Best Management Practices

Exploring Wisconsin Farms and Water Quality

I spent this past summer conducting National Science Foundation (NSF) research at the University of Wisconsin-Stout alongside a team of 10 students from across the country. Each student came from a different academic discipline (both natural and social sciences), making it one of the first interdisciplinary Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) ever funded by NSF. I worked most closely with another economics student and a research mentor to evaluate the economic impacts of phosphorus pollution and mitigation within a watershed in Wisconsin. This project is part of a larger, long-term, interdisciplinary research project looking at the issue of toxic blue-green algae blooms in a Wisconsin lake, a watershed-wide issue involving many stakeholders, including farmers, citizens, and policymakers. I am passionate about the environmental impacts of agricultural systems, so this internship opportunity was a perfect fit for my interests, as well as my academic and professional goals.

I designed and disseminated surveys to Wisconsin farmers to attempt to better understand trends in Best Management Practice (BMP) adoption by capturing the economic landscape of Wisconsin farms. BMPs are ecologically sensitive alternatives to conventional farming practices. Soil loss and declining soil health are of heightening concern to Wisconsin farmers, policymakers, and citizens as these issues can be detrimental to profits and yields and can damage water quality through sedimentation and nutrient loading. In this watershed, excessive phosphorus loading from soil loss causes blue-green algae blooms that are toxic, unsightly, and a sign of an unhealthy ecosystem. BMPs can mitigate soil loss, but their effectiveness is still debated.

As I met with stakeholders, excavated through the massive piles of returned surveys, and journeyed through the world of statistical software, I found answers to important questions:

1) Which incentives do farmers find to be effective in easing their transitions to BMPs?

I found that farmers find technical help and education programs to be helpful incentives, along with the farmer-led councils that often provide these two incentives. The value placed on education and technical help is true for all farm types and sizes. On average, these incentives are more helpful than easement programs, tax breaks, and subsidies.

2) How interested are farmers in participating in education programs?

I determined that 23% of respondents have high interest in education, having mostly attended a variety of education programs. Likewise, 28% of respondents have medium interest in education, expressing interest in relevant education programs of all types as well as having participated in some education programs. Finally, 49% expressed low interest, being only interested in some or no education programs.

3) To what extent are farmers currently using BMPs?

This survey asked farmers about their use of conservation easements, crop rotation/cover crops, conservation tillage, waterway buffer zones, manure management, and fencing off livestock from waterways. I found that 45% of respondents are high adopters of BMPs, whereas only 33% are medium-level adopters and 22% are low adopters. This revealed that a large portion of farmers use a combination of various BMP options available.

4) Which variables and factors influence adoption of BMPs?

I found that various factors have significant impact on a farmer’s level of BMP adoption. For each additional incentive a farmer uses, their BMP adoption increases by 3.2% and for each unit increase in the frequency of soil testing, BMP adoption increases by 7.2%.

Those farmers in younger age groups increase their BMP adoption by 6.1%. This means that younger farmers are more readily adopting BMPs. Also, farmers that have children have a BMP adoption rate that is 9.5% higher than that of farmers without children. This could be due to an investment and interest in future generations.

On average, the prospect of increased profits and yield in the long-run encourages farmers of all farm types to adopt BMPs, whereas current policies and capital costs are generally perceived to have a more negative than positive impact, often hindering adoption.

Presentation

Overall, I learned an immense amount about farmer BMP adoption and water quality, but most importantly, I learned about the importance of connecting with others. The connections made between citizens, policymakers, and farmers via our research are making a profound difference in this community. Also, I have had many networking opportunities in the field of environmental economics and have been guided towards greater opportunities for further academic research and graduate studies, as well as career opportunities.

By: Lauren L’Esperance ’14

Environmental & Natural Resource Economics Major

Sustainability and International Development Minors

December 8th, 2014