Expanding Cover Crop Adoption


  • Despite the positive impacts of cover cropping—an agricultural practice widely demonstrated to improve soil health, reduce erosion and runoff, and promote weed control—adoption among farmers in the U.S. Midwest remains low. 
  • We identified eight behavioral insights that identify contextual and behavioral drivers of cover crop adoption and cost-share enrollment. 
  • Our insights from this work can be widely applied to expand agricultural conservation practices beyond cover-cropping in the U.S. Midwest and beyond.

The Challenge

Cover cropping is an agricultural practice widely demonstrated to improve soil health, reduce erosion and runoff, and promote weed control, with widely positive longer-term benefits for environmental outcomes and farming operations. However, despite significant increases over the past decade, cover crop adoption rates in the Midwest region of the United States were still only at 7.2% as of 2021.

With generous support from the Walton Family Foundation, we partnered with the Practical Farmers of Iowa to diagnose the behavioral drivers of cover crop adoption and understand how incentive programs can be better designed to encourage cover crop adoption among corn and soybean farmers. 

Financial incentives, such as cost-share programs, have been shown to increase cover-crop adoption; however, many farmers do not enroll in these programs, leaving money on the table that could help support practice adoption and bolster farm financial sustainability. Conservation incentives will not achieve their desired impact if farmers are not enrolling and taking advantage of them in the first place.


Our Approach

PFI— a membership organization committed to helping farmers achieve farming operations that are sustainable for both the land and people—runs the Cover Crop Cost-Share Program. The program gives farmers a financial incentive for planting cover crops, provides membership to the PFI community and technical assistance and support from PFI staff.

We conducted a behavioral diagnosis to better understand the behavioral barriers to enrollment in the cover crop cost-share program and successful adoption of cover crops. We reviewed PFI’s program materials, analyzed administrative data, and synthesized existing literature on barriers to cover crop adoption. To support this desk-based research, we conducted 24 in-depth interviews with relevant stakeholders including farmers, PFI staff, cover crop business operators, and landowners.



We identified eight behavioral insights, which identify contextual and behavioral drivers of cover crop adoption and cost-share enrollment. These insights span a farmer’s decision to use cover crops, their timely enrollment in PFI’s cover-crop cost-share program, and their follow-through on planting cover-crops.

Among these insights, we found that farmers’ risk tolerance for the ambiguity of cover-cropping is shaped by whether they are making their decision from a “’gains” mindset (i.e., good soil and high yields), or a “loss” mindset (i.e., facing ongoing or acute issues on their farm). On the other hand, farmers who may already be using cover-crops face confusing communications and complex rules regarding eligibility, which may lead them to mistakenly think they are ineligible for PFI’s program. And finally, for farmers who are both enrolled in the cost-share program and intend to use cover crops, we found that when the time comes to plant, changing weather conditions and immediate uncertainty may cause them to change their mind.



Our behavioral insights from this phase of work can be applied more widely to the adoption of agricultural conservation practices beyond cover-cropping, and perhaps in regions beyond the U.S. Midwest states in which PFI operates. In addition, with the evolving landscape around incentive programs—set into motion by the rise of carbon markets and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, and poised to evolve with the upcoming Farm Bill renewal— it is likely that our insights around enrollment in the cost-share program could inform future efforts to maximize the efficacy of incentive programs.

Concretely, we are using the insights from this phase of work to design and test behavioral interventions with PFI in 2023 and 2024. Interested in learning more about this work applying behavioral science to a crucial social problem? Reach out to us at info@ideas42.org or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.