Scaling-up conservation practices: how much can farmers afford?

Prairie strips have the potential to contribute a suite of ecosystem services. A new study from the MSU Kellogg Biological Station finds a large swath of corn and soy cropland could be converted to prairie strips under appropriate payment schemes.

The following article was originally published on the Michigan State University Kellogg Biological Station website.

Prairie strips planted into row crops have the potential to contribute a suite of ecosystem services, such as improved soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat. When it comes to implementation, farmers have to weigh these environmental benefits as well as the economic cost of taking land out of production.

In a new study, released online by Land Economics, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers find that 20% of corn and soybean farmers in the Eastern Corn Belt are willing to convert 5% of their largest corn-soybean fields to prairie strips if paid the same average amount that USDA pays under the current Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  The study, authored by Zachary Luther, Scott Swinton, and Braeden Van Deynze, was conducted in the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, where Swinton is a University Distinguished Professor, and Luther and Van Deynze were graduate students.  Luther is now a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University, and Van Deynze is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington. 

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Authors Zachary Luther, Scott Swinton, and Braeden Van Deynze.

“We found that a large swath of corn and soy cropland that is managed, could be converted to prairie strips under the appropriate payment schemes” said Luther who worked with Swinton and Van Deynze to analyze the 2018 survey experimental data. “This is an exciting result in an era where planting prairie strips is a new practice that is gaining increased attention by researchers and farmers alike.”

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was conducted in 2018 when prairie strips were added into MSU’sKellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) as part of a cross-disciplinary project to understand the ecological benefits of prairie strips in Michigan farming systems and farmer adoption.

In order to understand the willingness of farmers to adopt prairie strips, Braeden Van Deynze worked with Swinton and sociologist Sandra Marquart-Pyatt to design and implement the survey.  It was released in 20 different versions, each one offering the recipient farmer a different payment for planting prairie strips on their largest field.

Not only were on-farm environmental benefits considered, but farmers’ perceptions on the local impacts of prairie strips mattered in their decision to adopt the practice. 

“From prior survey research, we knew that row-crop farmers were likely to be reticent about adopting prairie strips without compensation,” said Swinton. 

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A prairie strip planted within agricultural research fields at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research site. Photo by Elizabeth Schultheis.

In 2019, after the survey was completed, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Services Agency (FSA) introduced the Prairie Strip Conservation Practice (CP-43) into the 2018 Farm Bill. “That says that planting prairie strips could really scale up under a federal conservation program that already exists.” said Swinton.

This research serves as a link between ongoing research on the ecological benefits of planting prairie strips and the real-world farmers who decide whether to plant them. “These findings come at an opportune time, just as the KBS LTER is beginning research on the ecological and agronomic impacts of prairie strips through the new MiSTRIPS program, in collaboration with Iowa State. Our survey established a baseline willingness-to-adopt for regional farmers, setting up opportunities to track how KBS LTER findings might impact farmer adoption of this emerging practice in the future,” said Van Deynze.

For this research, Van Deynze (Ph.D.) and Luther (M.S.) both won Outstanding Thesis awards in 2020 from the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics.

Press contact – Scott Swinton swintons@msu.edu with any questions or follow-up

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