which are part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The 2017 USDA agricultural census puts the population involved with agricultural production at 1,948 (USDA NASS, 2017). There are 1,159 farms in the county operating a total of 222,224 acres of farmland with an average farm size of 192 acres (USDA NASS, 2017). Crop production represents the main agricultural land use, covering 54% of the estimated agricultural land. Forage, which includes hay and haylage is the most popular crop produced by farms in the county followed by corn for grains and corn for silage or green chop. According to the 2017 agricultural census, the total earnings from agricultural sales were approximately $115 million placing the county in the 18th position within the state. 

Qualitative Data Collection: First, I conducted in-depth interviews to explore farmers’ perceptions about and experiences with EQIP and their program (non-) participation decisions. A total of 27 interviews were conducted with purposively selected farmers with operations in the Centre, Bedford, and Lebanon counties. The study participants were recruited with the help of staff from NRCS, Penn State Extension, and County Conservation District, and exploring the website of agricultural commodity groups.  Interview participants were selected based on the following criteria: participants must identify as either grain and or livestock farmers, must earn at least $1000 annually from the sale of produce per USDA standards for classifying farmers, with or without a history of participation in EQIP, and reside in the selected counties.  Twenty-one interviews were conducted through zoom and/or by telephone with the remainder being in person at the farmers’ residence or farm from Winter 2021 through early summer 2022. I sought the consent of the interview participants verbally before proceeding with the interviews after reading the IRB-approved oral consent script.  

A semi-structured interview guide with pre-determined questions was developed by considering the research questions and a review of the literature and used in interviewing the study participants (Rubin & Rubin, 2012). The interview guide was used since it enhances flexibility during the interviews and allows the participants to respond to issues that are essential to their understanding of their experiences (Patton, 2015). The interview guide included questions about participants’ farm production goals and practices, EQIP participation status, as well as their interactions with conservation field staff. In addition, participants were asked to describe how and why they make decisions to either participate or not participate in EQIP. All the interviews were documented using audio recordings and handwritten notes were taken, when possible, with permission from participants. The recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim by using the services of a professional transcription company, Rev.com. The interview transcripts were cleaned for subsequent analysis using NVivo Qualitative Analysis software. 

Quantitative data collection: To quantitively measure farmers’ perceptions about and experiences with EQIP and their program (non-) participation decisions, I developed a mail survey following Dillman et al. (2014) Tailored Design Method.  Insights from the farmer interviews and the literature review were incorporated into the survey design. The survey had four parts. The first part asked respondents to indicate their motivation for participating in or willingness to participate in EQIP, their attitudes towards EQIP, and the barriers that hinder farmers from participating in the program. Farmers’ motivations (N = 16) was measured using a four-point Likert scale. Survey participants were provided with a prompt: I will apply to participate in a conservation program (e.g., EQIP) if it (e.g., provides cost share for installing BMPs on my farm, etc.). The Likert scale ranged from 1 = “Strongly agree” to 4 = “Strongly disagree”; no neutral option was provided.  We used a five-point Likert scale to measure perceived barriers to program participation. Survey participants were provided with a prompt: Farmers may not apply to a Farm Bill conservation program (e.g., EQIP) because (of) (e.g., the complexity of program eligibility requirement(s). The Likert scale ranged from 1 = “Strongly agree to 5 = “Strongly disagree”. 

I collected information on respondents’ demographic characteristics in the final part of the survey. I measured the age of the respondents on a continuous scale which was computed based on the respondent’s year of birth. The respondents’ highest education level was coded as 1 = “Some high school or less”, 2 = “High school diploma or GED”, 3 = “Vocational/technical school/some college”, 4 = “Four-year college degree”, and 5 = “post-graduate degree”. I also collected information on respondents’ gender, race, and membership in a farmer-based organization. The gender of the respondent was coded as 1 = “Asian/Asian American”, 2 = “Black/African American”, 3 = “Caucasian/White”, 4 = “Indigenous Peoples”, 5 = “Other (please specify)” and 6 = Prefer not to answer. Gender of the respondent was coded as 1 = “Male”, 2 = “Female”, 3 = “Other (Specify)” and 4 = “Prefer not to answer”. Finally, respondents' membership in a farmer-based organization was measured on a binary response (yes/no) scale.  

To establish the content and face validity of the survey instrument, a panel of experts was set up and assessed the instrument to identify any potential challenges that intended users may face in completing the instrument and to examine the accuracy of the instrument in addressing the research objectives (Kumar Chaudhary & Israel, 2016; Presser et al. 2004). The panel of experts with comprehensive knowledge and/or experience in human dimensions of natural resources management, survey design, and farmer behavior was put together. The panelists were associated with Penn State University, state Extension specialists, and state conservation experts. I reviewed and incorporated recommendations from the panel to improve the survey instrument. Two questions which were measuring the program accountability and compliance as well as farm income were deemed sensitive by the expert panel and were removed from the survey.  

The updated instrument after feedback from panelists was pretested with a group of six farmers using cognitive interviews (Dillman, 2000; Dillman et al., 2014). Following Ouimet, Bunnage, Carini, Kuh, and Kennedy, (2004), we conducted these interviews to determine 1) how farmers interpret the items and their response options, 2) if the items are clearly worded and are specific enough to yield reliable and valid results, and 3) if the items and their response categories were an accurate depiction of farmers' lived experience and perceptions about Farm Bill conservation programs, such as EQIP. The responses from the farmers were used to improve the wording of the instructions for the survey sections one through four and some of the survey items. 

The most common errors that occur while conducting a survey include coverage error, measurement error, sampling error, and non-response error. The coverage error in a survey occurs when the sampling frame for the study does not accurately reflect the target population on one or more characteristics of interest (Dillman et al., 2014). In this study, coverage error was addressed by sampling from the database of DTN, an Agriculture Marketing and Consultation firm to obtain an accurate and up-to-date sampling frame possible. Measurement error is the difference between what study items are intended to measure and what the study items really measured (Dillman et al., 2014). Measurement errors can occur due to unclear wording of survey items, poor choice of survey items, scales, or response options. In this study, measurement error was addressed through expert panel review of the survey and cognitive interviews.  

Another error that can affect survey validity is sampling error. Sampling is the difference between a population parameter and the statistic estimated from a sample of that population (Dillman et al., 2014). This error occurs when the study sample does not accurately represent the population. In the study, the potential participants were oversampled to achieve a target margin of error of ± 5% to reduce the chances of sampling error occurring. Non-response error occurs when some members of the sample do not respond to the survey and there are differences in characteristics between survey respondents and non-respondents that could influence the survey results (Dillman et al., 2014). To address non-response error, we compared early and late respondents on two key variables – motivations of and barriers to EQIP participation. The results of the independent samples t-test showed no significant differences between the early and late respondents, t (130.224) = .509, p = 0.612.  

The survey was administered to a random sample of farmers across the Center, Bedford, and Lebanon Counties. The sampling frame was developed by working with an Agriculture Marketing and Consultation firm, DTN, which had the physical mailing, telephone, and email contact information of most producers in the selected counties. The researchers requested that each participant selected should have physical mailing contact information. Following sampling procedures recommendations by Krejcie and Morgan (1970), we needed a selected sample of 1200 for a 97% confidence interval and a 3% margin of error. Table 1 describes the sample frame. 

Table 1 Description of Sample Frame 

Description of Frame  Sample Numbers 
Original sample frame  1200
Cleaned sample frame: Undeliverable 23
Cleaned sample frame: Not interested  3
Cleaned sample frame: no longer farming or not a farmer 37
Surveys discarded: deceased   12
Surveys discarded: blank  124
The final count of sample  1001

 Survey data for the study was collected from May to July 2022 following a modification of Dillman’s five-point, Tailored Design Method (Dillman, Smyth, & Christian, 2014). Four mailings of the survey and accompanying documents occurred over the data collection period to reduce survey non-response. On May 27, 2022, a pre-notification was mailed to all 1200 participants. Five days later, on June 1, 2022, a survey packet that included the survey instrument, a cover letter, and a postage-paid return envelope was mailed to all 1200 participants. Two weeks after the initial mailing, on June 17th, a reminder notification was mailed to participants who were yet to respond to the survey. At the end of the first mailing (June 20), a total of 67 usable surveys had been received. Approximately, three weeks later, on July 1, 2022, a second survey packet was sent to the remaining participants. No reminder was sent to the non-respondent due to logistical constraints and the survey ended on July 30th, 2022. In total, 162 out of the clean data sample of 1001 were used for analysis. The response rate (16.18%) for the survey was low compared to other studies that used farmer surveys (e.g., Reimer & Prokopy, 2012). 

To ensure the reliability of the survey instrument, Cronbach’s alpha was run on two key questions reported in the study: 1) Motivation for EQIP participation, 2) Attitude, and 3) Perceived Barriers to EQIP participation. Table 2 shows Cronbach’s alpha for the main survey reported for EQIP participants and EQIP non-participants respectively.  

Table 2 Reliability Report for Key Variables 

Concept  Number of items  Cronbach’s alpha 
    EQIP Participants EQIP non-participants 
Motivation  16 .900 .983
Attitude  7 .847 .956
Barriers to program participation  15 .832 .884

Data analysis 

This section of the report describes the different approaches used in analyzing the data collected to address the different research objectives that guided the project. These analytical approaches are organized according to the data type.  

In-depth interview data analysis: The interview data for Objectives One, Two and Three were coded following Case Study coding methods (Creswell & Poth, 2018) using the qualitative software package NVIVO (Version 12, QSR International, Doncaster, Australia). Three of the transcripts were randomly selected and read through to develop a general sense of the participant’s responses to the research questions and identify any patterns or concepts that exist (Yin, 2014). Initial codes were developed deductively using participants' words and descriptions (in Vivo coding) for each transcript for recurring themes based on the research questions. These initial codes were organized and used to develop the codebook for coding the remaining transcripts, and the codebook was revised when new codes were identified. Significant initial codes were identified from the previous step to establish patterns and similarities between two or more codes identified for each transcript (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Yin, 2014). Similar codes were grouped together to form subthemes, and superordinate themes were created by grouping the subthemes based on the research question and the conceptual framework (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Yin, 2014).  Trustworthiness and dependability of the study findings was established through intercoder reliability. Following recommendations by Cofie, Braund, and Dalgarmo (2022) and O’Connor and Joffe (2020), a second coder with no knowledge about the interview transcripts but experienced in coding qualitative data was engaged to code a sample of the interview transcripts. The coder randomly selected and coded three transcripts using the initial codebook developed (Cofie, Braund, & Dalgarmo, 2022). The two coders met to discuss the codes in two separate meetings, and codes and themes were revised when needed to adequately reflect participants' responses and the themes identified. I used quantifiers such as “a few,” “some” and most” when reporting the findings to give readers a sense of how spread the perspectives are among interview participants (Chikowore and Kerr, 2020).   

Document analysis: All the identified documents reviewed for the research were analyzed manually using applied thematic analysis procedures guided by the interview codes as well as allowing new codes to emerge (Guest, MacQueen, & Namey, 2012; Mackieson, Shlonsky, & Connolly, 2019). Each relevant document was read through to make sense of the document's content. Next, initial themes were noted, and appropriate codes were generated (Mackieson, Shlonsky, & Connolly, 2019). The documents were reviewed carefully, and codes were revised when necessary. Similar codes were organized under relevant subthemes, and similar subthemes under a common broader theme to address the research objectives with the aim of seeking convergence and corroboration by comparing the two data sources (Bowen, 2009; Mackieson, Shlonsky, & Connolly, 2019). To establish the credibility of the study findings,  verbatim quotes from the interviews and extracts from the documents analyzed are used when necessary to support the study findings (Chikowore and Kerr, 2020).  

