Empathy Conditioned Conservation: "Walking-in-the-Shoes-of-Others" as a Conservation Farmer

Since the destruction and despair caused by the dust bowl of the 1930’s, Americans and their government have taken a keen interest in natural resource conservation policy on agricultural land. The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 was the first farm bill to include provisions that provided payments to farmers willing to employ soil conservation measures (Cain and Lovejoy, 2004). While the main purpose of this bill was to provide financial support to impoverished farmers, the fact remains that natural resource conservation was starting to become an important issue for the American public. Over time, conservation titles in the farm bill have evolved into legislation that protects several resources, including surface water. Expenditures have also significantly increased. While giving monetary payments to individual producers engaging in conservation activities is ultimately a policy decision, the underlying assumption for these payments is one outlined in traditional microeconomic theory, which presumes producers are engaging in activities that will maximize profits. Since conservation activities are not inherently profitable to the individual farmer, payments are provided under the presumption that the only way to increase conservation efforts is to increase profits. The environmental results from these payment schemes have been mixed. With this in mind, the USDA has begun funding research that examines the underlying factors that motivate producers to engage in conservation activities. As part of this new research, a collaboration of researchers from a group of Midwestern universities and government agencies recently engaged in a study of conservation behavior exhibited by producers located in the Blue River/Tuttle Creek Lake watershed of Nebraska and Kansas. Examination of this particular watershed was conducted because it currently provides drinking water to areas of northeast Kansas that are exhibiting rapid population expansion, such as Manhattan, Lawrence, and Kansas City. The Blue River/Tuttle Creek Lake watershed covers a large portion of southcentral and southeast Nebraska, as well as northeast Kansas. However, the use of natural resource assessment maps and empirical surface water quality data served to identify a critical four county area of nonpoint source runoff near the Nebraska-Kansas border that may have the largest impact on Tuttle Creek Lake. Particular attention was paid to the adoption of no-till/conservation tillage strategies in this area due to the sedimentation problem in the Lake. Data was obtained through the use of both focus groups and a mail survey. Overall, the survey response rate was 17.1 percent (639 survey responses; 498 surveys were used in the statistical analysis). Variables used to assess what motivates farmers to engage in conservation tillage technologies included income capacity; psychological tendencies for jointly pursuing self-interest and an empathy conditioned, shared other-interest; habitual tendencies; and preferences for control over farming operations. Results confirmed some old notions and added several new insights into what actually motivates being a conservation farmer. As economic (and policy) tradition suggests, we confirmed that income (i.e. financial capacity) was a significant variable. However, the models showed that a one thousand dollar increase in income only increased the odds of conservation tillage adoption by 0.4 to 0.6 percent (i.e. less than 1 percent). The first new insight suggests that farmers who recognize the water quality problem in the watershed and subsequently empathize with downstream water users (i.e. “walk-in-their-shoes”) are much more likely to engage in conservation tillage strategies. In fact, we show that farmers with even a small interest in identifying with downstream water users are anywhere from four to nine percent more likely to use conservation tillage technologies. Related to this empathy phenomenon, we also show that people other than the individual farmer can influence the decision to use conservation tillage. We found that the odds of conservation tillage adoption increase by nine percent for those farmers that think farm entities (i.e. lenders, chemical and seed suppliers, equipment dealers, etc) believe that they should use conservation tillage technologies. Intriguingly, though, we also found that the opinions of family members and downstream water users do not have a significant impact on the tillage decision. Another new insight points to how preferences for control impact the decision. Our results indicated that a farmer who believes the use of conservation tillage results in a loss of control over farming operations is less likely to use the technology. In fact, the odds of conservation tillage adoption decrease by about nine percent for those that perceive just a small loss of control over farm operations when using conservation tillage technologies. Finally, we find that a farmer’s habitual tendencies play a large role on the tillage adoption decision in the study area, with the odds of conservation tillage adoption increasing by nearly forty percent if a farmer has used conservation tillage in the past. While some would argue that “we always knew that current choice is affected by past (habit) choice,” the underpinnings are in fact quite new. Only in recent years have behavioral and neuroeconomics researchers documented that we run on automatic most of the time. So, it takes greater financial incentives to move a farmer to a conservation path (i.e. change habits) than it does to keep someone on that path. So what is the bottomline? We conclude that a single over-arching conservation policy based in traditional economics will not work. Rather, a behavioral economics framework gives a a more reasonable and rational basis for said policy. In particular, in addition to financial incentives, policy needs to recognize habits and control, and especially the role of empathy, i.e. “walking-in-the-shoes” of others: Emotions (reflected in empathy) play a much larger role in truly rational choice than traditional economic thinking acknowledges. Solving environmental quality problems depends on better understanding the human dimension of conservation decisions. Cain, Z., and S. Lovejoy. “History and Outlook for Farm Bill Conservation Programs.” Choices (2004): 37-42.

Issue Date:
Apr 29 2009
Publication Type:
Conference Paper/ Presentation
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 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2017-04-26

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