How do working lands conservation programs shape cover crop adoption?


How do working lands conservation programs shape cover crop adoption?

June 16, 2022


Photo credit: Cathy Day CC BY-NC-ND

A recent study led by the American Soybean Association (ASA) claims to demonstrate the differing value of two agricultural working lands conservation programs and their ability to create increased adoption of cover crops. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) takes issue with several aspects of the study. 

First, the study makes a problematic assumption. It assumes there is a clear relationship between overall conservation program payment data (obligations, financial assistance, and technical assistance) and adoption of cover crops. Second, we question the assumption that sheer increases in acreage of cover crops adequately provide the needed conservation gains. Agronomic science on cover crops suggests that only high quality, permanent cover generates important conservation benefits–particularly for climate–that we are seeking to gain from cover crops. This second problem suggests the need for longer term contracts and support to enable farmers to adopt more complex systems with ground permanently covered. Third, key details of the ways in which the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) actually function are misrepresented in the article and deeply matter to how they influence conservation adoption. Fourth, historic trends in cover crop adoption shown in OpTIS satellite data contradict the study’s conclusion that EQIP creates additional adoption of cover crops. Finally, CSP by design can already buy us multiple years of cover crop adoption.

The two working lands conservation programs in question–the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)–each support a wide range of conservation practices. Both support the adoption of cover crops, but only as one among many practices geared toward improving on-farm conservation.

The way in which working lands conservation programs function is grossly misrepresented by the ASA study. The authors attempt to find correlations between levels of per-county spending on CSP and EQIP and the levels of cover crop adoption in those counties. This is like trying to find a correlation between total spending by customers at a grocery store and the rate at which the store stocks bananas. Yes, there will be some loose relationship between the two variables, but there are far too many confounding variables to say that there is any causal relationship between the total level of spending and cover crop adoption. 

Yes, both programs pay for cover crop adoption. But EQIP has more than 160 national level Conservation Practice Standards describing individual practices that the program can fund. All of these practice standards can be further adjusted by individual states to create different practices that work better in their geography. Total spending inside EQIP is spread across all of these practices and their various state level iterations, making it an indirect and imperfect metric to assess cover crop adoption at best. This problem of using total spending is only worsened when examining CSP as that program compensates farmers for implementing all the same practice standards as well as more than 200 Enhancements and Bundles. So, by design, CSP is both more complex and seeks to not just get cover crops on the ground, but to improve a producer’s cover crop program over the long term through enhancements, a fundamental step to building real environmental benefit on farms.

This raises the question of what kind of work the suite of conservation practice standards, enhancements, and bundles encompass. EQIP funding pays for both infrastructure development practices like waste storage facilities and animal mortality facilities, as well as management practices like prescribed grazing and reduced tillage. CSP funding supports farmers developing whole-farm conservation programs, including enhancements to practices that range from additional soil health improvements – from tillage, grazing, and forage practice improvements, to water quality and quantity enhancements, from improving habitat for pollinators and wildlife, to implementing and improving agroforestry systems. In short, neither CSP nor EQIP focuses exclusively on cover crop payments.

Therefore, looking at overall program payments from either CSP or EQIP tells us little to nothing about how many farmers were paid for how many acres of cover crops in a given county. The ASA report relies on the false assumption that more payments from either program equate to more payments for cover crops. It may be true in some cases, but without analyzing how much was paid out specifically for cover crops by each program, it is impossible to compare their effectiveness at encouraging adoption. 

Turning to the problem of one year’s worth of cover crops, one of the assumptions of the ASA report is that cover cropping automatically yields conservation benefits, including carbon sequestration, regardless of its quality or persistence on the landscape. This matters because one-time payments are the framework under which EQIP operates, while CSP offers long-term contracts to implement conservation benefits over a series of years. As Anna Cates and Randy Jackson highlighted at a recent Environmental Working Group (EWG) seminar, studies find that, on average, cover crops do not result in substantial improvements in soil carbon sequestration–one of the most frequently underlined benefits of cover crops. Instead, according to the studies Dr. Cates pointed out, only high-quality cover crops, with careful management that results in permanent ground cover, have the potential to offer this key benefit. That suggests that programs offering farmers time to transform their systems to permanent cover are far more beneficial and effective than those that incentivize them to implement cover crops on a one-time basis.

Further, spending on cover crops functions differently inside the CSP and EQIP programs, meaning that using total spending as a measure of each program’s impact on cover crop adoptions is an inherently flawed approach. Right now, producers in Iowa that elect to plant cover crops through the CSP program are eligible to receive about $8 per acre. This is only 19% of the EQIP per acre payment rate of $42 per acre. The ASA analysis in no way discusses or attempts to account for this difference in incentive size between the programs. NSAC has long advocated for increasing CSP per acre payment rates for cover crops, as well as other important conservation practices that work synergistically with cover crops, so producers have greater and more consistent support for their good work throughout our federal working lands programs.