Farmer survey data analysis: The survey data were analyzed using descriptive statistics such as frequencies, percentages, and means. In addition, inferential statistics such as independent samples t-test was used to analyze the difference in participants’ responses for non-response error. The resulting themes and codes from qualitative interviews were further compared with survey responses to identify areas of similarity and differences for Objective three (Creswell & Poth 2018; Yeboah 2014).   


Research results and discussion:

This section of the report presents the findings of the research, and they are organized according to the research objectives and/or research questions. 

Result for Objective 1: Examine how national priorities of natural resources conservation affect the structure and implementation strategies of the program at the state and local level and the overall program success overtime at these levels.  

To address this objective, I utilized data from interviews with conservation managers at federal, state, and local levels and program document analysis to explore the extent to which EQIP planning and implementation processes follow four concepts of environmental governance: adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning; knowledge co-production; acknowledgment of new actors and their roles; and accountability and legitimacy, as shown below:  

Adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning   

The findings of the interview data and document analysis showed opportunity for adaptation, flexibility, and learning in EQIP planning, administration, and implementation processes. From the document analysis, it was evident that NRCS is encouraged to establish structures (e.g., State Technical Advisory Committee, Local work group meetings, etc.) that allows the participation of diverse conservation stakeholders to engage in reflective activities and discussions about program processes and practices. Here, these diverse stakeholders give their input perceived to be relevant for program decision-making. Input refers to the knowledge and expertise of the stakeholders in relation to the agri-environmental program planning and implementation. The established structures give the opportunity for NRCS and the participating stakeholders to learn about new knowledge about the environmental issues necessary for making revisions and adapting/adjusting the policy and program actions to changing socio-ecological conditions and program participants’ needs. There exist formal and informal avenues for the NRCS at the federal, state, and local levels to engage with the public, other state, and non-state conservation actors to learn about new knowledge about environmental problems and how to address the problem through the program and identify probable ways to adapt management practices to the new knowledge gained. The formal avenues include public comments, consultative meetings,  

 NRCS at the federal, state, and local levels is mandated through program legislative and guiding documents to encourage the public, state, and non-state conservation organizations to share their observations, knowledge, and feedback about program practices during review periods to ascertain what can be changed or maintained about programs to enhance success. Observations, knowledge, and feedback could be provided on priority resource concerns, conservation practices to address identified resource concerns, program application ranking criteria, payment rates, economic and environmental impacts of conservation practices and programs, program rules and regulations, conservation and technical concerns and needs of diverse program audience such as historically underserved groups and individuals.  

Depending on the nature of the recommended adjustments [ that is if the recommendation falls within mandatory or discretionary authority], NRCS may have the mandate to make the change in a particular funding cycle or wait for when the whole Farm Bill is being reviewed to forward these recommendations to Congress for adjustments in the program, what they deem appropriate. For example, decisions regarding program rule changes recommended by members of the public or non-state actors cannot be made by the NRCS and may have to be forwarded to Congress particularly if these inputs are received by NRCS after the program rules have been finalized. There was a consensus among participants that congressional mandates and limitations on NRCS influenced the incorporation of recommendations at the different levels of decision making as explained by a participant:   

“... but you need to realize that the degree of flexibility they have in making actual program changes, is driven to a large degree by what's in their federal rule makings and the congressional mandates. That you just can't take EQIP and use those resources for something that's not consistent with those federal mandates. It has to be wholly consistent with what Congress has given them money for, and what they've tasked them with, and with the rule making that they make. So, while these programs that the state and local level can be modified to some minor degrees, what happens at the local level is primarily driven by what the congressional mandates and the federal rule makings are.” – [Interview 14].   

Interview participants expressed the significant role of collaboration or partnerships and public participation in learning and making program adjustments where necessary in addressing resource concerns through information and knowledge sharing. Participants mentioned several instances where knowledge and information shared with NRCS has led to program adjustments at the federal, state, and local levels as explained by this participant:  

“Well, I think one big change was because of an outside agency. We've always offered higher payment rates for historically underserved for like, I don't remember how many farm bills now. And they can also receive advanced payments to help procure the supplies and get the contractors in place. But there weren't a lot of people using that feature. So outside group did some poll data. They ask for data, and we give it to them, and they do an analysis. They came back and said, hey, you guys are doing really bad in this area. There's not a whole lot of people using this feature. So, it was written into statues .... We now have at offer on an item -by -item basis to any historically underserved producer, the advanced payment… It's the option for the advanced payment. Because it just wasn't being utilized compared to the number of EQIP producers, advanced payments is really low. So that's something an outside agency brought to our attention. And so, we now have built that into our training and into our software. There's a check box that has to be checked by the producer.” - [Interview 2]  

Participants opined that sometimes adaptations to programs can occur when there is a change in the political leadership and/or a new congress. Adaptations in programs due to changes in political power were perceived as posing a challenge to program planning, implementation, and administration. Some participants opined that this change could potentially affect program continuity from previous program priorities, and funding particularly when the present administration’s goals for conservation is a departure from their predecessor’s. Others expressed that sometimes such change can lead to a focus on funding short-term program priorities that have limited impact on resource concerns in the long term. Consequently, some participants expressed the importance of keeping politics out of the program to minimize administration and implementation constraints as opined by these participants:  

It's existed this long for a reason and has been vital in making sure that our political nature that has developed over the last decade and a half or so, doesn't mess this up in a way that is detrimental to farmers and ranchers who are looking to continue to do good work. – [Interview 10]  

And so, it's difficult to help implement the program when it's changing every four years, or the priorities of the program are changing, or the different funding targets we have are changing. And so sometimes it can be a little bit constraining on really implementing the program the way you want to when it changes every four years.” – [Interview 5]  

Other constraints to learning, flexibility, and adaptability, of program processes discussed were timelines for funding allocation and inadequate communication at the state and local level formal meetings between NRCS and collaborating partners, stakeholders, and individuals. With respect to the former, a participant indicated the time between receiving funding allocation and obligating funds to address resource concerns is often short and unrealistic, leaving NRCS at the state level less time to seek input from their partners and the public in making strategic plans for using funds. With respect to communication, some participants were of the view that communication at formal meetings could be improved by NRCS at the state and local levels by being intentional about soliciting inputs from stakeholders and collaborators at meetings, listening to the opinions of these stakeholders, taking their recommendations into consideration, and providing feedback on the relevance of such inputs to program decisions. As shared by this participant:   

“I would say that mostly NRCS is presenting information about their programs and isn't really seeking much input, from others. And I think other states might have state technical committee meetings that have much more input.” – [Interview 8].   

Finally, the lack of time to organize information sessions for the farming community about conservation program policy and associated changes was identified as a constraint. This constraint, according to a participant, resulted in inadequate knowledge within the farmer community about the conservation program policies and the changes that may have occurred to the program, particularly at the state level. Consequently, farmer participants of the State Technical Committee who had limited knowledge and understanding about program policies rarely contributed to discussions about areas of the program that needed tweaking or adjusting to reflect broader state priority resource concerns as expressed by this interviewee:   

“But you know… one of the things that I think I would wish we had time for that I find that we lack time for is to educate our producers on some of our program policies and what's coming before the State Technical Committee so that they... many times when we have producers at those meetings, they're more quiet than maybe we would want them to be just because they're not as familiar with our programs. So, there's probably a need if I'd like to do anything I'd like to educate more of our producers, so that they're as knowledgeable as our other partners on program needs and programmatic requirements and that kind of thing. Because sometimes I think they're quieter and that lack of knowledge maybe or that feeling that maybe they know what happened on their farm and they liked it-... Or in their forest but they don't feel like they can speak universally across the state naturally.” – [Interview 1] 

Knowledge co-production  

The analyses of the program documents and interview responses show that there is an opportunity for knowledge co-production between Congress, NRCS, and diverse actors and stakeholders with an interest in conservation with respect to Farm Bill programs, such as EQIP. At the state and local levels, knowledge generation covered key issues related to program implementation as observed in 7 CFR § 1466.2, a federal regulation that guides program administration and implementation:    

“NRCS supports locally-led conservation by soliciting input from the STC and TCAC at the State Level, and the local working groups at the county, parish, or Tribal level to advise on issues relating to implementation – program priorities and criteria; priority resource concerns; BMPs to treat identified resource concerns; and recommendations for program payment rates for payment schedules” – [7 CFR § 1466.2]  

Knowledge generation occurs during reviews of the program policy and implementation practices at the different stages of the program cycle to increase the likelihood of success. At the congressional level when the farm bill is being debated for reauthorization, knowledge from consultants, non-state actors, individuals, and agricultural stakeholders based on their expertise is solicited to improve understanding of agri-environmental problems of priority, and evaluate the environmental and socio-economic impact of past approaches for addressing the priority problems as observed and experienced across the nation by the public such as program target users, conservation stakeholders, and state and non-state conservation actors. For instance, some non-state actors encourage farmers to share information with their members of congress regarding improvements they would like to see in a new farm bill with respect to resource concern priorities, funding allocations, and eligibility requirements, among others. In the same vein, the NRCS at the federal level will engage with Congress through the Senate and House Agriculture Committee about different knowledge and information that has been collated about the farm bill programs through their partners and other stakeholders and agree on what can be achieved with the new farm bill based on the authorities and the financial resources afforded to the agency by congress.   

Participants indicated that at the State level, review of the program occurs through formal avenues including the State Technical Committee and Sub-committees and the Local Work Group meetings that occur at the district and/or county levels. At the committee and work group meetings, participants are encouraged to share their knowledge and observations about the program administration and implementation practices and outcomes. Although participation in the committee meetings is opened to any individual and or organization with interest in conservation, it was evident that “many of the members are generally a lot of government and non-government organizations that come together” – [Interview 1] to participate in the State Technical Committee and Sub-committees as well as the Local work group meetings.  

There are other informal opportunities like office visits, phone calls, etc. where other state actors, non-state actors, and agricultural stakeholders can engage with the NRCS in sharing information and knowledge about program implementation. Through these avenues, knowledge of context-specific resource concerns was identified and shared, input on program eligibility requirements based on local geological and socio-economic conditions was shared, partnerships were formed, and funding from non-state actors and agricultural stakeholder organizations secured to partly support conservation efforts as reported by some participants.   

Generally, there was agreement among some participants that opportunities for knowledge and information sharing from diverse actors and stakeholders were good for conservation program planning and implementation processes, and increased stakeholders’ willingness to participate in setting conservation priorities. A study participant expresses these sentiments by saying: 

“… We value their input. They, unfortunately, at times they don't... Well, they do not have any bottom-line decision making on what programs are going to address, what concerns or how much funding, but we value their input based on their expertise, their knowledge, and the fields that they represent, their organizations or conservation districts they come to. We value, greatly, their input. Their decisions that can help us, partner with us on various EQIP product programs… But yeah, they don't have a bottom line to say on what gets funded, who does what from our point of view, but we do value their input in helping us make these decisions and make suggestions, recommendations, things that maybe we don't think about. And we're encouraged and required to go to them.” – [Interview 12] 

Despite these efforts at knowledge co-production, some participants believed not all organizations or agricultural stakeholders could fully participate in the knowledge generation process. At the national level, a participant opined that diverse stakeholders who face constraints with respect to membership numbers and funding to pay for non-state actors to advocate for their needs and interest during farm bill review may not have their voices heard in Congress. Another participant opined that not all new knowledge obtained during the committee and work group meetings are incorporated into program decision making at the state and local levels. This observation was attributed to the lack of understanding about the policies and regulations that guide program decision making and implementation at these levels among some participants. At both the state and local levels of program administration and implementation, inadequate diversity among non-state actor and conservation stakeholder participants was identified as a challenge to knowledge co-production.  

