Conservation agriculture practices like precision fertilizer application and cover crops can offer a multitude of benefits, including improving soil health, reducing crop losses during severe weather events, and increasing operational efficiency. Even with these benefits, the financial impacts of conservation practices remain a top deciding factor for farmers considering adopting them.

As farmers, our priority is to implement practices that not only benefit the land but also contribute positively to our farm's bottom line. We’re not alone in thinking this way. 

A recent survey of nearly 500 U.S. farmers conducted by McKinsey found that farmers are more likely to adopt sustainability practices that they perceive to have a strong return on investment. Practices with the highest perceived ROI — such as applying fertilizer based on soil sampling, reducing or eliminating tillage, and implementing variable-rate fertilization — have the highest adoption levels.

According to the survey, reliable ROI information was one of the most crucial conditions for adoption, with 42% of the farms citing its importance. In the absence of this financial information, many farmers will likely avoid making beneficial practice changes. Some innovative state-based programs have stepped in to help close this knowledge gap, but federal action to do the same would help many more farmers.

On our farm, we are lucky to have access to data and technical support to evaluate the return on investment of our cover crop implementation. We participate in the Minnesota Farm Business Management program, through which a farm business management instructor comes to our farm to assist us with financial recordkeeping, analysis, and benchmarking with our peers. It has provided us with data we can use to make our cover crop use more cost-effective.

However, not all farmers have access to reliable information on the financial impacts of conservation practices. This needs to change.

While initiatives like the one I’ve benefited from in Minnesota and the Precision Conservation Management program in Illinois have provided valuable insights, growers in other critical crop producing regions of the country still lack access to trusted consistent and representative financial information on conservation practices.

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This information gap poses a significant barrier to progress. Without a clear understanding of the financial implications, farmers may hesitate to adopt conservation practices despite their potential environmental and economic benefits.

To fill this gap, Congress should invest in enhancing research and education on the financial impacts of conservation practices. One promising solution is to create a National Center for Conservation Economics in the next farm bill to provide farmers across the country with access to critical financial information about conservation investments.

Supported by the Farm Credit Council, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota AgriGrowth Council, and the Center for Farm Financial Management at the University of Minnesota, among other organizations, the Center would sit within USDA and coordinate and fund the expansion of farm financial benchmarking efforts across states. It would also aggregate data within a secure database to provide national and regional analysis on conservation practices.

The center could leverage land-grant universities and farm financial benchmarking programs with expertise in farm financial management to gather, analyze, and share insights with producers locally.

It's time for concrete data and information to support farmers in profitably implementing climate-smart agriculture practices. With access to reliable and representative financial information, we can make more informed decisions about conservation investments that benefit both our operations and the environment.

Kristin Weeks Duncanson is an owner and partner at Highland Family Farms located in Mapleton, Minnesota.