Santosh Pathak, Adusumilli, Naveen
Santosh Pathak and Naveen Adusumilli
Louisiana rests alongside the Gulf of Mexico and provides an outlet for the nation’s most important river, the Mississippi, and some of its tributaries. To reduce agricultural runoff into these water bodies and improve soil-water quality around farms, Louisiana farmers have been implementing a wide range of environment-friendly and sustainable farm practices often called best management practices. Some common categories of best management practices in Louisiana include tillage management, nutrient and irrigation management, cover cropping, crop rotation, drainage water management and livestock access control. These practices are not only important from the perspective of environmental conservation and resource stewardship but are also equally essential for strengthening farm resilience against extreme weather events and promoting production sustainability in agriculture-dominant regions. Therefore, there is a rising interest among farmers to implement different kinds of best management practices while also producing crops or raising livestock. Since the 1997 inception of working lands programs, which aim to support U.S. agricultural producers, crop acreage in Louisiana implementing best management practices is increasing at the rate of 10% every year.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) assists farmers with implementing a wide range of best management practices through conservation contracts spanning from one to 10 years. The conservation contracts are appealing to the farmers for three reasons. First, they reimburse around 50% to 75% of the costs associated with the implementation of best management practices. Second, they provide on-farm benefits like yield stability, repletion of soil organic matter and reduction in farm input usage. Third, off-farm benefits such as reduced soil erosion and improved water quality promote environmental amenities around farms. The multitude of benefits attracts a large number of farmers to the contract applicants pool. However, only about one out of three farmers applying for the contracts are eventually awarded, sometimes due to the interest in implementation surpassing the availability of funds within the programs.
The recent trend shows that NRCS Louisiana specifically prioritizes contracts aimed at restoring soil organic matter, promoting plant productivity, increasing irrigation efficiency, wildlife habitat management, controlling soil erosion, integrated pest management, and livestock feed, forage, and water management. A retrospective view of the historical conservation contract allocations shows that Louisiana farmers received more than $680 million in payments in return for their conservation efforts on more than 6.33 million acres of private lands since 1997. These substantial investments were made through two working land programs — the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Both of these programs provide financial and technical support to help farmers recoup some of the implementation costs and realize conservation benefits.
According to Figure 1, NRCS investment in EQIP is increasing recently; however, it is in a decreasing trend for CSP. This is an indication that government support is increasingly concentrated on the program that facilitates conservation initiation rather than the continuation of existing best management practices.
Around 23,000 conservation contracts were awarded to Louisiana farmers through a competitive selection process from 1997 to 2019. The yearly allocations were around 988 contracts across the state. However, as Figure 2 shows, all the contracts do not reach completion. One out of five conservation contracts is either canceled or terminated for various reasons. There are many factors that prevent completion, including inadequate cost-share rate, the time lag in the realization of on-farm benefits and difficulties in aligning the dual motives of profit generation and resource stewardship. There has been renewed focus to fund contracts with multiple practices that address both the financial and production-related concerns of the farmers. This renewed focus is based on research that showed that once farmers are enrolled in the program, they are likely to show persistence with their conservation activities even after the end of the contract. For instance, we can see that farmers implementing cover crops, conservation crop rotation, conservation tillage, and nutrient and irrigation management show a greater than 70% chance of continuing to implement best management practices even after their initial NRCS contract is completed. More interesting is that many farmers who disadopt conservation practices after the contract ends still move to alternative conservation practices instead of returning to the state of no conservation. On average, the chance of moving to no conservation state is less than 4%, with the maximum being around 12%.
The future adoption level of best management practices in Louisiana will depend largely on the level of outreach to the farmers about the private and societal gains from these practices. With changing markets, weather patterns and competition from growing economies, farmers might need funding agencies and policymakers to provide continued assistance in the upcoming farm bill so that the farmers can continue to be key players in environmental sustainability while maintaining economic profitability.
Santosh Pathak is a graduate student, and Naveen Adusumilli is an associate professor, both in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.
This article appears in the winter 2023 edition of Louisiana Agriculture.
A tractor works in a field that is used in a study for best management practices. AgCenter file photo
Figure 1. Payment and acreage distribution in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) during 1997-2021.
Figure 2. Contract allocations and their status distribution in Louisiana during 1997-2020.