Actors and their roles  

The involvement of diverse actors is important for the effective planning and implementation of EQIP to address the negative environmental externalities resulting from agricultural activities from working farmlands. From the document analysis, it was evident that the active involvement of other state actors, non-state actors, and other relevant stakeholders interested in improving the environmental performance of agriculture was strongly encouraged. These actors ranged from federal or state agencies, Indian tribes, conservation districts, public or private non-profit organizations, farm commodity organizations and associations, individual farmers, watershed groups, as well as any private individual with an interest in conservation activities related to agricultural production. Participation of diverse actors is perceived as “an integral part of planning or major decision-making process which provides opportunities for the public to be involved with NRCS in an interchange of data and ideas” (General Manual Title 400, Public participation).   

The role of diverse actors is clearly defined and can broadly be categorized into two. The first role involves the actors serving as advisors to the NRCS and Congress on Farm Bill program issues. Key among this advisory role includes recommending priority resource concerns that are worth addressing through the EQIP, best management practices (BMPs) for addressing the resource concerns, ranking criteria for selecting farmers for program funding, and payments rates for BMPs supported by EQIP based on needs of farmers and the federal, state, and the local area. At the Congressional level, some of the non-state actors engage in lobbying on behalf of farmers and provide consultancy service to members of congress in the Agriculture Committee upon request during the planning and development of a new Farm Bill. One interview participant explains:   

“Our organization has become a well-known conservation group that legislators can turn to if they have questions about policy wording and bills, and they regularly call on us to see where we stand on something if they want to decide how they need to vote.” – [Interview 3].  

At the Federal level, the diverse actors provide public comments on the interim Farm Bill to the NRCS during procedures to finalize a newly authorized Farm Bill when advertised in the Federal register. NRCS additionally holds listening to sessions with members of the public, particularly minority groups in select states to solicit inputs from community members and provide informal avenues such as face-to-face meetings with NRCS national office leaders for non-state actors and conservation stakeholders to share their recommendations about the programs. At the state level, the actors play this advisory role through their participation in State Technical Advisory Committee as well as the local workgroup meetings. NRCS encourages the performance of the advisory role by non-state actors and other stakeholders by organizing public meetings, and seminars, as well as “using a variety of techniques to solicit and encourage engagement of the diverse actors with a wide variety of viewpoints” – (General Manual Title 400 Public Participation Coordination).   

The second role involves the state and non-state agencies assisting the NRCS at the state level to administer and implement EQIP. These partner agencies bridge the gap between NRCS and the farm community in the provision of services to potential program participants in areas of technical and financial assistance as well as conducting program outreach to farmers through collaborative partnerships. As indicated in the 7 CFR § 1466.2:   

“NRCS my enter into agreements with other Federal or State Agencies, Indian Tribes, conservation district, units of local government, public or private organizations, acequias, and individuals to assist with the program administration/implementation.”  

These partnership arrangements enable the NRCS to achieve greater conservation outcomes by working with these agencies compared to if they were working alone. For instance, there are limitations on the financial support NRCS provides to potential EQIP participants due to institutional policies that guide program administration and implementation. The partnerships with diverse conservation agencies often provide financial support that lessens the financial “burden” that farmers must bear in investing in conversation as explained by this interview participant:   

“Let us just say a local county conservation district, they are a local government entity, but they are a big help in helping us reach out to the local communities. So, good outcomes from this organization or these partnerships is, we work together with these applicants that we receive. Sometimes we assist each other with the workload, surveying, planning, design, implementation, all takes individuals to be part of that big process, … they help a project come about in a manner that we are able to then move forward. If it is a large project and we cannot cover the full cost because of our payment rates, they can come alongside of us, …to help us ease the pain, the financial burden, … to the landowner or the farmer. These projects, some of them, where you have major nutrient resource concerns, could be not hundreds of thousands, but millions of dollars. And when we have EQIP contract payment limitation of $450,000, that is 450,000 that is established in the farm bill.” – [Interview 12]  

It was evident during the interviews and document analysis that decision-making authority with respect to program administration and implementation is exclusive to the NRCS at the three levels depending on the issue at stake. Although, the other state and non-state agencies play crucial roles in EQIP program planning and implementation, they have no decision-making and enforcement powers.   

Challenges to collaboration and partnerships between NRCS and state and non-state agencies in addressing environmental issues through EQIP were identified during the interviews at the state and local levels. Some participants expressed that sometimes there are disagreements and conflicts between the collaborating actors on various aspects of program administration and implementation. They indicated that disagreements would result from the wide and diverse perspectives, interests, and philosophies that the different collaborating actors bring to the process. While disagreements may arise, often the partners are able to reach a consensus to move the process forward. A few participants expressed situations where conflicts between NRCS and collaborating agencies have not been resolved, lingering on for years and unduly affecting collaboration. An interview participant expresses this sentiment:   

“And I feel like it seems as though just for as an outsider that there's perhaps different perspectives or different priorities, and a different philosophy too mainly. I think it is a deep, long historical conflict, and it probably ... It is something that has been many, many, many years in the making. And it is probably not unique just to Pennsylvania. I imagine it is something that is nationwide. Just that county conservation districts do things one way and then NRCS does it another way. And sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they just do their own thing.”- [Interview 6]  

Although EQIP is targeted at farmers, there was a general agreement among participants that farmer participation at the national, state, and local levels during program planning and implementation collaborative processes were inadequate. At the state and local level, it was evident that limited farmer participation in committee and workgroup meetings could be attributed to the timing and frequency of these meetings. The state technical committee (STC) meets once every quarter of the year usually at the State capital with options for virtual participation while the local working group meets once a year at a designated location in the county. Some of the participants indicated that in situations where farmers participate in such collaborative opportunities, there was inadequate representation “across all farmer demographics” – [Interview 10]. Some participants explained that the farmers that tend to participate in these fora are those that operate large-scale farms as opined by this participant: 

“And I think the farmers who participate in the state technical committee are mostly; they come from very large farms. So, you do not have the smaller scale farms or farmers of color participating as actively as others”- [Interview 8].  

A few of the participants expressed that communication and information sharing between NRCS and partners is sometimes difficult. For instance, they indicated that sometimes communication from NRCS to its partners about Farm Bill policy changes does not trickle down as expected and on time leaves them unaware of policy changes. Participants opined that inadequate communication about program changes and available opportunities for public participation could negatively influence who participates in the collaborative process and could undermine NRCS’ ability to receive input from diverse interest groups and individuals. In addition, some participants expressed concern about the extent to which suggestions from stakeholders/actors at local levels are communicated and incorporated into decisions at the state and federal levels. They opined that there was no feedback on the use of local suggestions and were concerned that the multilevel nature of EQIP could hinder the vertical transfer of information from the local level through to the top levels of decision-making or that local concerns may not be forwarded to higher-ups as indicated by this participant:  

“And there weren't a really good next steps to get that up to the state. And it probably varies state by state, some states might do a better job than others. So that to me was always a point that could be improved. Getting that local info up to the states. And at least recognize whether they use it or not just let those districts know, hey, we got your input, we appreciate it. This is what we are doing. We cannot do whatever. So that was just something that's always been in the back of my mind, how can we make that better.” [Interview 2]  

Accountability and legitimacy  

The sources of legitimacy of EQIP were varied and included the active participation of diverse individuals and non-state agencies with an interest in conservation at the different levels of decision-making, funding commitments from the federal government, as well as funding and technical support from state and non-state conservation agencies. All the interview participants acknowledged the authority and legitimacy of the NRCS at the federal, state, and local levels to lead the planning and implementation of EQIP as mandated by the US Congress and legislative instruments. Further, they acknowledged the limitations of NRCS to make transformative changes to rules and regulations that guide program implementation. Participants acknowledged that all NRCS decisions related to the program must be in tandem with federal and congressional rules and regulations guiding the program. Participants commented about the limitations congressional mandates placed on the capacity of NRCS to make changes to EQIP and limited the extent to which stakeholder input could be incorporated into program decisions. They explained that these limitations were necessary to achieve program goals as set by Congress given that EQIP is a national program sponsored with tax-payer funds.  The legitimacy of the role of NRCS was affirmed by partners playing the roles assigned them by Congressional mandate as stated in program document reviewed for the study.  

Program accountability rests with the NRCS which is mandated and authorized by Congress and Legislative instruments to have oversight responsibilities for EQIP. From the interviews, some participants indicated that accountability encompasses NRCS ensuring that statutory mandates for the programs are met and balanced during program administration and implementation, particularly at the state and local levels. Meeting program statutory mandates include ensuring that program funds are disbursed according to laid down criteria, the right conservation practices to address local environmental issues were identified and funded, conservation outcomes are measured and communicated to stakeholders, and that rules governing program implementation are followed. Accountability means that NRCS and its partners can show evidence that program goals for each funding cycle were achieved and share these outcomes among all the stakeholders of the program at the various levels of decision making. For instance, one interview participant opines that:   

“We get the annual reports to make sure that the targets are achieved. And a lot of that goes into reports that go to Congress … So, if something were to throw a red flag that certain states are not hitting the marks that they should be shooting for, or if we as an agency are not hitting what we are supposed to be achieving, yes, we would definitely be racking up those efforts quickly- [Interview 13]  

A few interview participants expressed that measuring the success of the program over the years has been challenging. Some of the constraints to accountability relate to complexities associated with the resource priorities the programs seek to address. Other constraints relate to efforts to ensure that diversity goals regarding farmers who participate in EQIP are achieved through collaboration and partnership with other conservation actors/organizations. With respect to measuring resource concerns outcomes, a few participants expressed that stakeholders continue to show interest in the impact of conservation programs funded with taxpayer funds to conserve natural resources. However, there appears to be contention among stakeholders about which evidence is adequate to prove the impact of conservation programs, how to identify this evidence, as well as how to measure program impact.  As opined by this participant:   

“… as I was talking about having $4.5 billions of taxpayer funding to do conservation investment on private property. It makes sense that a lot of people want to know what we are getting for that kind of taxpayer investment. And natural resource management is extremely complicated. When you think about soil health and soil quality alone, there is a lot of debate on, well, how do you measure it? Is it aggregate stability? Is it organic matter content? Is it available water capacity? Is it soil moisture capacity? Is it some other metric that has to do with soil biology?  … And when you are looking at all the variation, the 70,000 kinds of soils out there across the landscape, all the infinite combinations of resource concerns, conservation practices and land use, it is a very complicated web of answers that we're trying to pursue as far as the impact of conservation practices.” – [Interview 11]  

Inability to follow up on program participants was identified as a constraint to accountability. The study suggests that following up with EQIP participants was important for evaluating their experiences with the program regarding their satisfaction with the program processes and monitor the performance of BMPs supported through the program as reflected in the response below from a participant:   

“… Once we get through the funding cycle, we may not always get a chance to go back to this client and say, how did this work out? Did this meet your needs? Are you satisfied? But to me, if we could somehow, and I think as an agency, we're getting more into after effect that's the big thing with the Farm Bill. Analyzing we do what we say we do.”  – [Interview 1]  

Given that EQIP relies on collaboration and partnership between NRCS and other conservation agencies to meet locally identified conservation needs, some participants expressed how these partnering agencies have assisted NRCS in meeting accountability goals. For instance, a participant mentioned how some state agencies helped to monitor and measure the program impact on water quality in impaired watersheds at the local level through information sharing. Other participants explained that non-state conservation agencies and a broad array of relevant stakeholders could play a role in accountability “to help us gather more empirical data to determine the impact of these conservation practices” – [Interview 11].  

