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Improving Assistance for Farmers

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.



Improving Technical Assistance Makes Conservation Possible

Technical assistance is usually the first step in a farmer's efforts to plan for climate-smart practices.  And it is integral to the

follow-up steps needed to implement and maintain any pollution reduction practice or structure. 

Conservation on private farmlands in the US is largely encouraged via a patchwork of voluntary incentive programs implemented by federal and state agencies,

as well as nongovernmental organizations and private

sector actors.


Similar programs exist in the EU. Billions of dollars are invested in these programs each year. Building on insights from the behavioral sciences, CBEAR tests innovative ideas to make these programs more cost-effective.


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

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