Lessons In Farmer Motivation from Europe’s Results-Based Conservation Program Pilots

By Hannah Castelo, EPIC intern, Cornell in Washington

The development of sustainable agriculture has become a top priority for much of the world. Changing weather patterns and unpredictable extreme conditions as a result of climate change continue to threaten production. While programs aiming to balance ecological sustainability and maximum production currently exist in the US they are often criticized as ineffective, costly, and lacking long term engagement of farmers. New pilot projects in Europe that aim to redefine conservation payments to focus on maximizing environmental outcomes of agriculture aim to successfully address these issues. Interest in the US to move towards implementing similar program designs has been building; however, broad engagement and participation by the farming community is necessary for the success of any new program. Lessons learned from results-based conservation program pilots provide insight into motives of farmer participation and long term engagement. These revelations can inform the US in their effort to move towards sustainable results-based conservation programs.  

Practice v Results-Based Conservation Programs

Since the 1980s the United States has developed and implemented a variety of agricultural conservation programs. These largely voluntary programs incentivize farmers to adopt best practices to produce numerous ecological benefits while maintaining maximum production. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), run by USDA and NRCS, provides direct financial assistance to farmers looking to implement new technologies and management practices to reach a clear conservation goal. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in 1985, provides payments to farmers that voluntarily take environmentally sensitive land out of production. Under the 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that spending on conservation programs will total $29.5 billion over the 2019-2023 period. Despite significant investment over four decades, the initiatives continue to be ineffective in their pursuit of producing reliable positive environmental outcomes.

Practice based conservation programs (programs that pay farmers for implementing specific management practices i.e cover cropping, no-till, etc.)  lack targeting of at-risk ecosystems. The structure of payments is ultimately founded on the assumption that if ‘best practices are adopted on enough of the land then environmental benefits will eventually follow.’ This shot-in-the-dark method of pursuing environmental benefits is often costly and does not guarantee results. As a reaction to this, performance or ‘results-based’ agri-environmental programs (often called “schemes” outside the U.S.) are now seeing widespread interest from governments across the globe. 

Europe in particular has piloted and adopted several results-based programs over the past decade with varying degrees of success. These programs are largely voluntary and provide payments to farmers based on the presence of quantifiable environmental outcomes. For example, one of the most famous programs comes out of Baden-Wurttemberg Germany and provides tiered payments to farmers that have between four and six ‘indicator species’ on their land annually. Another example coming out of England, termed the UK RBAPS,  utilizes a scoring system to assess the quality of biodiversity on farmlands.

Results -based programs are often self monitored, localized and heavily involve community leaders in training and facilitation processes. As a result, these programs are cost-effective and achieve clear environmental outcomes for the most part.

Speaking in terms of environmental success, results-based programs obviously have the potential to produce clearer benefits for a lower price tag. However, success of conservation programs goes beyond simply tallying plant species and tracking nutrient flows. 

How a community will respond to any new intervention is a question that developers have asked for decades. The implementation of agriculture based programs is no exception. The willingness of farmers to participate in a program is obviously key in any level of success. Furthermore, the goal of any conservation effort should be long term change which will require long term commitment from farmers and communities. Therefore, comparisons in participation motivations and insights into the evolution of farmer attitudes in both practice and results-based case studies can inform US approaches to potentially adopting federally administered results-based conservation programs. 

Farmer Participation Factors 

Farmer perception of conservation schemes and their corresponding willingness to participate has been studied in depth for years in the United States. Analysis of individual factors has led researchers to the broad conclusion that preexisting financial resources, access to relevant information, and the presence of local farm networks have the largest impact on farmer adoption. Additionally, farmers who felt they had  a ‘responsibility to others’ to protect land and produce environmental co-benefits were most likely to voluntarily adopt conservation practices.  A preexisting knowledge base and  more experience were also found to have a significant impact in voluntary farmer participation.