Results of Objective two: Examine the different factors that facilitate and or constraint the ability of NRCS and conservation field staff to conduct recruitment and outreach activities to secure the participation of farmers in EQIP. 

The section reports the findings from interviews with conservation field staff at the local level regarding their perspectives on diverse stakeholder participation in EQIP planning and implementation practices at the local level, approaches and challenges to outreach, and barriers to EQIP implementation at the local level. 

Perspectives about recruitment and outreach approaches and information delivery methods  

A review of NRCS policy documents and EQIP implementation manual showed that each state office of the agency has the flexibility to select appropriate information delivery channels and methods suited to their local conditions in disseminating program information to clients. During the interviews, participants were asked for their perspectives about how farmers learn about EQIP and what outreach approaches are used to create awareness and educate farmers about the program. From the analysis, it was evident that NRCS works closely with its partner agencies – state agencies and non-state agencies- to conduct outreach to farmers and at other times conduct outreach independently of each other. Both interpersonal and mass communication channels are used in information dissemination to producers depending on the outreach intent. For instance, the NRCS through its field staff will participate in agricultural fairs, farm shows, town hall meetings, fall annual meetings, spring information meetings, among others organized by its partner agencies to create awareness about programs they administer to farmers to support the conservation efforts. Typically, they set up booths at such mass or public events to share information with attendants. Sometimes they will make radio and/or television announcements to create awareness, when possible, to promote existing and new programs that may be of interest to farmers. Other times, the NRCS will send information to farmers through print media avenues such as postcards, flyers, pamphlets, news articles in agricultural magazines such as the Lancaster farming magazine, and articles in district or county newsletters.     

Additionally, group methods such as workshops, field days, and farmer meetings are organized at the county level. Workshops and meetings are often organized to inform participating farmers about program changes that have occurred, BMPs that are funded by the programs, and share other relevant program information. Field days are mostly organized to demonstrate practice implementation or the results of a practice to farmers attending these events. The organization of the field days are often spearheaded by NRCS partner organizations, although sometimes the NRCS county offices may lead the organization of such events. Sometimes the NRCS participates in workshops organized by farmer-based organizations (e.g., Farm Bureau County offices) to share information with farmers, particularly new farmers, about local agri-environmental issues of concern, EQIP program goals, application timelines, requirements, and eligibility as well as address any concerns that farmers may have about the conservation programs.  

During the interviews it was apparent that individual methods were also used in educating farmers about NRCS and the different conservation programs they administer (e.g., EQIP) as well as to answer farmers’ questions about technical and financial assistance and program processes. These methods included farm visits of conservation field staff of NRCS and partner agencies, office visits by farmers, phone calls, and emails. Farm visits are often conducted when a farmer has expressed interest in participating in EQIP for financial assistance to undertake conservation on their farms. During these visits, conservation field officers evaluate the resource concerns of the farm and together with the farmer make decisions about BMPs that could be used to address the concerns. Further the field staff shares information with farmers about programs they may be eligible for based on the resource concerns identified and application procedures. Notably, the interview analysis showed that among NRCS and its partner agencies “word of mouth” has been the key approach to outreach and recruitment for programs. With this approach NRCS and other conservation partners rely on information spreading among the farming community through the testimony of farmers who have had experience with the agency. With this approach, conservation field staff rely on the relationship and trust built with the farmers to spread program information.  While this approach often gets other farmers interested in receiving government assistance to undertake conservation on their farm, there is a risk of the right information not being shared in cases when program rules and regulations may have changed, or a farmer may have had an unpleasant experience with staff of these agencies (this is discussed further under challenges to EQIP implementation).  One participant explains:  

“So, they hear about a program that paid for putting a water system in for their pastures or putting fencing up along a Creek. That that message gets out fairly quickly through the, through the, just word of mouth. And then I would say that at our extension programs, especially at my winter crops day, where we have through 400 farmers at, and I have the NRCS go … through their programs, … you know, this is what's gonna be available for 2023 X, Y, and Z programs. Here's changes to EQIP... That creates an awareness. And then they start talking at the meeting and then that usually spills over to other farmers that maybe have gotten awarded a grant or an EQIP contract. And then they say, well, how did it go with you? And that's how, that's how it rolls usually” – [Interview 17]  

The participants indicated that often approaches described above are used to carry out outreach to general farm populations and often spearheaded by NRCS partner agencies. However, there were instances when NRCS conservation field staff in the various counties together with the State Outreach Coordinator has conducted targeted outreach using a mix of the approaches described above to reach specific farmer communities. The targeted communities or members of the farm population includes the historically underserved farmers, plain sect community members, and farmers within a watershed classified as a priority resource concern. Participants explained that targeted outreach are used for this community of farmers because they are usually cut off from the larger network of producers and may not be adequately informed about NRCS, what conservation programs they offer to farmers, and the benefits of BMPs adoption to their farm operation and locality. Targeted outreach is used to reach certain members of the plain communities because some per their cultural norms, and belief systems can interact with   government agencies and receive support for undertaking conservation on their farm to address resource concerns.   

The researcher further probed to find out from the conservation professionals if and what roles they play in convincing farmers whose program application has been selected for funding to sign the contract and get the project going. There was a consensus among NRCS conservation field staff that they played little to no role in getting a farmer to sign a contract. The little role they played centered around answering farmers’ questions about the technicalities of the contract and recommending (if asked) potential contractors that could help with the project if the BMP(s) being paid for is structural in nature and informing farmers of other partners or programs that could help pay for some of their out-of-pocket costs. They explained that the decision of a farmer to sign a contract depends largely on the out-of-pocket costs associated with the conservation project or practice, a farmers’ ability to pre-finance the project, and willingness to follow the terms and conditions in the contract. It should be noted that many of the conservation field staff (e.g., staff of Alliance for Chesapeake Bay) not employed by NRCS play a role in introducing farmers interested in NRCS programs to the agency and sometimes helping farmers to find additional sources of funding for their projects if they are successful with their EQIP applications. For the other conservation professionals that are contracted by NRCS, such as staff of Pheasants Forever, they provide technical assistance to the farmer.    

Perspectives about challenges to outreach and recruitment  

When asked about challenges they faced in conducting outreach to farmers, most of the conservation professionals interviewed expressed that they faced no challenges to outreach. However, a few of the participants mentioned low interest among farmers and poor attendance at outreach meetings, staff numbers, staff workload, and time constraints as some of the challenges to outreach. A participant articulated that outreach events may be unsuccessful due to disinterest within the farming population which results in poor attendance despite best efforts to organize and publicize these events to farmers. The participant explains:   

“Like I mentioned the CREP workshop in Clinton County, I mean, they had a whole meal, a catered meal and everything thinking that it would bring people there, and they got less than 10 people, maybe eight people coming. The people from the district and NRCS outnumbered the participants that came to learn about it. So, that's tough to spend a lot of time that could be spent on other priorities to coordinate something that isn't really well attended.” – [Interview 4]  

This participant explained that due to the limited staff numbers at the field office as well as the work that goes into planning, setting up, and coordinating outreach events, they are often constrained in leading outreach events. Further, the participants mentioned that priorities related to conservation planning and yearlong workloads related to program applications affect the time they have available to plan and lead in-person outreach activities. And often limited outreach activities are conducted in areas where there is an existing farmer awareness of and interest in the program.    

Perspectives about Challenges to EQIP Implementation  

The data analysis revealed a consensus across the different groups of interview participants regarding the weaknesses or challenges to EQIP implementation. The challenges identified were broadly categorized into two: Farmer-related challenges and Program-related challenges.   

Farmer-related Challenges  

First, most of the participants reported costs associated with program participation as a challenge to program implementation. They perceived farmers’ out of pocket costs for BMPs installation, particularly for livestock practices or cost-intensive practices, was the biggest challenge to getting farmers to sign the program contract. They explained that often farmers are ready and willing to work with NRCS to implement recommended BMPs to address identified environmental issues on the farm, however, the increasing costs of materials makes the practice less affordable to some farmers. With the increasing cost of materials, the stipulated percentage that NRCS must pay for the practice per program rules ends up being low/inadequate leading to higher costs for the farmer. And in situations that a farmer is unable to afford the out-of-pocket costs, they withdraw from participating in the program or defer participation until a time when they can afford as explained by this participant:  

“When looking at EQIP, those out-of-pocket costs, if they are going as far as the financial assistance route with the conservation programs. Yeah, that's the biggest challenge as of right now. Most times, they voluntarily work with us, so they're wanting to usually implement the things that I guess we're planning. So that's not usually a problem… And then sometimes when we do come to folks with funding, they're just not quite ready yet. So, we defer the application, and then it could take a while till we come back to them. But yeah, right now, everything's so expensive I guess it is. And the applications that we have, they have a fair amount of animal numbers. So therefore, it takes a lot more money to do them. So maybe we can only do one or two applications, go to funding” – [Interview 1]  

Additionally, participants articulated a view of cost of program participation in terms of opportunity cost associated with recommended BMPs use and resources needed to maintain the practice when farmer decides to go through with the program. With regards to opportunity cost, participants reported that the potential loss of benefit farmers may incur from changing their existing management practices to the new ways recommended by the program could constrain participation. With respect to the latter, a few participants expressed that farmers are required by contract terms and conditions to maintain the BMPs installed through the program for the contract period. However, from experience, farmers may not have the time, knowledge and skills set, and the financial resources needed to maintain BMPs installed, especially after the contract has expired. A participant illustrates this by saying:   

“but the biggest thing I hear from farmers is they don't have the time and they don't have the money, like even on a livestock crossing on a, through a stream where you have a stone walkway that goes down to the livestock crossing after so many years, the stone disappears and they just, they don't have the money to get more stone in there to fix that back up.” – [Interview 16]  

Further, participants explained the program requirements for farmers to pre-finance BMPs and be reimbursed after project completion and approval upon inspection sometimes affect farmers willingness to move forward with the contract. One participant report: “you know, who has, I don't know, 100, 200, $300,000 sitting to pay for this project and then wait until everything is done [to be reimbursed], which you can take a long time sometimes.” – [Interview 15].  

Second, most participants articulated anti-government sentiment among certain members of the farming community as a hindrance to program implementation. Some of the participants explained the anti-government sentiments as a culture of distrust for the government in general and an unwillingness to work with government conservation agencies by farmers who harbor such sentiments. These sentiments as reported by participants could largely be observed in rural counties that have many of their farmers politically identifying as conservatives, and it can be challenging in encouraging such people to voluntarily participate in government-sponsored programs” – [Interview 12].   

