“Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019” recently was published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The report explores factors that influence farmer decisions about conservation practices. Those factors involve agricultural policy and technology availability, as well as resulting effects on resources.

Government policies, such as USDA conservation programs, affect farmer decisions. Those programs provide about $6 billion annually for financial and technical assistance to support adoption of on-farm conservation practices.

The USDA conservation effort relies mainly on voluntary incentive programs. The USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program provides funding for retirement of environmentally sensitive land. But the largest share of funding is used for incentivizing conservation practices on lands that remain in production. USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program is one such program. It provides financial assistance to farmers who adopt or install conservation practices on working land.

Five main crop-management practices typically have been awarded funding.

  • conservation crop rotation
  • cover crops
  • nutrient management
  • terraces
  • conservation tillage and residue management

Conservation tillage is incentivized directly through working-land conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It also is incentivized indirectly through “conservation-compliance” requirements. Conservation compliance requires farmers with extremely erodible cropland to adopt conservation tillage to maintain eligibility for federal agricultural programs.

“No-till” involves planting directly within the residue of a previous crop. “Mulch till” lightly disturbs soil but preserves much of the previous crop’s residue. Between 2004 and 2017 wheat producers increased the share of conservation-tillage acres from 37 percent to 67 percent. More modest increases were observed for corn, soybeans and cotton.

By adopting soil-health and conservation practices farmers have helped reduce erosion on working lands. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s National Resources Inventory showed that between 1982 and 2012 erosion on cultivated cropland declined by 45 percent. Soil erosion declined from 2.9 billion tons in 1982 to 1.6 billion tons in 2012. While part of the decline was due to less land being cropped, a large portion was due to changes in agronomic practices.

Conservation incentives interact with technology, which further influences production decisions, resource use and environmental quality. Conservation programs and the development of more-efficient irrigation systems, for example, have driven an increase in water-use efficiency. The shift from gravity-flow irrigation to pressurized sprinkler systems has been significant. In 17 western states water applied using gravity systems declined from 71 percent of total applied water in 1984 to 41 percent in 2013.

Total applied water remained fairly constant in that period. That reflected other factors influencing regional water demand.

  • increases in irrigated area
  • changes in cropping patterns
  • increases in crop yields
  • shifts in water consumption

Precision-agriculture technologies also have altered agronomic decisions and environmental implications of those decisions. Variable-rate technologies use localized field-crop information to customize application of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. Variable-rate technology enables farmers to manage inputs foot by foot rather than field by field. It enables them to use prescribed amounts of inputs, which reduces production costs as well as off-field impacts of the inputs. Forty percent of planted corn acreage in 2016 was managed using variable-rate equipment.

The USDA report features data and analyses on factors affecting resource use and quality in American agriculture. It explores trends in several areas.

  • public policies
  • farm structure and economic conditions
  • farming and conservation practices
  • productivity and technological change
  • resource use
  • commercial-input use
  • environmental-impact indicators

The information helps the public as well as private decision-makers to better understand how to best manage agricultural inputs. It also provides insights on interactions with natural resources to preserve the health of natural resources and agricultural productivity.

Elizabeth Marshall is an economist in the Conservation and Environment Branch of the Resource and Rural Economics Division of USDA's Economic Research Service.