How farmer cognition of complexity in agroecosystems affects decision-making about cover cropping

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2023: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 02/01/2025
Grant Recipient: Ohio State University
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Matthew Hamilton
The Ohio State University


No commodities identified


No practices identified

Proposal abstract:

This project, “How farmer cognition of complexity in agroecosystems affects decision-making about cover cropping”, aims to understand how farmers are grappling with uncertainties and complexities of agroecosystems and how they decide to adopt, continue, or forgo cover crops on their fields. Specifically, this project will map farmer cognition of complexity (the patterns of relationships among causal factors that reveal an individuals’ understanding of a system), compare how the levels of cognition of complexity are related to cover crop decisions as well as to farm and farmer characteristics, and determine if or how farmers may be using cognitive biases during their decision-making process. Using preliminary interview data as well as a pilot survey, a large-N survey will be designed and distributed to row-crop farmers in the Midwest (North Central Region States). Responses to this survey will offer insight regarding cognitive biases influencing farmers’ decisions and will provide fundamental information to develop cognitive maps. By mapping cognitive processes and patterns of farmer decision-making, this project will distinguish which factors farmers weigh most heavily in decision-making process, how farmers perceive the dynamics of a agroecosystem, and which biases farmers may be employing to make decisions about the utility of cover crops. The proposed research will help improve future interventions (outreach, education, etc.) designed to encourage better cover crop decisions. 

Outcomes of this research will include greater awareness of farmer perspectives and cognitive processes. Farmers themselves may gain awareness of their cognitive biases and change their decision-making processes when it comes to cover cropping. Researchers will gain a better understanding of farmers' view of agroecosystems, which can enable more effective farmer engagement strategies. Additionally, this research will apply social network analysis to  cognitive map data and determine levels of complex thinking amongst farmers. This knowledge can help future researchers and extensionists address and clarify relationships in the system that farmers may have overlooked or overweighted during their decision-making. From this work, farmers can continue to make connections between their actions and the resulting environmental outcomes and stakeholders, together, can work towards more sustainable land management. To evaluate the success of this project, we will administer a short survey to participants to gather feedback and answer questions regarding the survey. We will also determine success based on survey response rate, achievement of objectives, outreach, collaborations, and publications.

Project objectives from proposal:

This project provides an opportunity to engage a large group of row-crop farmers, learn farmer thought processes, and map their cognition of the complex interactions that structure the agroecosystems in which they work. Additional learning outcomes include knowledge that future researchers and extension gain regarding farmer perspectives that could ameliorate future collaborations between all three stakeholders. Researchers will better understand farmer characteristics that are related to increased levels of complexity and cover crop adoption. Learning farmer perspectives can help prospective outreach professionals approach farmers to increase cover cropping behavior with farmer priorities in mind. Cognitive mapping and evaluation of cognitive biases could also be valuable information to farmers who may become more aware of biases they hold. Farmers may also benefit by comparing their thinking patterns to other farmers. The knowledge gained from this research will contribute to literature by expanding our knowledge of decision-making; it will advance our grasp on farmer-perceived agroecological complexity and farmer reliance on biases (i.e., availability bias, loss-aversion, etc.).

Actionable outcomes may include a reduction in farmer use of cognitive shortcuts. Learning what biases are employed in decision-making offers researchers the opportunity to intervene with strategic framing of recommendations or simply by making farmers aware of the limitations of using biases. This project also leverages novel methods of cognitive map analysis to shed light on decision-making, which constitutes a methodological contribution to the broader research community. Further, practical contribution of this research will be improving the strategies of engaging farmers in cover crop management.

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.