Another explanation for the anti-government sentiment was rooted in farmers being wary of working with government entities.  According to some participants, although these farmers may need the most help to address resource concerns, their position of not wanting to do anything with the government prevents them from receiving help.  Given that EQIP is a voluntary program there is not much NRCS and its partners can do but to persuade and nudge farmers to participate in the program to address their resources concerns. Other participants explained that some farmers may harbor anti-government sentiments because they perceive government agency conservation field staff “as government and as like the black cats and that we're going to tell them how to farm and how to live their lives.” – [Interview 8]. For this group of farmers, they are often from a line of farmers who have established an “accepted ways of managing the farm or farm tradition” through observing how earlier generations of farmers in the family or community managed the farm and are unlikely to change their ways of farming particularly when their operation has not suffered any negative consequences from those practices. A participant articulates this by saying: “We work with a lot of the people that are like, "This is the way my granddad did it. This is the way that it's been done all these years. I haven't had any issues. Why, why are you telling me how to farm?"”– [Interview 8]   

Finally, participants talked about inadequate awareness and information within the farming community about the NRCS as a conservation agency and what conservation program options are available to farmers through NRCS. This challenge is mainly prevalent within communities of socially disadvantaged and historically underserved farmers such as plain sect community members and Hispanic farmers. A participant attributed the lack of information within this community to disconnection of these populations from the larger community or network of farmers that could share program information with them. NRCS and its partners have taken steps to connect with these categories of producers (see the result on outreach practices).     

Program- related Challenges  

First, some participants of NRCS partner agencies mentioned staff turnover and numbers, staff attitude towards farmers, and staff general knowledge about farming as a potential challenge to program implementation. Some participants articulated that staff turnover can negatively affect relationships and trust building between NRCS and the farmers the agency seeks to serve, particularly in counties where such turnover is a rampant occurrence. Additionally, staff turnover can negatively impact a field office’s ability to achieve the goal of getting farmers to participate in the program and get BMPs installed on farms across counties in the commonwealth to address resource concerns. Further work in counties could be slowed if field officers in nearby counties must spend time in these counties coaching new staff about the nuances of the job. As opined by this participant:    

“Because a large portion of this job is building relationships with people, so you go out to corn day every year, you know people. You build that trust with people, so that way, when something goes wrong, they feel they can trust you to call you up. "Hey, can you come out and take a look at this?" And when you have a new employee every three years, that trust is never built. You can look at counties that have had people there for 10, 15, 20 plus years, and they are able to get more done than the counties that perpetually have a turnover. Nobody seemingly wants to talk about that issue. It's not necessarily programmatic wise, but it's a significant impact on how programs are implemented, because you have to have the trust that somebody feels like they can trust you to implement a $500,000, $250,000, $1,000,000 project.” – [Interview 9]  

Another issue highlighted by some participants was the lack of staff numbers. These participants were of the view that program delivery is constrained by the limited capacity of NRCS field staff and the county conservation district in some counties affecting their ability to take on more projects and “sometimes there is not enough capacity to do project management, to do follow ups, to complete engineering and design, you know, all that it's a very big part of the process.” – [Interview 15].  

Lack of staff numbers affects EQIP implementation with respect to outreach, project design turn around, and follow ups, often causing farmers to wait long periods to receive the needed technical support. With respect to staff attitudes towards farmers, a participant indicated that farmers appreciate working with staff members who are personable, showed positive attitudes towards farmers, and treated farmers well when consulted. However, farmers will refrain from seeking support from NRCS field office where farmers feel they are treated poorly. The participants went on to describe how farmers reported being frustrated by working with conservation field staff from NRCS as well as other conservation agencies and organizations with limited to no practical background in agriculture. They explained that hiring people out of college with no experience in farming created knowledge gaps that may require regular training of such staff to bridge the gap and enable them to understand farming.   

Second, some participants reported limited communication and outreach from NRCS and partner agencies to farmers regarding program changes and nuances of program requirements for farmer participation in EQIP. Some participants explained that for some farmers that may be aware of EQIP and the existence of NRCS, they may have inadequate understanding about how the program operates and the requirements expected of a potential farmer. This inadequate understanding of the program and its processes could stem from language barriers and technical jargon and language that is used in writing program documents. Changing program rules and regulations as well as changing BMPs supported by the program and the NRCS and its partners’ ability to timely communicate these changes to potential program participants could potentially impact knowledge among farmers.  Since the NRCS and its partner agencies rely heavily on word of mouth to communicate program information with farmers, there are chances that the right information may not be communicated within the farming community. This inadequate communication could lead to misunderstanding about program processes among farmers as explained by this participant:   

“… and then getting the information out. I know that's just across the board. Something that everybody kind of fights with is getting the right information out to everybody. That's something we struggle with as an organization, that something that DEP, NRCS, county conservation districts often have a hard time getting the correct information out. You often see word of mouth where somebody who may not fully understand a program is talking to somebody else about... They may misunderstand a certain thing and it'd be taken as a negative and then they talk with other folks, and it turns into there's wrong information out there. That would be a major... I've seen that a couple of times just where the information that’s out there not necessarily correct. So that's, I would say one weakness, but that's a difficult one to address.” – [Interview 11]  

Third, some participants admitted that the EQIP works to address resource concerns across the commonwealth and counties, however, inadequate program funds could constrain program implementation. They explained that across the commonwealth and in certain counties, there exist a high interest among the farmer population for the program, however, limited funding makes it impossible to meet the demand for the program severely limiting the number of applications that can be funded by the program and NRCS ability to take in more contracts through EQIP to address the different resource concerns, such as water quality. As succinctly expressed by this participant: “what I think the challenge is, is not enough funding. I mean, the program itself works really well, but there's only so much funding in these pools, and there's more potential interest than there is ability to fund that interest.” – [Interview 12]. A participant expressed that inadequate program funding could hinder NRCS’ ability to follow up on EQIP participants to assess farmers’ compliance with program rules and regulations regarding practice use and maintenance.  

Fourth, most of the participants expressed that bureaucratic processes that characterize program application and participation is a turn off to some potential program participants. As explained by participants, the bureaucratic process of farmers having to work with NRCS and the FSA to establish eligibility to participate in EQIP and receive payments gets complicated and confusing to some farmers. Given that program applicants must be held to a certain standard, the complexities inherent in the eligibility and application processes may be necessary although it leads to a lot of paperwork and red tape for potential participants. Further, as the program does not fund applications on a first come first served basis, there is a need for the staff to collect adequate information about applicants necessary for ranking applications and deciding on which of the projects merits funding resulting in application complexities. Some participants expressed that the amount of paperwork needed to be completed to enable a farmer to apply to the program, as well as the technical language and documentation that a farmer must familiarize themselves with in the program processes for participation can be discouraging. As explained by this participant:   

“As I'd spoken about before, some of the barriers, you have to go to this agency to do this, and then you have to go to this agency to do this. And I think it can get confusing sometime. If you have the correct forms for the correct year, and that type of thing. I don't know how I would resolve that. But I could see that being a weakness.” – [Interview 3].  

Fifth, participants identified inflexible program rules, regulations, and internal policies as a potential challenge to program implementation. From the analysis, it was apparent that over the years EQIP has become more refined and sophisticated with rigid regulations, thus affecting some farmers’ willingness to participate in the program. For instance, participants mentioned that funding for BMPs like manure storage provided through the program requires that all streams and or open water sources on the farm have a 35-foot buffer along them, an internal NRCS policy requirement which some farmers are unwilling comply with and decline to be funded by the program. Also, a participant articulated that the presence of small seedlings on the farm as buffers makes farms appear untidy and unkept leading some farmers to dislike the requirement for stream buffer. In addition, participants expressed that rules and policies followed by NRCS to ensure consistency in the way the program is implemented across the state and counties, for instance the engineering and design of structural practices, reflect lack of flexibility and recognition of the heterogeneity of farmers and weather and climatic conditions farmers are saddled with.   

Additionally, some participants reported that a lack of flexibility in the BMPs supported by EQIP and cost-share payment rate as a potential challenge to program implementation. Participants expressed that agriculture, and its attendant environmental impacts are changing, however, it appears that NRCS policies have been slow to catch up with the change regarding funding new BMPs. For instance, it is an internal NRCS policy not to fund Silvo pasture, a practice that could help improve wildlife diversity and improve water quality. Regarding payment rates, participants reported a lack of flexibility in the amount of cost-share that NRCS offers for projects and practices through EQIP and has been slow to adjust these rates for increased costs of materials and inflation as posited by a participant: “And obviously like funding now today's day and age, obviously with inflation and where we're at with inflation, you have EQIP may not have caught up quite.”- [Interview 8]. Participants recommended tweaks and adjustments in the program policy to make it more appealing and reflective of the changes occurring in agriculture.  

Finally, a participant reported that changes in political administration can affect the programs that are funded as well as the funds available to support farmers to undertake conservation on their farms by installing BMPs on their farms. Given that NRCS decisions at the state and local levels must align with national policies, the agency often will be constrained by what agri-environmental programs and resources concern that a particular political administration places priority on during its tenure. This change in program priorities and funding could hinder program continuity.  

Objective three: Identify motivators and constraints to farmers’ participation or non-participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. 

Motivation for EQIP Participation 

The EQIP program participants and some non-participants gave numerous reasons for participating in the program including financial and technical assistance, environmental benefits, meeting environmental regulations, social recognition, environmental stewardship, and farm sustainability and efficient farm management.   

Financial assistance or cost-share 

Many of the EQIP program participants (11 out of 14) indicated that cost-sharing to support their use of BMPs influenced their decision to participate in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Similarly, 6 out of 13 program non-participants indicated that cost-share will likely be the reason that other farmers will choose to participate in agri-environmental programs. Generally, the interview participants were of the view that BMPs were important in addressing resource concerns on their farms and their locality. However, the expensive nature of certain practices, particularly those designed for livestock production, makes it near impossible for farmers to singlehandedly install such practices on their farms. In addition, interview participants who espoused this view believe that farming has over the years become increasingly expensive due to rising input and labor costs, taxes, and other expenses leaving them with razor-thin profit margins. Thus, the cost-share makes it possible for farmers to undertake conservation which otherwise they would have had to put off. One farmer expresses this by saying:  

“Obviously, a big key for farmers in this area is the financial part that EQIP contributes to a project. If you have a 70% or 90% cost share, and their cost shares are usually very attractive, projects that wouldn't get done are now being done and thereby cleaning up some trouble spots, or manure water quality issues that previously wouldn't have been touched.”  - [Farmer 2, Lebanon County]. 

Environmental benefits 

All the program participants indicated that participation in conservation programs offered them the opportunity to improve their contribution to resource conservation on the farm and off the farm. With respect to on-farm environmental impact, interview participants indicated that practices supported by conservation programs enabled them to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff, control gully erosion, improve the population of microorganisms in the soil, increased water retention in the soil, better storage of manure to prevent leakages into groundwater as well as keeping livestock out of creeks or streams in or around their farms. 

Program participants explained that addressing these environmental resource concerns on their farms through programs yielded better outcomes for their farms and resulted in off-farm environmental benefits.  For instance, a farmer opines that:  

“I'm working on a project now; I'm trying to cover some existing barnyards to get away from the rain runoff. I've got some manure stacking area that controls runoff and I think that was a good thing for everybody also. So, in my experience it's helpful for the environment and for myself.” [Farmer 6, Lebanon County]. 

