Why do farmers adopt conservation practices? Do green payments help? A case study of the Lower Roanoke, North Carolina

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2006: $9,999.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Duke University
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Lynn Maguire
Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment


  • Agronomic: corn, cotton, peanuts, soybeans, wheat
  • Additional Plants: tobacco


  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, community services, employment opportunities, social capital, social networks, social psychological indicators, sustainability measures


    Research Abstract

    Agricultural policy is becoming increasingly influenced by environmental policy, but achieving environmental objectives through government conservation programs remains an elusive goal. Numerous studies have shown that farmers are motivated to adopt conservation practices not only by profit incentives, but also by factors such as perceptions of good stewardship and attachment to the land. In this analysis, I use innovation-adoption theory to analyze case studies of crop farmers in the Lower Roanoke watershed in North Carolina to show how they are influenced by micro-level dynamics at the farm scale. Using this theory, I explain how farmer perceptions of conservation practices can both encourage and discourage them to adopt these practices. This analysis shows that practices that provide a perceived relative advantage, through things like labor and time savings, are more readily adopted, but practices that are perceived as incompatible with farmers’ values, needs, or relationships with landowners are frequently rejected, even when economic profits might be derived from them. I also found that farmers are strongly influenced by biophysical aspects of their farm operation and have varying, but influential, interpretations of what good stewardship looks like. Based on these findings, I suggest that conservation programs could be marketed in a more effective way by appealing to farmers’ motivations and by communicating conservation benefits in ways that take farmer perceptions into account. In particular, conservation programs should be framed in a way that educates farmers about how conservation can benefit the quality of their land, crop yields, and agroecosystem.


    Increasingly, federal support for agriculture is being directed toward conservation programs, and many policy analysts are predicting that environmental objectives will guide the future of agricultural policy in the United States (Napier et al. 2000; Batie and Horan 2002; Heimlich 2004; Claasen and Morehart 2006). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has promoted conservation practices, largely through incentive payments, since the Dust Bowl era. However, widespread concern about agricultural impacts on water, wildlife, and soil quality persist. A number of researchers have argued that government programs targeting conservation on farmland have been inefficient and have failed to meet ecological objectives (Feather and Amacher 1994; Forster 2000; Hellin 2006). In the proceedings from a 1996 international conference on soil and water conservation (Napier et al. 2000), authors call for new policies that address the increasing social, political, and economic complexities of agriculture in the new millennium. A central component of this discussion is how to make conservation programs more effective, despite the widespread heterogeneity of farmers’ needs, attitudes, and capacities.
    Understanding what motivates farmers to adopt conservation has been the subject of several decades of research. A literature review identified a wide array of findings about conservation adoption behavior from public policy, economics and sociology research. Many of these studies focus on understanding and projecting conservation adoption using quantitative analysis of sample survey data, correlating farm structural variables (such as farm size, age of farmers, etc.) with information about farmer behavior (Blase 1960; Ervin and Ervin 1982; Fuglie and Kascak 2001).

    A 2006 study by the USDA’s Economic Research Service that examined trends among a national sample of farmers, showed that practices that are compatible with economic profits are adopted by all types of farmers and not limited to a certain group (Lambert et al. 2006). Feather and Cooper (1995) found that economic profits might be the most important motivator, but showed that awareness of conservation benefits and knowledge about how to use an innovation were equally important. Chouinard (2006) used a combined stewardship-profit motive benefits framework to examine farmer willingness to trade profits for stewardship and found that farmers were willing to trade. A recent study of Midwestern farmers (Ryan et al. 2003), found that variables such as farm income, farm size, age of farmer, and other common estimators were not significant explanatory variables of farmer motivations to adopt conservation and that attachment to the land was the most significant variable.

    It is clear from these contradictory findings that adoption motivation is complex and not fully understood. Napier et al. (2000) suggests that using socioeconomic, farm structure, and public policy variables to predict adoption is problematic, pointing out the contradictions in the literature and presenting new findings from a large study of Midwestern farmers where many of the standard variables, including the receipt of government incentive payments, did not correlate with adoption behavior. Napier recommends that social scientists focus on composite conservation adoption behavior (or a comprehensive analysis incorporating all aspects of farmer behavior relating to conservation on the farm), as opposed to focusing on the adoption of specific practices, in order to understand the process of adoption. He recommends more research at the farm scale to flesh out what influences farmer behavior, suggesting that the existing conservation programs may be ineffective because they are based on incorrect assumptions about why farmers decide to adopt conservation practices.
    Amidst this growing body of literature there is a paucity of case studies illustrating composite conservation attitudes and behavior at the farm level. Combining qualitative insights with the depth of quantitative studies that have previously been conducted can shed light on the complexity of real-world situations on farms. My research hypothesizes that farmer attitudes and behavior interact in ways that cannot be observed in large-scale surveys and that these micro-level behaviors may be even more important than the standard variables generally used in sample surveys to determine the adoption of conservation practices.

    Understanding micro-level farmer behavior is particularly important for the design of new federal “green payment” programs that are intended to provide income support, along with an incentive for conservation. The Conservation Security Program, a new provision in the Farm Bill (2002) and the country’s first green payment program, was developed to “reward the best and motivate the rest” by paying farmers for conservation related to production (such as the reduction of soil disturbance during production) and by providing payments for enhanced conservation over the years of enrollment. Farmers agree to maintain their qualifying practices for 5 to 10 years as part of the contract and can elect to undertake any of a number of enhancements voluntarily. The CSP is a more flexible conservation program than previous Farm Bill programs because it provides incentive payments for environmental benefits, as opposed to trying to instigate specific practices. As a result, farm operators have the liberty to decide what innovations they want to adopt in order to provide water, air, soil, and wildlife benefits. Farmers’ choices about which innovations to undertake, if any, will determine how effective the program is at achieving environmental improvements. Furthermore, since the program was designed to reward those farmers who have already undertaken voluntary conservation practices, knowing what has motivated these “good actors” to undertake conservation prior to receiving incentives is important for policymakers to determine what will motivate others to adopt and to enhance the practices of already conservation-oriented farmers.

    This research presents case studies of twelve farmers in one of the first watersheds selected for the Conservation Security Program, the Lower Roanoke in eastern North Carolina. These case studies describe what has influenced these farmers’ decisions to adopt conservation practices, how they perceive their impacts from conservation today, and what limits them from adopting additional conservation practices. This research provides policymakers with an example of why and how farmers undertake conservation, augmenting the existing literature showing who participates and what practices they implement.

    Project objectives:

    Research Objectives

    1. To qualitatively assess why selected farmers have adopted or not adopted conservation practices in the Lower Roanoke Watershed.
    2. To understand how farmers perceive the impacts of their conservation practices.
    3. To relate findings from these 12 case studies to other research.
    4. To determine whether the Conservation Security Program marked an increase in farmer innovation and/or an increase in conservation awareness in the watershed.
    5. To make policy recommendations about how to increase the effectiveness of conservation programs based on the findings.

    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.