Study: Many Farmers Practice Conservation Out of Empathy for Others

Study: Many Farmers Practice Conservation Out of Empathy for Others

March 6, 2009

A strong version of the Golden Rule comes into play when farmers decide to engage in soil conservation tillage practices, a UNL Extension study suggests.

When determining what motivates farmers to practice conservation tillage, researchers found that a sense of empathy or "walk-in-their-shoes" mentality is clearly evident, according to research by Gary Lynne, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, and Robert Sheeder, a former master's student and currently a program specialist with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

Lynne and Sheeder studied the practices of farmers in the Blue River/Tuttle Creek Lake Watershed of Nebraska and Kansas located in a four county area — Gage and Jefferson counties in Nebraska and Washington and Marshall counties in Kansas. A survey was mailed to the farmers and 498 responses were used for statistical analysis.

The empathy factor was a new insight discovered in the research. Farmers following these practices "are saying 'How would I like to be treated?'" Lynne said in an interview.

Several variables in addition to empathy were considered in assessing what motivates farmers to engage in conservation tillage technologies. The other variables include income capacity; psychological tendencies for pursuing self-interest versus pursuing a shared interest in conservation with others; habit; and a sense of control.

While all of the variables played a role, empathy plays a central part. The report found that farmers who recognize the water quality problem in the watershed caused by erosion and subsequently empathize with downstream water users are more likely to practice conservation tillage, said Lynne and Sheeder, writing in the January Cornhusker Economics.

"In fact, we show that farmers with even a small interest in identifying with downstream water users are anywhere from 4 percent to 9 percent more likely to use conservation tillage technologies," they said.

Conservation tillage includes no-till or low-till practices so that residue remains on the soil to prevent erosion and runoff into the watershed. Some find the practice profitable but others do not.

"It is not overly profitable, but generally a profit can be made," Lynne said. "If profit was the only reason, everyone should be doing it. Some do it and some do not do it."

The number of farmers practicing conservation tillage varied widely in the test area, Reeder said. In Gage County, 85 percent to 90 percent of the farmers practiced it, while in the Kansas counties the rate was 50 percent or less, he said.

The research confirmed that while profitability was a motivation to farmers who practiced conservation tillage, a $1,000 increase in income only increased the odds of conservation tillage by less than 1 percent.

Habit played a role as well, the report said. Farmers who have practiced conservation tillage in the past are more likely to practice it now. In addition to empathy, the issue of control was another new insight gained in the research, the report said. The research indicated that a farmer who believes that use of conservation tillage results in a loss of control over farming operations is less likely to use the technology.

Lynne and Sheeder began their research about two years ago under a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant given to a team of researchers from universities and state agencies in Kansas, Iowa and Missouri as well as Nebraska. The three-year grant covers research into a variety of issues pertaining to conservation research policy on agricultural land for the purpose of improving water quality, Lynne said.

The Cornhusker Economics article is available at

Lori McGinnis
IANR News Service

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