CBEAR and its network of researchers applies insights from behavioral economics to better understand how and why people make decisions, and this research will ultimately help the USDA and its partners make programs better for farmers.

Improving Voluntary Incentive Programs

Conservation on private farmlands in the US is largely encouraged via a patchwork of voluntary incentive programs implemented by federal and state agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations and private sector actors. Similar programs exist in the EU. Billions of dollars are invested in these programs each year. Building on insights from the behavioral sciences, CBEAR tests innovative ideas to make these programs more cost-effective.

Example 1: Ag Values Project

Small changes in the decision environments, such as the starting bid values in auctions or the framing of conservation practices, can improve the cost-effectiveness of agri-environmental programs.

(Reference: “FERAL PIGS (1-2-06) canet road, morro bay, slo co, ca”by Sloalan is marked with CC0 1.0”)

Example 2: NOLS Project

Conservation programs are generally targeted at the farmer or “operator,” i.e., the person who grows the crops. These operators, however, are often not the same people who own the land.

(Reference: “File:Washington Crossing NJ State Park Delaware River looking across to PA.JPG” by Tomwsulcer is marked with CC0 1.0”)

Improving Conservation Communication and Outreach Programs

Most agri-environmental programs involve communication and outreach to farmers, ranchers, and private woodland owners. Building on insights from the behavioral sciences, CBEAR tests the prevailing wisdom about conservation outreach, as well as new innovative ideas for more effectively engaging agricultural producers. The goal is to identify how programs can be made more attractive to producers, more effective in encouraging the adoption of sound conservation practices and more likely to bring about the environmental improvements that everyone wants.

Example 1: Histosols

Should outreach materials offer farmers multiple options for action? Should outreach materials link farm practices to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change? Often the only way to know is to experimentally test different outreach options.

(Reference: “Soil Health_NR_05” by NRCS Montana is marked with CC PDM 1.0)

Reference: Soil Health_NR_05 by NRCS Montana is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Example 2: NACD Project

Conservation districts in the U.S. coordinate conservation activities on the ground. When they coordinate their activities nationally, they may have larger conservation impacts in their districts.

(Reference: “20120106-OC-AMW-0350” by USDAgov is marked withCC PDM 1.0)

Reference: 20120106-OC-AMW-0350 by USDAgov is marked withCC PDM 1.0

Understanding Financial Decision-making among Farmers

The field of behavioral economics has documented that consumers are not always rational, have limits to their self-control, and are influenced by their psychological biases. Less well understood is the degree to which those same psychological factors influence farmer decisions and what those factors imply for the design of agricultural policies and programs. Using methodologies from behavioral and experimental economics, CBEAR seeks to clarify the psychological factors of decision-making that are relevant to the design and implementation of agri-environmental programs.

Example 1: Discounting  Because both farming and conservation are fundamentally about spending money and time now to obtain returns in the future, farm programs need to understand how farmers tradeoff benefits now for benefits later. Yet direct measurement of how U.S. farmers discount future benefits is rare.

Example 2: Risk attitudes  Farmers’ attitudes towards uncertainty determine their input investments, their insurance choices, and their contract choices. Behavioral science has illustrated that these attitudes can be malleable and context-dependent, yet direct measurement of these attitudes among U.S. farmers is rare.

Understanding Private Sector Incentives for Improved Agri-Environmental Outcomes

Private sector incentives become increasingly important as consumers pay more attention to the environmental issues related to the food supply chain. Environmental benefits are often communicated to consumers via product labels and government and third-party organizations often set standards that farmers must meet to gain access to specialized markets. The objectives and mechanisms of these private sector incentives differ from those of public sector agri-environmental programs. Thus, it is important to better understand why, how, and how well private sector standards function and promote better agri-environmental outcomes.

Example 1: SMARRT Foods Project. Consumers face a wide array of food labels, many of which highlight the lower environmental impacts of certain agricultural production processes.  Our research examines consumer demand for these types of food and how this demand impacts the decision of the agricultural food supply.

Example 2:  CONSERVE Project Ag Values Project.  Water shortages are impacting many areas of the United States and the world – and the agricultural sector is the largest user of freshwater.  Technologies exist to recycle water and provide treated wastewater for use in irrigation, yet food grown with recycled wastewater faces consumer resistance. Our research examines this resistance and tests ways to overcome this potential stigmatization in order to promote better environmental outcomes.

To see an example of how we translate our research into program and policy advice, see our FPAC training modules on “Selling Conservation” at the NRCS National Employee Development Center.