Other participants indicated that program participation helped their farms make contributions to local water quality improvement through the reduction of sediment runoff from their farms during rains. A participant illustrates the contribution of their farm to better water quality by saying:  

“And putting it under roof, so we didn't have to worry about the rain or runoff or anything else. Even then after a heavy rain, I know the streams running through my pastures were still clear. If it does turn brown, I know it's not coming from my property. It's coming from the property and the neighbors upstream.” [Farmer 2, Lebanon County] 

Technical assistance 

With regards to technical assistance (TA), all the EQIP participants expressed that their participation in the program enabled them to assess conservation knowledge and assistance crucial to their farms’ needs. Similarly, three out of 13 non-participants confirmed that programs provided technical assistance for conservation. They indicated that TA helped them to identify other environmental concerns on their farms that they did not know they had in addition to what problems they had sought support to address, access to a suite of appropriate practices to address identified concerns, and access to knowledgeable engineers to design the conservation practices suited for those identified concerns. Program participants generally agreed that the TA received through programs as good, tried and tested and suitable to reduce environmental and are rooted in sound scientific research and not the opinions of the engineers or conservation staff. The program non-participants affirm this by articulating that technical assistance from programs is good because it enables them to understand the environmental issues on their farms and select BMPs that are considered suited the needs of the farm and its goals of the farm. One farmer communicates the value of TA received as:  

“Yeah, just being able to see maybe problems that I didn't see. Something like one of those lane ways for my cows was rutting out, rainwater was making a mess of it, and they explained how to fix that, to get it to stop washing out. It's very detailed and thought out. So, they have their specs, they know what numbers to use and it's not like it's an opinion or anything.” [Farmer 1, Lebanon County] 

Environmental stewardship and the right thing to do 

Most of the program participants explained their motivation to participate in farm bill conservation programs stemmed from a sense of environmental stewardship and a belief that conservation is the right thing to do. They stressed that as farmers they take pride in what they do, and it is in their nature to take good care of the land as its stewards. For example, one farmer explains that:  

“Just self-satisfaction. It was like that nature. I'm a good steward of the land. It just comes natural to me. I don't know, it just fits. Oh, yeah. So that decision was much is stewardship.” [Farmer 24, Center County].  

EQIP participants went on to describe how program participation enabled them to meet their interest to be better at taking care of the land, keeping soil on the land and overall being a responsible manager of the land and its resources.   

Social recognition and legacy 

Some of the program participants and a non-participant described the motivation for program participation as gaining social recognition from their neighbors as good farmers for their conservation efforts and leaving a legacy for a new generation of farmers. They shared how using BMPs through programs will enable them to leave the land in a better shape than when they had it, keep a clean and tidy farm with nice crops, and show to their neighbors and people who drive by that they keep their livestock out of open water sources. For instance, Farmer 6 posits that:   

“Well, I think first it's stewardship of the land. To leave the land in better shape than when I got it. That's a big thing in the environment and for next generations to enjoy it like I have. Sure, it played a decision. I like to have a good outcome for my neighbors that are farmers and for generations to have a favorable aspect of farming. That they're glad that you have farmers that take care of the land and ground water and stuff like that.” [Farmer 6, Lebanon County]. 

Meet current and future government environmental regulations 

Some of the program participants opined that program participation was a means to meet existing and future environmental regulations related to agricultural production. According to these farmers, the government is the entity that makes rules that often govern the practice of agriculture and how to address the environmental impact of the sector, so working with the government agencies will ensure that their BMPs are designed well according to set standards. Further working with government conservation agencies was a sure way to meet the laws/regulations guiding BMPs use and environmental protection. Hence, they were confident that BMPs recommended for addressing the environmental concerns on their farm were good and accepted by environmental regulatory agencies. A program participant articulates this view by saying: 

Well, to me, a big part of doing projects that EQIP funds and supports would be the fact that I know I'm legal. If I have a project that's designed by NRCS and their engineers, I can be assured it meets all the federal state guidelines, permitting. Nothing's left undone that's going to come back, "Oh, I forgot this and now I have to punt and go backwards." That I like that. The same government that's making the rules is designing my project, so we should be in good shape there and everything done well. [Farmer 2, Lebanon County] 

Farm sustainability and efficient farm management 

All the program participants articulated the view that participation in conservation programs will enhance the sustainability of their farms. For instance, sustainability was described as raising good and healthy livestock by keeping them out of mud and water as well as doing grazing rotations to save livestock feed. Program participants explained that when the livestock are kept out of mud and water, there is less incidence of foot problems within the herd leading to better outcomes and comfort for the livestock. They described better farm management in terms of keeping nutrients on the farm or capturing what runs off from neighboring farms and moving livestock better through the pasture. Additional descriptions of efficient farm management included better storage for manure, applying or hauling manure on the field under ideal weather conditions, reduced costs in raising livestock, and being able to trial certain BMPs before deciding to adopt.  For example, a program explains better farm management as: 

“With pretty much any project, it's allowing me to manage better so I can either move my cows through pasture better or like with this manure storage project, we're fixing a manure pit that could be leaking into the groundwater. We want to make a bigger sized tank so I can haul when conditions are better. So, in the past we've had to haul manure over winter, which I know they don't like. It's pretty much everything is about the water quality. [Farmer 1, Lebanon County] 

In the survey, we presented a list of 16 probable motivators, developed based on initial interview responses and a review of the literature, to rate them in terms of their agreement or disagreement as each being a motivation for participating in conservation programs. As shown in Table 7, the top five motivators for program participants included flexibility to choose BMPs suited to farm needs (87.7%), flexibility to select a location for installing BMPs (86.1%), cost-share for installing BMPs (84.9%), incorporates farmers’ ideas and concerns in conservation planning (84.9%), and access to technical assistance for installing BMPs (78.1%). The results show that program participants perceive value in being active participants in planning conservation on their farms, having their voices heard in addition to receiving financial and technical assistance for undertaking conservation on their farms to EQIP.  

Table 3 Motivators of program participation

Motivation  EQIP Program participants 

EQIP Program Non-participants 

Strongly agree or agree 
Strongly agree or agree 
n**  % n**  %
Flexibility to choose BMPs suited to farm needs 65 87.8 44 63.8
Flexibility to select a location for installing BMPs*  62 86.1 39 55.7
Cost-share for installing BMPs*  62 84.9 29 43.9
Incorporates farmers’ ideas and concerns in conservation planning  62 84.9 37 53.6
Access to technical assistance for installing BMPs*  57 78.1 31 44.9
Learn about similar conservation programs*  56 77.8 37 54.4
Access to knowledgeable technical advisors*  56 76.7 28 40.6
Comply with State environmental regulations*  56 76.7 35 50.7
Flexible contract terms*  55 75.3 24 35.3
Program goals fit with locally accepted farm management practices*  54 75.0 37 54.4
Learn of environmental benefits of conservation to farm  53 73.6 31 46.3
Compliance with county environmental regulations*  53 72.6 35 50.0
Prioritizes local environmental resources concerns* 48 65.8 28 40.6
Learn of environmental benefits of conservation to the locality  43 59.7 25 36.2
Learn about the socio-economic benefits of conservation to my farm*  37 52.1 26 38.2
Learn about the socio-economic benefits of conservation to my locality* 


47.2 20 29.0

* Item is significantly different between the groups, p < 0.05 

** Not everyone respondent answered the question. Hence the slight differences in the frequencies and percentages for the individual items 

Among EQIP non-participants, the top five program attributes that are to influence their decision to participate in conservation programs included flexibility to choose BMPs suited to farm needs (63.8%), flexibility to select a location for installing BMPs (55.7%), learning about similar conservation programs available to farmers (54.4%), program goals fit with locally accepted farm management practices (54.4%), and Incorporates farmers’ ideas and concerns in conservation planning (53.6%). The result suggests that besides valuing being active participants in conservation planning on their farms, EQIP non-participants will consider participating in conservation programs if program goals do not differ from the locally accepted way of farm management. 

 An independent samples t-tests was conducted for EQIP participants and non-participants to examine if there are any differences between them with regards to each motivation statement. The result of the analysis show that EQIP participants and EQIP non-participants significantly differ on 12 out of the 16 motivation statements, being a reason that they will chose to or will choose to participate in the program as shown in Table 3. 

Barriers to EQIP participation 

The EQIP program and non-participants and some participants gave numerous reasons for as barriers to EQIP participation including program restrictions and autonomy to make decisions, religious beliefs, financial constraints, program requirements, inadequate knowledge, and self-sustaining farm 

Program restrictions and autonomy to make decisions 

Most of the EQIP non-participants explained their decision not to participate in government-sponsored conservation programs as restrictions inherent in programs. They described program rules and regulations as likely reasons to limit their ability to make certain changes to their farm when production conditions require the change given the uncertainties associated with agricultural production. In addition, one farmer opined that government programs often had too many guidelines and stipulations to follow which unduly limits what one can do when participating in conservation programs. As one farmer states: 

“I shy away from that. You know? So, if it's that restrictive, I don't want to do that. Because there are so many variables, you don't even know until they say, no you can't deep till, but it's better conservation sometimes to deep till in certain areas. You have less erosion. So sometimes farmers know their farm better than some of the government people, and they put all these restrictions on you, and people will shy away because of that, you know?” – [Farmer 4, Lebanon County] 

Further, some non-participants explained programs' control of what a farmer can and cannot do on their farm could lead to a loss of autonomy of the farmer to make decisions. These respondents were of the view that program participation could mean giving the government opportunity to monitor their farming activities all the time, however, they enjoy being independent in making their production decisions.   

Religious beliefs 

A few of the EQIP non-participants and participants mentioned that religious belief or affiliation could hinder some farmers’ decision to participate in conservation programs. These respondents described how the religious belief of separation of church and state affairs prevents adherents from receiving financial support from programs to undertake conservation activities, although some of these farmers may be contributing to environmental resources degradation through their farm management practices. As mentioned by one farmer: 

We also have a Mennonite population in our highest 'ag' priority areas. And they're a tough nut to crack. Most of them don't want anything to do with federal dollars. They want to do things their way. And there are a lot of them that do a good job and they're doing the best they can, but just if you could throw a 100,000 dollars to them and they would accept it, it would go a lot farther - [Farmer 15, Bedford County] 

A program non-participant who is an adherent to the separation of state and church belief explained further that: 

As a Mennonite, as a member of the Mennonite Church here, we refrain from programs such as that, government programs like that. Our church is a close brotherhood. We put an emphasis on working together as a brotherhood and sharing with one another instead of depending on government programs and so on to help us out. Once we get involved with government programs, we look at it like it confuses where we are. We say we're a citizen of the heavenly kingdom. We are also registered as citizens of the United States, but our primary citizenship is in the heavenly kingdom. We don't want to get mixed up in the things of this world. We try to keep that separation there. [Farmer 27, Bedford County] 

Financial constraints 

Some EQIP participants and non-participants indicated that farmers’ out-of-pocket costs for installing BMPs could be a hindrance to participation. They expressed that sometimes the proposed design of the BMP in question and additional program requirements for the practice tends to drive up the cost of practice installation. This situation could result in a farmer spending more money on practice using the program compared to if they undertook the practice using their personal funds only. As one farmer remarked: 

They'd come out several times from the county office and we have walked through my farm. We have looked at the situation. They have showed me the money of how much I'd have to come up with and how much ... Sometimes it seems like you could maybe build the manure storage on your own maybe a little less ... Okay, so the share I have to come up with, the portion I have to come up with, it seems like I could almost build what I wanted to build with that amount of money. But because of certain things that they require, it puts the cost up. So, their share is a pretty big share, and my share is a pretty big share, but because of certain things that have to be done, it seems like it costs us more than what a regular ... say, I built it myself for cost. [Farmer 14, Bedford County] 

Another EQIP non-participant expressed that program implementation tends to focus on large-scale producers and funding practices, or structures that are cost intensive. In this situation, the small-scale producers have refrained from applying to the program for financial assistance. The response below illustrates non-participants’ belief that programs tend to focus on large-scale producers: 

The main reasons, is there's several of them? One, I know that I would be a low priority, based on the low number of acres. I don't have any animals that I don't have worry about animal production areas that need to get taken care of.” [Farmer 15, Bedford County] 

Financial constraints were explained as inadequate funding to the program by some interview participants. Three program participants mentioned that inadequate funding to fund program applications could be a potential barrier or a hassle to participation. They explained that there could be a lot of interest among the farming population in the conservation program, however with limited funding certain farmers are not considered for funding. The quote below shows farmers' views on how inadequate funding for the program can affect program participation: 

“I mean a lot of it's dependent on funding. If there's 10 farmers and only money for eight of them, then obviously the ranking system is going to kick out those that rank the lowest, and they're going to go with the top eight. It's not an automatic instant guarantee. A lot of it's based on the amount of funding they have.” [Farmer 2, Lebanon County] 

Program requirements 

Program paperwork, wait time to receive application decisions, and reimbursement timelines were seen as potential barriers to participation by some of the interview participants. Three program participants and two non-participants opined that there is a lot of paperwork that must be completed before a farmer can submit their application to the program. The non-participants viewed the paperwork as burdensome and enough reason not to get involved in the program.  

