Improving NRCS’s Efforts to Sell Conservation
In a meeting between CBEAR and USDA employees from different agencies*, people had conflicting opinions about what approach would work best in a new outreach program on soil health. The problem was a lack of strong evidence to support any of the opinions. To address this problem, the group decided to run a randomized controlled trial to test the competing opinions.
For example, some group members believed that the outreach program should offer farmers many options for engagement. Based on insights from the behavioral sciences, other group members warned that offering too many options could reduce the likelihood that farmers would take any action (so-called “choice overload”).
To shed light on this issue, the group collaborated to run a randomized controlled trial with approximately 10,000 producers in the Great Lakes region. In the soil health outreach initiative, some farmers received an invitation only to visit a website and learn more, while others received an invitation to visit the website and the additional opportunity to participate in a webinar. The webinar required more of the producers’ time, but provided more information to them.
In the end, few producers participated in the webinar. Worse, simply offering producers the opportunity to participate in the webinar reduced the likelihood that a producer would visit the website by 50%. In other words, by offering the additional opportunity to participate in a webinar, the outreach materials dramatically reduced the chances that a producer would learn anything about the program.
The program learned that people can be overwhelmed by too many choices and subsequently fail to act on any of the options. In future efforts, the team would consider staggering the presentation of the options for engagement to make the outreach more effective.
*Including: the USDA Office of the Chief Economist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and the Economic Research Service