CFAES researcher part of new project studying conservation incentives, farming practices

An Ohio State University researcher is part of a new $750,000 project to determine whether conservation incentives provided by the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) are meeting one of their goals: to get more farmers to adopt measures that preserve water quality.

Robyn Wilson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science in Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), will co-lead the project’s social component along with Stephen Gasteyer of Michigan State University.

The overall leader of the two-year project, called Researching Effectiveness of Agricultural Programs, or REAP, is the binational Great Lakes Commission (GLC) based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Since 2010, the GLRI has provided farmers in the Great Lakes basin with more than $100 million to increase their adoption of conservation practices by making them more affordable. The practices include growing cover crops and reducing tillage, for example. The practices are meant to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff from farm fields, a contributor to harmful algal blooms and oxygen-free “dead zones” in the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie. Key among those nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus.

“A comprehensive, socioeconomic approach to evaluating GLRI investments is smart accounting,” said Jon W. Allan, GLC chair and director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes. The new project will help decision-makers “understand the current and potential future impact of GLRI spending on agricultural conservation incentives,” he said, noting that more than 48 million people rely on the Great Lakes for tourism, drinking water, business and more.

Wilson will compile survey data from four Great Lakes watersheds, including Lake Erie’s Maumee River watershed in northwest Ohio, and will collect new data as needed. The research will look into farmer adoption of conservation practices, reasons for adoption, and social indicators of success, such as gaining new knowledge to use in the field and greater capacity in local communities to use that knowledge.

The project will focus geographically on the Maumee River in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan; the Lower Fox River in Wisconsin; the Saginaw River in Michigan; and the Genesee River in New York, all of which the GLRI has identified as priority watersheds due to water quality concerns there.

In addition to an interdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners from Ohio State and Michigan State, the project will have an advisory council whose members represent a range of interest sectors and geographic regions. An economic analysis, led by Michigan State’s Saichon Seedang, also is part of the project.

“I’m excited about developing these new collaborations with the GLC and Michigan State,” Wilson said.

She said the work builds on her past and current research on farmer land management decisions and water quality, and that it will “inform future investments in this area by more comprehensively capturing the successes to date.”

“REAP will not only look at the practices on individual farms, but also at the institutions and political structures that drive farmer behavior,” said Victoria Pebbles, GLC Program Director. “We hope to allow decision-makers to target future GLRI investments to better ensure funding is improving Great Lakes water quality for generations to come.”

The GLC has a long history of working with local, state and federal partners to reduce sediment and phosphorus entering the Great Lakes through innovative and collaborative programs and leads a portfolio of projects that seek to improve water quality in urban and rural settings, and across watersheds. For more information, visit glc.org/work/water-quality.

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