What Might Happen If Farmers Were Paid To Use No-Till?

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 benefits to the soil, the risk of yield loss and disease carry-over means some farmers shy away from the practice.

But what would it take to convince a conservation tiller to go all no-till? What would it take to convince a conventional tiller to go no-till?

Economists from Illinois and Indiana asked farmers that very question. The answer? Increased net revenue of $10 per acre to switch from conservation till and a $40 per acre switch from conventional.

The survey was conducted by Nichole Widmar, Purdue University economist, and Ben Gramig, University of Illinois economist. They found where that money comes from matters to farmers—and they say it would be difficult to achieve that dollar value by just adopting no-till and there are other options to raise farm revenue.

For example, if governments wanted to increase soil carbon sequestration they could ask farmers to adopt no-till with a per-acre subsidy, the authors explained in a recent press release. Or a carbon market such as the one used in California allows carbon-emitting businesses to pay others to reduce emissions rather than reducing their own. This would allow a farmer to switch to no-till based on the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil by not tilling.

However, the study showed farmers don’t like the idea of a government subsidy—and disliked market payment for carbon credits even more when compared to simply gaining higher net revenue of adopting no-till without payment.

“Farmers would rather forego carbon payments of $2.48 per acre or $12.78 per acre from either respective payment source if an increase in net revenue after adopting reduced tillage practices is possible without any carbon payment,” the authors explained in the study.

Their research also shows farmers are less likely to sign multi-year contracts for moving to no-till. Farmers indicated they’re willing to give up $10.47 per acre to avoid a multi-year contract and instead stay year-by-year.

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

“I’m excited because I think our efficiency is getting better,” Bainbridge said to Merit or Myth a South Dakota-based company that engages farmers, researchers and conservationist to better understand soil health. “I think that we’re building a more resilient soil. We’re building a soil that helps us more. We don’t have to put everything in there and get everything out every year. We can kind of use the soil to help use along to store the water, store the nutrients in there and we don’t have to add every single thing that we need to get out of that for a good crop.”

The group asked Bainbridge if he would ever 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. I have no interest in it,” he said.

For him, the environment he’s created in the soil using no-till is too valuable to sacrifice. From better water infiltration, to applying fewer nutrients, the benefits speak for themselves on his farm. In addition, labor shortages mean tillage just might not be possible on his farm.

“I don’t know how we would have time to do all the extra tillage,” Bainbridge said. “It would probably be at night or we’d probably [have to] let something else slip or hire somebody. So [no-till] fit into our operation with a small labor force.”

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