This study also uses a temporally narrow definition of adoption that is problematic. The study only looks at the immediate adoption of cover crops in the short term, finding that if we increase EQIP spending in a given county in a given year, at least a portion of EQIP spending will naturally go to cover crops and therefore we will have “increased county wide adoption” of cover crops for that year. However, one of the most important things we need to gain from the adoption of management practices like cover crops is their relative permanence on the landscape over time. Farmers need to build cover crops into their rotations so that they continue to replant them year after year, and the ground is continuously covered. If this does not occur, most of the environmental and economic benefits of a cover crop program are temporary or never realized.

So, a study to determine cover crop adoption best looks at whether the practices are still applied several years after initial implementation. The ASA study makes no attempt to determine how payments influence use of cover crops beyond initial implementation, e.g., after their contract period ends. This is the crucial question to answer when determining the effectiveness of conservation programs as focusing on anything less is shortsighted and runs the risk of encouraging reckless spending.

Looking at the OpTIS data that this study relies on, there is ample evidence to contradict the idea that EQIP payments translate to durable, long-term adoption of winter covers. Looking at Iowa, a major soybean state, the OpTIS online data viewer (pictured below) shows that nearly half of the Crop Reporting Districts in that state experienced a decrease in the percentage of row crop acres planted to winter covers from 2005 to 2020.

Over the same time period, EQIP paid for approximately one million acres of cover crops across the state. The majority of payments for these acres fell between between 2014 and 2020, for an average of 112,571 cover crop acres per year in EQIP contracts in that seven-year time frame. Assuming that each year’s contracts really are creating durable, additional adoption of cover crops, we should see a strong trend toward a greater total amount of Iowa’s crop acres planted to cover each winter. If EQIP really creates additional adoption, we should see around one million acres of cover crop planted in Iowa by 2020. Yet OpTIS estimates that only about 281,000 acres of covers were planted in Iowa that year, and 160,215 of these can be accounted for by active EQIP contracts. 

Given the challenges that weather and crop rotations present, farmers will not necessarily replant cover crops on the same acres every year. However, seeing only about 120,000 acres of cover crops planted outside of EQIP contracts in a state where 1 million acres of cover cropping has been paid for over the last 15 years, raises some significant concerns about the program’s ability to create permanent adoption of management practices such as cover crops. There is a great deal of value in providing producers with the support and flexibility they need to trial a new practice, but we should never equate a year of experimentation with long term adoption.

While the ASA study’s short-term framing of adoption applies to CSP as well, that program has a fundamental advantage over EQIP on this front: producers sign five year contracts that encourage them to build up their conservation efforts throughout the entire contract period. Again, this is important when examining management practices like cover crops, as maximizing both the financial and environmental benefits that cover crops produce takes time and intentional incorporation with other conservation practices. A five-year period of transition to reduce fertilizer and pesticide inputs and replace their functions through cover crop practices allows farmers time to develop the details of a rotation that work best on their farms. With that period of transition, farmers can gradually reduce input costs and build soil health in ways that can make them more profitable on a per acre basis.

The ASA study’s description of CSP touches on the maximization of financial and environmental benefits, but mis-states important details. The study falsely claims that producers enrolling in CSP must enroll their whole farm in a practice they are interested in, like cover crops. The study then highlights this misinformation as a barrier to producers utilizing the program. In truth, while the entire farm has to be enrolled in CSP, there is no requirement that every acre must adopt every practice and every enhancement that a farmer implements through CSP.

Farmers have the ability to adopt cover crops, and improve on their cover crop program, for five years when they enroll in the CSP program, if they so choose. This multi-year contracting feature can be quite powerful in terms of overall program impact. The following table considers three recent years-worth of CSP sign-ups and their respective commitments to cover crops. 

National CSP Cover Crop Sign-Ups for 2018-2020

Year Acres Enrolled Practice Footprint:Position in Top 10 CSP Practices by Acres
2018 325,918 #2
2019 922,207 #4
2020 1,439,025 #4

Assuming all acres enrolled will be planted to cover crops each year of the five year CSP contract (which is not a program requirement!), then these three sign-ups would represent 2,687,150 acres of cover crop in the ground between 2020-2023. That’s 2.6 million acres that are receiving cover crops for multiple years, generating higher levels of environmental benefit, improving soil health on farms, and likely improving the bottom line for farmers. This is a brief illustration of the layering effect of multiple years of CSP contacts that results in a larger guaranteed cover crop footprint, as compared to examining what a single year’s sign-up or spending within that program will reveal.

In summation, due to the methodological problems, oversights, and mischaracterizations of CSP and EQIP in the ASA study, NSAC believes the study lacks credibility and limits healthy public debate. It misrepresents the links between total program payments and practices on the ground, it neglects the differences in incentives between CSP and EQIP, and it takes a common but problematic approach to defining adoption that overlooks the importance of long-term, permanent adoption transitions.


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