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Editorial: Barriers to conservation

What’s stopping more widespread adoption of conservation practices?

November 2, 2020  By Stephanie Gordon

In this issue, there are several stories that touch on conservation practices: whether it’s minimizing winter runoff or investigating how a closed-loop drainage water recycling system operates. What’s less clear is, if all of these practices are so great for the environment why isn’t there widespread adoption?

In a 2019 study by Pranay Ranjan, Sarah Church, Kristin Floress and Linda Prokopy featured in the Society & Natural Resources journal, they discuss motivations and barriers for adopting conservation practices in the United States. The researchers found three themes that motivate adoption: farmer characteristics, environmental awareness, and trust in information sources. As contractors, you’ve probably met your fair share of farmers who are early adopters on the cutting edge of environmental practices and have great relationships with local extension staff or conservation groups.

While having these characteristics might make them more likely to adopt new conservation practices, the study also outlined barriers to adoption. They found farm management, negative perceptions of a conservation practice, perceptions that adoption is a risk, and land tenure, to be barriers to adoption. The last barrier – land tenure – was the focus of another study by Pranay Ranjan, who is based out of Purdue University’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. The Purdue University and The Nature Conservancy collaborative study looked at how farm land ownership creates barriers to conservation. The 2018 study, published in the journal Land Use Policy, found that those farming on rented land adopted conservation practices at a lower rate.

Barriers to conservation on rented land boiled down to cash-rent lease terms, rental market dynamics, lack of information, interpersonal barriers, and barriers that pertained to the landowner’s financial motivators. For example, short-term leases were preferred so that “landowners can renegotiate rent every year as a way to not be stuck with low rents if commodity prices go up.”


According to the study, about 39 percent of U.S. farmland is rented, and 80 percent of those acres are owned by non-operating landowners (NOLs), or owners who do not farm the land they own. The researchers focused their interviews in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. At 40.4 million acres, those three states have the highest proportion of rented farmland and the highest levels of nitrogen loss in the Mississippi River Basin. Understanding the barriers to adoption in NOL-farm operator relationships can lead to strategies that increase conservation practices on land where adoption rate is low.

The first step, the study discovered, was to address the “information deficit.” The researchers didn’t find an information deficit among farmers when it came to promoting conservation practices – farmers are, more often than not, aware of the practices. However, NOLs were a “heterogeneous group” when compared to farmers and it wasn’t clear what their information network was.

Another aspect was the mismatch between the incentives of a one-year lease term and the three to five years it would take to reap benefits from conservation practices. In addition to improving awareness, the paper’s authors recommended addressing lease barriers by creating more flexible lease terms and offering multi-year leases.

Finally, the paper said that conservation science has not focused on human behavior enough. Understanding how humans make decisions and their social processes can be leveraged to develop better strategies to promote the adoption of conservation practices.

Even though we know “drainage pays,” maybe we need to also put focus on understanding human behaviour and making favourable structural changes because cold hard facts only go so far.

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