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Why Behavioral Economics?

CBEAR and its network of researchers apply insights from behavioral economics to better understand how and why people make decisions.   What we do ultimately helps the USDA and its partners make programs better for farmers.



Behavioral Research that Advances Sustainable Farming 

We use experimental behavioral science to determine which mix of approaches work best to achieve persistent climate-smart habits.  One primary area to consider is the pathway for enrollment to federal conservation programs.  Our research tests whether various simplifications in the application process can lead more farmers to want to enroll in agri-environmental programs and whether these conservation practices persist over time.  Of course, we also want to ensure that these simplified applications do not lead to higher rates of non-compliance with program rules which is a great place to conduct testing.  

At CBEAR, the questions we ask aim to help conservation practitioners, scientists and producers.  We identify the best ways to ensure program adoption and, importantly, to better understand what leads to persistent conservation practices.


Rented Farmland:

The Missing Piece of the Nutrient Management Puzzle in the Upper Mississippi River Basin?

Runoff from agriculture in the Upper Mississippi River Basin causes downstream environmental impacts, including a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.


To reduce these impacts, governments incentivize farmers to adopt conservation practices. Yet despite decades of assistance, adoption remains low. One overlooked reason for low adoption is the high percentage of farmland that is rented. On rented lands, the transaction costs of conservation are higher and the misalignment of incentives between landowners and the public is greater.


Moreover, most landowners in the Basin are not farm operators themselves and thus are missed by traditional forms of conservation outreach. By changing the marketing and design of conservation programs to target non-operating landowners and their tenants, efforts to abate agricultural pollution in nutrient-laden watersheds will be

more successful. 


We outline a vision for change and argue that legislation can create incentives for collaborative experimentation to more rapidly design programs that work.

Addressing the environmental impacts of large-scale agriculture requires innovative approaches to conservation program design and evaluation. We used a randomized controlled trial and a sample of 2,225 landowners in the Mississippi River Basin to test a new conservation program that targets a growing but overlooked population—non-operating landowners (NOLs).


To spur the adoption of conservation practices on farmland rented out by NOLs, the program provided NOLs with ready-to-use lease language and a financial incentive. The program’s design was informed by fieldwork, behavioral science literature, and social science literature on barriers to conservation on farmland.


We cannot detect an effect on conservation practices from the lease language or the incentive. The take-up rate for the incentive was one-tenth the expected rate based on NOL responses to a hypothetical offer in a survey. The results underscore the importance of assessing program performance by rigorously testing programs in real conservation settings.


Using a Randomized Controlled Trial

to Develop Conservation Strategies on Rented Farmlands


Agricultural Values, Innovation & Stewardship Enhancement Project

CBEAR created the Ag Values Project project as a testbed for behavioral insights in the agricultural context. By creating a “name-your-own cost-share” auction, we have been able to improve environmental outcomes, like water quality and invasive species control. Ag Values Project has demonstrated that behavioral nudges can be effective ways to encourage cost-effective conservation actions by landowners, while preserving farmers’ autonomy and control over their decision-making. Simple changes to the program environment, such as changing the default starting points for programs, can result in large efficiency gains for government programs. These improvements can help use taxpayer money more efficiently to achieve additional environmental benefits, without changing any laws or program rules.

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