 In addition, some program participants and a non-participant viewed the wait time between submission of the application to receiving a decision on the application as a hassle to participation. One program participant explained that sometimes it can take anywhere from 6-12 months to get the application paperwork completed and submitted, and at least another six months to hear about a decision on one’s application as explained below:  

There's an awful lot of paperwork upfront. And again, I wouldn't apply for any, but I do have some neighbors that are very close to me that have applied for it and there's upfront paperwork that takes a long time to do and they do a lot of planning and development and then you must be put on the list and the backlog was quite long at one point. I know two of the local guys that fiddled around for about six months getting paperwork together and then I believe they were another three to six months until the program had money slash was able to get started. I know at one point there was some federal dollars that were not allocated yet, had to wait for budget and then once the new budget was passed and things, they were able to get their project on the slate and done so I'd say most of them are probably six months to a year from what I understand. [Farmer 22, Bedford County] 

One program participant and non-participant respectively noted that program regulations could hinder participation. The non-participant explained that the set-back rule that requires farmers to fence at least 35 feet of land from a stream or creek bank could deter participation. He explained that fencing off that significant stretch of land could affect the farm, and this was a sufficient reason for not participating in the program, although he has a positive interaction with NRCS representatives.  

Inadequate knowledge 

The majority of interviewed EQIP program non-participants expressed that they did not have enough knowledge about the program to make an informed decision about program participation. They expressed that they were not well informed about program goals and requirements as well as had minimal interactions with the representatives of conservation agencies, such as the NRCS. Four of these were non-members of farmer organizations or groups upon further probe.  When asked if they had any intention of participating in EQIP in the future, one non-participant opined that “I've never thought about it. I'm not aware of it enough to have an opinion as to whether I might be interested or not.” [Farmer 16, Center County]. 

Self-sustaining farm 

Three EQIP program non-participants said they chose not to participate in EQIP because they were already involved in conservation to address resource concerns on their farms. They explain that they can use their funds and resources to undertake BMPs implementation, and thus considered it unfair to rely on government support. They believed that there are less resourced farmers who could use this government support to improve their environmental performance.  Farmer 15 from Bedford County explained this by mentioning “since we're already doing it, my thinking is, save that money for someone else that ... and there are those who really need it. Especially the livestock people.”   

The survey results from 15 barriers presented showed that both program participants and non-participants perceived that the paperwork involved in the program application process could negatively affect participation. In addition, program participants ranked financial challenges in meeting cost-share requirements, the complexity of program eligibility requirements, and participation leading to legal restrictions on farmers’ property as the top three barriers to program participation after paperwork as shown in Table 4.  

Table 4 Perceived barriers to program participation 


EQIP Program Participants  EQIP Program Non-participants
Strongly agree or agree Strongly agree or agree
n** %  n** %
Financial challenges in meeting cost-share requirements  59 84.3 53 75.7
Concerns about interference with changing land use when conditions warrant during contract period   56 78.9 52 72.2
Amount of paperwork involved   55 77.5 58 81.7
Participation leading to legal restrictions on farmers’ property   52 74.3 55 78.6
Complexity with working with multiple organizations during application   50 71.4 58 82.9
Complexity of program eligibility requirements 49 70.0 50 71.4
Participation impact on farm profitability   46 65.7 44 62.9
Participation impact on farm productivity 44 62.9 42 60.9
Uncertainty regarding where to get information about in conservation programs   41 56.2 36 52.2
Inadequate information about conservation programs   39 55.7 26 37.7
Conservation programs not suited to farm needs due to specific farm characteristics   33 47.1 42 60.0
Conservation practices they want to adopt are not supported by the conservation program 27 38.6 32 47.1
They do not own the farm   24 34.3 31 45.6
Religious beliefs   23 33.3 26 36.1
Farm is self-sufficient to pay for conservation practices*   19 27.5 34 47.2

*Item is significantly different between the groups, p < 0.05 

** Not everyone respondent answered the question. Hence the slight differences in the frequencies and percentages for the individual items  

In contrast, program non-participants ranked complexity with working with multiple organizations during the application process, participation leading to legal restrictions on the farmers’ property, and financial challenges in meeting cost-share requirements as the top three barriers that could prevent farmers from participating in conservation programs such as the EQIP. 

An independent samples t-tests was conducted for EQIP participants and non-participants to examine if there are any differences between them with regards to each barrier statement. The result of the analysis shows that EQIP participants and EQIP non-participants significantly differ only on one of the barrier statements being a reason that they may not participate in the program as shown in Table 4. The result shows that EQIP non-participants agree that farmers are self-sufficient to pay for conservation practices on their farms compared to EQIP participants. 


Objective four: Develop evidence-based recommendations for practices and procedures that help conservation field staff effectively work with farmers to promote sustainable agriculture and improve environmental quality. 

This research focused on the state and non-state conservation agencies and stakeholder participation in EQIP planning and implementation processes at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as how farmers make program participation decisions. The findings of the research from all three objectives have implications for policy and practice at all three levels of program decision-making. Objective one demonstrated how federal rules, regulations, and instruments that guide program planning and implementation sometimes constrain NRCS's ability to make program decisions in a timely manner and lead to limitations in tweaking and adjusting the program practices to local needs. State and non-state conservation agencies as well as other conservation stakeholders play a crucial role in improving understanding of agri-environmental programs, identifying solutions to local agri-environmental programs, and provision of service to program clients to tailor conservation programs to felt local needs – but only if their roles are increased and NRCS’ authority at the state and local levels expanded. This may be addressed through Congress decentralizing program decision-making authority to the NRCS at the state and local levels and developing accountability procedures and measures to monitor NRCS. Further, there will be a need for policy to support farmer-based organizations or non-state conservation agencies that will be equipped to provide outreach and recruitment services as well as identify alternative funding sources to support historically underserved and plain sect farmers to improve their participation in conservation programs as needed. The limited participation of farmers at the state and local levels in EQIP processes could impact the inclusion of the concerns of the farming community in program planning and implementation decisions. Perhaps farmer involvement in EQIP governance processes could be improved through NRCS exploring diverse participation approaches to reaching the farming community (e.g., changing meeting locations, conducting surveys to solicit farmers’ knowledge about local environmental issues and how to address these, etc.). 

Additionally, objectives two and three highlight the important role of farmer contextual factors and program planning and implementation practices in farmer participation decisions and program implementation. Program factors have a direct impact on how farmers make decisions to participate in the conservation programs, even in instances when farmers have shown interest in the program and have applied to participate, and many of these factors are related to the rules and regulations that guide implementation practices and decisions (Fagundes, Picciano, Tillman, et al., 2020). Program policies must be designed to increasingly give room for the incorporation of local knowledge in decision-making at the federal, state, and local levels to balance the use of diverse knowledge sources (local versus scientific knowledge) in decision-making. The farmers and other state and non-state conservation agencies that interact with the farmers have firsthand and direct knowledge about the constraints that farmers face in accessing and participating in conservation programs. Hence, this approach could enhance program acceptance within local communities and enable diverse farmer participation in the program to address environmental problems on their farms and local communities. Conservation policy could explore ways to address farmer and program-related factors due to their interrelatedness in program participation decisions, as demonstrated by the findings of objectives two and three, by ensuring not only economic and technical assistance availability but that also flexibility in including farmer perspectives in conservation planning. 

Regarding recommendations for practice, the findings of three objectives illustrate how stakeholder participation in government-sponsored agri-environmental programs is important in achieving conservation goals and sustainability. A lot can be gleaned from the way in which NRCS through federal mandate involve conservation stakeholders, particularly in the different formal avenues of participation (e.g., public comments, state advisory technical committee, local workgroup, etc.) in sharing conservation knowledge. Further, lessons can be drawn for the role of diverse conservation agencies and stakeholders in bridging the gap in service provision to EQIP clients in situations when NRCS is under-resourced to meet conservation needs of clients. However, the research findings also demonstrate the different challenges that affect public participation in EQIP governance processes (Objective one) and farmers’ participation in EQIP to address agri-environmental issues on their farms (Objective two and three). These challenges to diverse stakeholder participation raise issues about how governance in government-sponsored agri-environmental programs could be achieved and how to whip up farmer interest in conservation, particularly those within the historically underserved communities and plain sect communities. Consequently, conservation managers and field staff must be more intentional about engaging conservation stakeholders in program governance and communicating the use of the input of these stakeholders in decision making.  

Finally, the findings of this research have demonstrated how agri-environmental governance processes could unintentionally miss the participation of certain members and give a voice to these members. Government-sponsored agri-environmental programs and other types of agri-environmental programs must continue to engage in practice and programs that seek to be inclusive and increase accessibility to marginalized farmer populations. Perhaps, these programs can explore alternative ways for farmers and agricultural stakeholders to participate in governance opportunities and identify ways to support farmers in cushioning their costs associated with program participation considering that existing support may not be adequate. Further, there should be efforts to identify improved ways to include the interests and needs of stakeholders, particularly at the local levels, in policy design and implementation as well as accountability. Perhaps, an approach could be a consensus-building opportunity where conservation professionals involve representatives of the diverse farmer groups in reflecting on and evaluating how best to include them in EQIP governance. Also, there may be the need for strengthening partnerships and collaboration among NRCS and other conservation agencies through learning to improve program access and develop more innovative outreach and recruitment activities and practices in enhancing the inclusivity of diverse perspectives in agri-environmental program planning and implementation.  

Finally, continued engagement with members of the local farming communities to make the presence of NRCS felt could improve farmers’ interest and willingness to participate in EQIP planning processes. Further, increased targeted outreach to certain members of the farming community, e.g., new farmers, historically underserved producers, and plain sect communities could improve these farmers' awareness of NRCS, understanding of agri-environmental issues that could originate from their farms, and improve awareness of the benefits of BMPs use to their farms and the restoration and protection of natural resources in their local communities. These efforts, however, may not yield the expected results if steps are not taken to address the challenges that could impede program implementation at the local level. An inclusive, bottom-up approach between NRCS, and its partners and stakeholders representing local concerns and interests to identify probable solutions to these challenges and improved local stakeholder involvement in program processes can lead to increased stakeholder support and buy-in for EQIP and secure environmental gains.   




