Conservation enrollments may have helped producers tackle the effects of the 2012 drought by increasing preparedness, USDA Economic Research Service researchers found in a recent study.
Though the programs are not explicitly designed to help reduce vulnerability to drought, researchers found that many of the practices used in the programs – investment in irrigation efficiency, adoption of conservation tillage, using rotational grazing and idling of sensitive lands – have helped improve preparedness.
The latest report helps analyze the role of drought risk in farmer participation in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program and the extent to which drought adaptation influences farmer behavior in enrolling in conservation programs.
Researchers said the CRP, which provides an annual payment for acres not in production, has several economic benefits and is therefore desirable to farmers in drought-prone areas.
Those economic benefits include less revenue volatility, rejuvenation of groundwater and provisions for haying and grazing. The research explains that less volatility means a steady stream of income, more groundwater provides a benefit to surrounding cropland and haying and grazing frees up more forage for livestock in times of a shortage.
Further, ERS researchers determined that CRP enrollments demonstrate a connection to climate adaptation based on three factors:
1. If farmers perceive changes in the risks they face, they are likely to search for ways to reduce their vulnerabilities, thus opting for CRP enrollment.
2. Adaptation will impact USDA programs – such as CRP – that are not necessarily designed with such adaptation in mind.
3. Various program provisions (as in the CRP) may lead to greater drought-risk adaptation, depending on program design.
When evaluating CRP benefits, adaptation trends and enrollment records dating back to 1997, researchers found drought risk has a large impact on the likelihood that land will be enrolled in CRP. However, current program limits – such as total acreage allowed and acreage allowed based on the potential for drought – keep some producers wishing to use CRP as a drought mitigation tool from doing so.
While researchers noted that the impact of conservation programs on participating farms experiencing drought can vary dramatically from year to year, there is a potential to market the CRP's connection to limiting drought vulnerability and enhancing climate adaptation. But that could bring new challenges.
"While conservation programs could be changed to allow more significant use in drought adaptation in the future, doing so would have implications for regional enrollment distribution, environmental benefits, and program cost effectiveness," ERS researchers concluded.
View the full study here.