How Much Do We Pay for Conservation Practices on Farms?

The conservation practices implemented on farms across the country provide ecological benefits, including improved soil health, water quality, and biodiversity outcomes. While the benefits of these practices are not always quantifiable, we can use the ‘going rate’ for their implementation (as paid for by the USDA) as an indicator of the value they create. Using data available from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, we can see how the payment rates for various practices vary across states.  However, this data is kept in obscure pdf files. There are fifty states, four programs, and hundreds of individual payments within that matrix – so more than 200 pdf documents with tens of thousands of data points.  It cost us $200 to scrape the data out of these pdfs, and using Tableau, produce visualizations that allow comparison of one activity and how much you are paid for it across all states, and other obvious kinds of crosstabs.

Why create this?

It’s an opportunity for innovators and government to make conservation more effective and efficient. Making this data accessible and easy to navigate is the first step in improving the process by which these practices are put into action. We also hope to connect this data to modeled outcomes that estimate the kinds of outcomes these practices produce.  How many pounds of nitrogen does “Alley Cropping” keep out of rivers or how much carbon is kept in the soil by “Streambank Protection?”  Once price and outcome are connected, it becomes possible to see both the most efficient way to get more results for public dollars, but also to let farmers find ways to do this on their own – rather than by government recipe – and pay those farmers the same rates for outcomes that government uses for its own methods.  If farmers and other experts have better ways to produce results, we should let them use those methods, not hold them back.

Dashboard created by Alex Ashby. 

AMA: Agricultural Management Assistance
CSP: Conservation Stewardship Program
EQIP: Environmental Quality Incentives Program

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