What Might Happen If Farmers Were Paid to No-Till?

Guaranteed extra income could push conventional growers to make the switch ( Darrell Smith )

The smell of fresh-turned dirt can be almost therapeutic, but evidence proves excessive tillage can lead to soil degradation. While no-till provides many soil benefits, the risk of yield loss and disease carryover means some farmers shy away from the practice.
What would it take to convince a conservation- or conventional-till farmer to switch to no-till?

A couple economists decided to ask farmers. The answer? Increased net revenue of $10 per acre to switch from conservation till and $40 per acre from conventional.

“I don’t expect the government to pay people to do this,” says Ben Gramig, the co-writer of the no-till survey and a University of Illinois economist. “There are programs like EQIP or CSP that could provide payments to farmers who make these kinds of changes.”

He says the actual payout for programs such as EQIP is often less than what farmers indicated they want to receive in the survey. “It’s an important opportunity for Extension and education to reach those not using conservation tillage,” he adds.

Gramig, along with Nichole Widmar, a Purdue University economist who also conducted the survey, found where that money comes from matters to farmers. For example, if the government wanted to increase soil carbon sequestration they could ask farmers to adopt no-till and offer a per-acre subsidy. However, the study shows farmers don’t like the idea of a government subsidy and dislike market payment for carbon credits even more when compared with simply gaining higher net revenue by adopting no-till without payment.

“The most recent data we have for Illinois farms shows no-till makes a very small difference in net return and might only save $2 per acre,” Gramig says. “Strip-till can save $20 per acre more in net revenue, which is half of what farmers said they’d require to make the switch, and [there are] no government payments involved.”

The research also shows farmers are unlikely to sign multiyear contracts to move to no-till. They indicated they’re willing to give up $10.47 per acre to avoid a multiyear contract and instead remain year-to-year.

Alternatively, one farmer says you couldn’t pay him to go back to conventional tillage. No-tiller Matt Bainbridge said sustainable practices have the potential to lead to great benefits in the short term.

“I’m excited because our efficiency is getting better,” Bainbridge explains to Merit or Myth a South Dakota-based company that engages farmers, researchers and conservationists to better understand soil health.

“I think we’re building a more resilient soil,” he says. “We don’t have to put everything in there and get everything out every year.”

The group asked Bainbridge if he would consider going back to conventional tillage, such as for a monetary incentive. “Maybe, if I know I’m not going to be farming it for the next 30 years, I’d do it for $50 per acre, but no—I don’t want to till my soil.”

For him, the soil environment he’s created with no-till is too valuable to sacrifice. From better water infiltration to less nutrient use, the benefits speak for themselves, he says.