Farmer interest in conservation is growing, but barriers remain high. Here’s how we can overcome them.

“Are you interested in planting hedgerows of native plants on your farm, but aren’t quite sure how to get started?”

That was the question Rex Defour, the California regional director for the National Center for Appropriate Technology, posed to farmers in a blog earlier this year.

The response? A flood of calls and emails from interested farmers. In a matter of weeks, 90 growers from across the country signed up to plant over 23 miles of hedgerows.

Hedgerows are native vegetation strips planted along farm edges or on unused farmland. Depending on the type of native plants used and the region they’re planted in, hedgerows offer a variety of benefits to both farmers and ecosystems, including reduced soil erosion, carbon storage and habitat for native birds, pollinators and insects that help control pests. (Photo credit: John Walker).

The response to Rex’s post demonstrates the eagerness of farmers to adopt conservation practices and reap the many benefits they bring. But it also shows that there is strong demand for conservation practices that is not being met by current conservation programs.

Here are three ways that we can learn from Rex’s experience to increase farmer participation in conservation programs.

1. Offer more technical assistance and fewer contractual obligations

Current U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Reserve Program, offer incredibly valuable services and resources to farmers. However, the programs often require significant paperwork and time investment for farmers to participate, creating a barrier to entry that cannot be underestimated.

By offering simple and accessible resources for planting hedgerows, in addition to personalized guidance and a helping hand, Rex was able to reduce the number of bureaucratic steps farmers needed to take, which opened the door to broad participation. Support like this, for which the majority of time is spent on education and problem solving rather than paperwork, should become the norm.

This takeaway was recently captured in a recommendation from the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which suggests using farm bill funding to recruit and train technical assistance providers to help producers overcome barriers to adoption.

By having more people like Rex available, farmers might be more likely to adopt beneficial conservation practices that boost their farms’ long-term resilience and productivity. Three ways to help farmers overcome barriers to participating in conservation programs. Click To Tweet

2. Tailor programs for different regions and crop types

Many conservation programs offered to farmers also take a one-size-fits-all approach, but a conservation practice on one farm doesn’t necessarily work the same way on another farm. The challenges and benefits tend to be regionally specific to the types of farms and local ecosystems.

For example, a key benefit of planting native hedgerows in California is attracting bugs that support crop pollination and help control pests that attack crops, whereas in Iowa the main benefit of hedgerows is reducing soil erosion. It’s essential for farmers and their advisers to have clear expectations of the costs and benefits of each conservation practice, before implementing them.

Rex’s commitment to helping each farmer manage these expectations was central to achieving the fast adoption he saw and will be essential to scaling participation in conservation programs more broadly.

3. Don’t forget about the edges

Many conservation programs are focused on practices within the field — practices like cover crops, conservation tillage and efficient nutrient management. But there is huge untapped potential for the edges of fields to contribute to on-farm resilience and improve environmental outcomes far beyond the farm.

Restoring natural features like hedgerows, buffers and wetlands to the agricultural landscape not only helps boost ecosystems services like pollination for farms, but also reduces risks from water pollution and flooding for downstream communities.

From Rex’s work in California to USDA programs across the nation, we need to continue finding and sharing solutions that break down the very real barriers farmers face when considering whether to adopt conservation practices. Their farms and all of our futures depend on it.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 11, 2021 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Would love for our organization, Tree Fresno, to be able to offer resources to farmers in our region, especially large canopy, drought-tolerant trees. Trees like these provide shade, wind protection, lower greenhouse gases, recharge the water table, provide homes for animals, and more. Lots of benefits to a variety of plants on farms, including trees.