Research conclusions:

Globally, it is recognized that environmental issues resulting from intensive agricultural activities can be mitigated through collaboration and partnerships between governments, non-governmental conservation organizations, and relevant stakeholders. Drawing on the four of the key concepts of environmental governance proposed by Armitage et al., (2012), this study explored the extent to which the planning and implementation of Farm Bill programs, using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program as a case study, follow these concepts: adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning; knowledge co-production; actors and their roles; and accountability and legitimacy. Our study found evidence of these concepts being present in the planning, administration, and implementation of EQIP to some degree.  

The key observations of the study are:  

  • The conservation field staff were of the view that there is an opportunity for diverse stakeholders with an interest in conservation to participate in the EQIP planning and implementation process at the federal, state, and local levels with NRCS taking steps to ensure that these participation opportunities are communicated to all stakeholders. However, not all stakeholders are able to participate in this process at the three levels of decision-making, particularly at the state and local levels, as the findings show limited farmer participation in the state and local processes. 
  • A myriad of communication channels and delivery methods are used by conservation field staff in conducting outreach and recruitment practices to secure farmers’ interest in EQIP with “word of mouth” being the main delivery method that is relied on by the staff for outreach and recruitment.  
  • Staff numbers, staff workload, and time constraints as well as low farmer interest and poor attendance at outreach meetings were identified as challenges that could impact NRCS conservation field staff capacity to conduct active outreach and recruitment activities.   
  • Farmer–related challenges including costs associated with program participation, anti-government sentiments, and inadequate awareness and information among farmers about the existence of NRCS as a conservation agency and conservation programs they offer as challenges to EQIP implementation.  
  • Program-related challenges including staff turnover, attitude, and knowledge about farming; limited outreach and communication about program processes, changes, and requirements; inadequate program funding; bureaucracy; and inflexible program rules and regulations were challenges to EQIP implementation at the local level that affect farmers program participation decisions.  

Based on the observations, the following recommendations for practice and policy are made: 

  • State and County level NRCS staff must be intentional in educating individual farmers, groups, and organizations about the importance of their participation in local work group meetings and related opportunities to set the conservation agenda suited to local needs and experiences. These educational opportunities could whip up farmers’ interest in conservation program governance. 
  • NRCS should be intentional in finding a balance between the use of technical and scientific knowledge and local knowledge related to agricultural conservation in program implementation decision-making. Feedback on the use of local knowledge in decision-making should be communicated to the local work group participants to demonstrate the value of their input in program planning and implementation processes. 
  • County level conservation professionals must identify alternative ways of involving farmers in work group meetings (e.g., through surveys, call-ins, virtual meetings with farmers) to seek their knowledge and expertise about EQIP policy, frequency of work group meetings conducted in a year, and engaging the local farm community through improved presence of the conservation professionals in the communities. 
  • There is a need for the conduct of active outreach in the farm community from NRCS about conservation programs administered by NRCS to enhance farmers’ knowledge about programs and change attitudes and behavior towards conservation programs. 
  • Outreach messages should place equal value on communicating to the non-farm community members regarding the crucial contributions farmers have made towards environmental quality improvements through their adoption of best management practices. This approach will help non-farm members to appreciate the value of government-sponsored conservation programs and the contributions of the farming community in achieving environmental quality goals. 
  • There must be increased efforts to strengthen partnerships with conservation-based organizations – both state and non-state funded organizations – to bridge the gap in the timely provision of services to program clientele. Additional efforts should be targeted at certifying agricultural conservation organizations to support the provision of technical assistance to farmers particularly in instances when NRCS lacks the capacity to meet demand. 
  • NRCS programs such as EQIP have the potential to support farmers in addressing on-farm and off-farm agri-environmental issues, however, they are constrained in fulfilling this role due to insufficient funding. Non-state conservation agencies/organizations should be encouraged to increasingly secure funding from other agricultural industry players to support NRCS’ efforts in funding farmers in sustainable agriculture production through adoption of BMPs and provision of technical assistance to support farmers’ efforts 
Participation Summary
189 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Journal articles
7 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
1,000 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Five presentations about this research has been given at various conferences as shown belown:

  • Understanding Governance of Farm Bill Conservation Programs: Perspective of Conservation Professionals: Oral presentation that will be given at the American Evaluation Association. October 9-14, 2023. [Awaiting decision on abstract.]
  • Who Participates in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in Pennsylvania? Oral presentation at 2022 Virtual Conference of International Association for Society and Natural Resources. October 4th -6th, 2022.
  •  An Assessment of Farm Bill Conservation Programs Governance: A Case of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Oral presentation at 2022 Virtual Conference of International Association for Society and Natural Resources. October 4th -6th, 2022.
  • “U.S. Agri-Environmental Policy Governance: Perspectives from Conservation Professionals. Oral presentation at 2022 Virtual Conference of International Association for Society and Natural Resources. October 4th -6th, 2022.
  • Farmers’ motivation for participating in Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Poster to be presented at 2022 Annual Conference for Soil and Water Conservation Society, Denver, Colorado. July 31st - August 3rd, 2022.
  •  Evaluating the implementation of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in Pennsylvania. Poster presented at the 2021 Gamma Sigma Delta Graduate Student Exhibition, March 23rd, 2021.

On March 8, 2022 I gave a presentation on this research to the Urban Ag Subcommittee of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pennsylvania.

Project Outcomes

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
$92,044.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

It is widely acknowledged by conservation scholars and practitioners that stakeholder participation in agri-environmental conservation policy planning and implementation is crucial in developing solutions to address agri-environmental problems and enhance agricultural sustainability. This project sought to understand the linkages between farm bill conservation program, EQIP, planning and implementation decision making processes and farmers’ decision to either participate or not participate in the program. While the findings of the study show that public participation and partnerships with state and non-state conservation agencies in program planning and implementation, there is still opportunity for improving stakeholder participation particularly at the state and local levels of decision-making. For instance, our findings show that USDA NRCS at the federal, state, and local levels makes effort to engage diverse stakeholders in committee meetings, work group meetings, surveys, etc. to share their knowledge and experiences about environmental issues of concern, solutions to addressing these issues, and how to better make conservation programs such as EQIP goals reflect felt needs. However, there seem to be a reference of scientific knowledge over local knowledge when it comes to program implementation, an issue which conservation professionals and staff attributed to federal rules and guidelines that guide decision, leaving limited room for adapting program at the state and local levels. Perhaps to improve the ability of the USDA NRCS to adapt the programs at the state and local levels to make it “locally led”, it will be important for Congress and policy makers to consider decentralizing decision-making powers about conservation programs to USDA NRCS at the state and local levels and strong accountability procedures and structures set up to monitor program decision making at these levels. In the interim there will be the need for clear communication procedures that enable stakeholder concerns from the local levels to be channeled up the vertical chain of decision making to state through federal level. When done this, could improve understanding of local inputs and needs concerning program implementation practices and outcomes particularly at the federal level.

Another key observation from this study was low and diverse farmer participation in program planning and implementation processes such as the State Technical Committee meetings, sub-committee meetings, Local work groups, etc. Given that farmers are one of the main target clienteles of Farm Bill Conservation programs such as EQIP, it will be important that efforts are made to encourage their involvement in such meetings. In the future, NRCS and partners can consider bringing the venues of such meetings to the local areas, especially the State Technical Committee meetings, and different opportunity for participation explored (in-person versus virtual versus call-in) and communicated to potential farmer participants. While there is evidence that NRCS provides opportunity for participation by farmers at all levels in these meetings, continued use of online, in-person, and call-in options could improve participation. Also, there may be a need for conservation agencies to survey farmers to find out how best to reach them to participate in these committees and meetings regarding agri-environmental conservation. Further, an outreach programs to reach farmer-based organizations about farm bill programs, the program goals and objectives and what role farmers can play in setting conservation agenda can improve farmers understanding and appreciation of the need for their participation in such meetings. As our findings show the few farmers that attend the meetings sometimes are unable to contribute to issues being discussed which found to be partly attributable to inadequate farmer knowledge about farm bill programs and what contributions the farming committee to set state and local conservation agenda.

Although several barriers to farmers’ program participation in EQIP were identified through this project, it appears that both EQIP participants and non-participants preferred flexibility and active involvement of farmers in identifying environmental problems on the farm and solutions to address these could help enhance participation. From the farmers’ perspectives increased flexibility in undertaking conservation with support from NRCS could improve non-participants willingness to work with the NRCS on conservation issues on their farms. Similarly, from the program participants perspectives flexibility and inclusion of their views in conservation could communicate to them their opinions are valued and the unique characteristics of their farms are incorporated to develop conservation plan that is suited to the characteristics of their farm. While it showed in the interviews that NRCS field officers engage farmers in identifying environmental problems on their farms and the selection of conservation practices, there is still room for increased flexibility in incorporating farmer knowledge and experience in conservation planning to enhance participation and sustainability of agriculture.  

Knowledge Gained:

As a graduate student researcher, my skills and knowledge related to grant proposal writing, grant execution, recruitment of participants and data collection, qualitative and quantitative research instrument design, and networking with persons in agriculture industry has immensely improved.  For instance, my advisor and I were invited by Dr. Rama Radhakrishna at Penn State to collaborate in developing a grant proposal for Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture based on this project to assess the use of conservation plans by farmers in Pennsylvania to promote sustainable agriculture. The proposal we developed was selected for funding. The work is currently ongoing in four counties in the commonwealth. Overall my current participation in the grant writing process improved my writing skills and my appreciation for sustainability in Pennsylvania Agriculture and research methods. Additionally, a graduate student grant application I solo applied for based on recommendation and guidance from my advisor was selected for funding by the College of Agriculture at the Pennsylvania State University to further support my dissertation research which is funded by NE SARE. In addition to what is described above, the NE SARE proposal allowed me and my advisor to dive deeper in the literature related to program participation, environmental governance, and environmental policy to learn more about sustainability of agriculture using implementation of best management practices supported with public funding through conservation programs. Finally, this project allowed us to build our network with key players promoting sustainable agriculture specifically in Pennsylvania (e.g., USDA NRCS, Penn State Extension).  

This project was part of my thesis which I successfully defended. As a scholar, I am aware about the importance of sharing research findings with both academic and non-academic audiences. I am currently finalizing three journal articles based on this research for publication which will be co-authored with Dr. Anil Kumar Chaudhary. Further, I have plans of developing two more articles from this project for publication focusing on the perceived weaknesses and strengths of conservation programs and the strategies for addressing constraints to program implementation and farmer participation from the perspectives of conservation professionals and farmers.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Through this research, I have become aware of the significant contributions that public participation and interest can have on agricultural conservation policy and the demand for alternate ways to secure the participation of marginalized as well as historically underserved farmers in conservation programs. Multiple methods are crucial adressing this research need and helping stakeholders and  policy makers to gain an indepth understanding about this problem and from diverse stakeholder perspectives. Consequently, I will recommend that NE-SARE to fund project proposals  that seeks to address these research gaps using multiple methods of inquiry. Funding such studies will give opportunity for diverse stakeholders especially marginalized and historically underserved producers to share their perspectives about conservation policy drawing from their lived experiences.

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.