Farmers who had been farming longer, were more familiar with the land, and were more ‘conservation oriented’ were likely to seek out conservation programs independently. Similar results have been found in studies aiming to understand farmer motivation to participate in results-based conservation programs. A report led by the Institute for European Environmental Policy revealed financial incentives combined with the belief that their land could meet defined biodiversity targets largely motivated farmer participation in results-based pilots. Again, larger farms and longer term/more knowledgeable farmers were more likely to see the value in initial participation in results-based programs. 

While the motivations for initial adoption of agri-environmental programs in the United States have been explored and defined, the effect of participation in these programs remains to be seen. Seeking to understand the evolution of farmer attitudes toward environmental stewardship as a result of participating in conservation schemes will be key in ensuring long term participation and cost-effectiveness of future conservation programs. However, research on changes in farmer attitudes in Europe when switching from management based programs to results-based programs has been recorded through pilot testing and can be particularly informative for the US context. 

Evolution of Farmer Attitudes

Practice based management programs in Europe present very little evidence in terms of having a positive impact on farmer attitudes towards conservation. Farmers that have been a part of both practice and performance based programs describe their understanding of environmental responsibility as radically changed from one experience to the next. Practice based programs were described as restrictive and perceived as ‘an external constraint’ by farmers. Generally speaking, practice based programs tend to foster negative feelings towards conservation programs amongst farmers. 

Conversations with the manager of UK RBAPS revealed that training programs and self monitoring activities positively impacted farmer knowledge of environmental biodiversity and participants were willing to continue with the scheme due partly to a new sense of environmental stewardship. The local nature of results-based programs not only provides targeted environmental benefits, but also allows for increased farmer autonomy and contribution to program design.

This newfound  ‘freedom to farm,’ often allows for the collaborative development of solutions to common problems across communities. Participant surveys conducted in the ALUS Canada management program revealed that community led approaches to addressing environmental concerns allowed for knowledge transfer between farmers.The creation of a space where farmers can use and share their individual knowledge base in pursuing a common goal became a source of pride for farmers and created a sense of commitment and local ownership over land health. 

Biodiversity  programs in Germany and France also both present evidence of the impact results-based programs have on attitudes of participants. In France, over the course of several pilot projects a nationwide competition meant to encourage participation has attracted thousands of farmers. The Flowering Meadows Championship presents prizes to the hay meadows and pastures that boast the best balance of biodiversity and production. Surveys of those who have participated revealed the following sentiments. 

“The attitudes of those farmers who have entered the competition has changed considerably. Where farmers first saw flowers as things ‘cows do not eat’ and did not consider themselves ‘nature gardeners’ now they have a much more positive view towards maintaining species richness in their meadows. ‘Our work is really recognised for once. It’s very important to us to show that we aren’t ‘big polluters’.’’

Overall, there are significant lessons to be learned from the piloting of performance based programs in Europe that could positively impact the participation and valuation of conservation programs in the US. Implementing programs that guarantee environmental benefits in a cost effective manner will be crucial for the United States’s pursuit of sustainable agriculture moving forward. Results-based programs can provide these benefits in the long term but will only be successful if given the support of the knowledgeable and invaluable farming communities across the nation. 

Key Takeaways

  • Results-based programs pay farmers for producing quantifiable environmental outcomes and are cost-effective in achieving their conservation goals especially when compared to practice based programs. Results-based programs generally tend to maintain long term participation, increase intrinsic motivation for land stewardship, and see targeted cost effective results. 
  • Factors that influence initial voluntary participation in conservation programs seem to be similar across both practice based and performance based scenarios. Fear of not meeting payment requirements could potentially play a larger role in persuading participation in results-based programs; however, this has not been the case in many pilot programs. 
  • The increase in farmer autonomy and the ‘freedom to farm’ that is characteristic of results-based schemes are less restrictive on farmers than the management prescriptions associated with practice based programs and thus encourages participation. 
  • Collaborative efforts and community led results-based programs have increased transfer of knowledge between farmers and allowed for an increased understanding of biodiversity and the value of conservation.

Check back in June for an in depth report on the European pilot projects and the potential of results-based conservation schemes in the US!