Record high temperatures, droughts, floods, and other severe weather events are more than headlines for the people that feed our populations. For farmers, these events are a direct threat to their livelihoods. A harsh weather event or an unusual change of the season can ruin an entire season’s crops. How can we protect farmers and our food supply from the ravages of extreme weather? An array of agricultural technologies and practices have been shown to help farmers adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change, but merely having these technologies isn’t enough. Reaping the benefits of existing solutions requires that we also invest in changing behavior.
The Case for Cover Cropping: Helping Farmers and the Environment
Sustainable farming is an important part of a resilient food and agriculture system. Cover cropping is one such practice. Cover crops are those planted not for harvesting but for some other function, often as a kind of groundcover in the offseason to control weeds and pests. These crops are usually planted directly after fall harvest and killed just before planting a primary crop the following spring. While cover cropping is not a panacea, their use can reduce soil erosion, provide weed control, pest management, and reduce the need for fertilizer and herbicides. All this can not only provide economic benefits to the farmer, but also bring environmental benefits such as improved soil health and water quality. These impacts make cover cropping an effective behavior to achieve greater climate resilience and a more sustainable agriculture system.
While cover crops have expanded in popularity over the last few years, many farmers have yet to adopt the practice. Despite programs offering financial incentives and technical support for cover crops, in 2021 only 7.2% of all acreage in the U.S. Midwest used them.
The slow pace of cover crop uptake illustrates more broadly how difficult it can be to expand agricultural practices that would benefit both farmers and the environment. Behavioral science can help us understand why, and suggest ways policy makers and program designers can overcome this challenge.
Applying a Farmer-Centered Behavioral Perspective
After interviewing 16 farmers in Iowa, two themes emerged that exemplify the well-researched behavioral principles of prospect theory and present bias. These two insights could offer useful lessons to increase uptake of sustainable agriculture practices like the use of cover crops.
1. Losses vs. gains: Farmers’ mental frames shape their risk tolerance for cover crops
“We’ve had quite a few years of good times in agriculture. If things are going good, most people do not want to change, so [they are] not going to seek ways to change. When things are bad, they look for anything—grasping at straws to make things better.“– Iowa Farmer
We found that for some farmers, prospect theory might be at play in their decision about whether to plant cover crops. Prospect theory suggests that relative to their reference point, people tend to be risk-averse about gains but risk-seeking about losses. In other words, people tend to prefer sure gains (over a gamble for a larger gain) but prefer to gamble to avoid a sure loss.
What does this translate to in practice? When their farms are doing well, farmers may start to operate in a “gains” frame of mind. In this context, farmers may become risk averse and be less likely to consider cover cropping—or any other practice that might threaten their yields. Their focus is reducing any potential for loss, which means avoiding anything that might pose a risk to immediate yields—even in the face of potential longer-term gains, such as yield stabilization or reduced costs on fertilizers and herbicides. As one farmer put it, “I guess what it comes down to is, there are fewer and fewer farmers all the time, and we’re all out here farming more acres in the same window…. I’ll put it this way: cover crops create variables, and in our world, we’re trying to eliminate variables.”
Conversely, farmers who face ongoing or acute issues (e.g., erosion, drought) look at cover crops with a “losses” frame. Because they are operating from a reference point of existing losses, they may be more willing to take risks to reduce losses and potentially achieve better yields in the future. These farmers may be more tolerant of the ambiguity of adopting a new practice such as cover cropping, as their reference point has them in a more risk-seeking frame of mind.
How might we help farmers consider and adopt cover crops before reaching that point of desperation? Efforts to shift mental frames around cover cropping could help—for example, emphasizing the known losses (e.g., soil runoff at the next flood) that will decrease in the future, rather than focusing communication around uncertain benefits. Such framing could help farmers adopt and benefit from cover crops in a proactive rather than reactive way.
2. Immediate costs and deferred benefits: Why cover crops are difficult for our brains
“Why would I pay $30 or $40, to put a cover crop out there and have no specific line item, [no] quantifiable benefit for them next year?“– Iowa Farmer
We also found that farmers often struggle with the time horizons over which the costs and benefits of cover cropping are accrued. Farmers typically calculate their returns on an annual basis. However, cover crops can take several years to result in savings on expenses such as fertilizer and herbicides. The immediate costs per acre needed to implement cover crops, while relatively low compared to general farm costs, may feel disproportionately painful when compared to distant benefits. In the face of this mismatch, some farmers may exhibit present bias, which describes our tendency to prioritize immediate costs and benefits while deprioritizing those that will accrue in the future. As one farmer expressed, “Why would I pay $30 or $40, to put a cover crop out there and have no specific line item, [no] quantifiable benefit for them next year?”
On top of the mismatched time horizons, the return on the investment of cover crops may not always be in the financial metrics that farmers are used to. Cover crop benefits are often accrued in resiliency improvements (such as reduced soil runoff after a flood), which farmers may not track or measure, or in money saved (rather than additional dollars), which makes it even harder for those benefits to feel concrete and compelling. The nature of both the longer-term and often nonmonetary returns on the investment of cover crops thus makes it challenging for farmers to incorporate them into the calculus of their farm business. This may significantly reduce the appeal of adopting the practice—even though in the long run, cover crops may increase their farm’s resilience to climate shocks and reduce their reliance on expensive fertilizers and herbicides.
Farmers are trying to make a living in a context that requires new practices in the face of big challenges like food insecurity and climate change. Making sustainable agricultural techniques more available and cost-effective is crucial but does not necessarily mean that farmers will change their practices if other behavioral barriers are not understood and addressed. To achieve more broadscale impact, agricultural policy makers and program designers should incorporate behavioral factors such as farmers’ mental frames and time horizons when considering the design and implementation of their solutions. This principle will become even more important in this era of ever-increasing unpredictability from climate change.
This work was supported by the Walton Family Foundation and conducted in partnership with the Practical Farmers of Iowa. For any questions or for more information about our agriculture and sustainability work, reach out to email@example.com.