Research Project

Understanding Farmer Adoption of Practices That Conserve Irrigation Groundwater and the Role of Sponsored Incentive Programs

Investigators: Nicolas Quintana Ashwell, Drew Gholson, Gurpreet Kaur, Gurbir Singh

Date: 2021

Project Summary

Importance of Practices That Conserve Irrigation Groundwater

There are 2 types of practices that are considered groundwater-conserving. The first type consists in practices that increase the supply of irrigation water, such as managed recharge, surface water use, and pluvial and irrigation runoff capture and reuse—these are key practices to stop and reverse aquifer depletion but tend to be high upfront cost and show benefits in the long-run. The second type is related to practices that allow to sustain observed levels of agricultural output with lower levels of water use or to expand the levels of agricultural output given observed levels of water use—these practices are unlikely to stop but can slowdown aquifer decline while sustaining or expanding farmer profitability.

The Role of Practice Profitability

On-farm water conservation research and extension work pioneered in the Delta by Dr. L. Jason Krutz has consistently showed many of the type-2 practices can be implemented without reducing crop yields or farm profitability. However, many of those practices are yet to be widely adopted in the Lower Mississippi River Basin (LMRB). This indicates that other factors are important determinants in the decision to adopt water-conserving practices. We know farmers farm for different reasons, including financial, cultural and idiosyncratic motives. It is also clear that Delta farmers have a deep-rooted sense of stewardship towards the land and wildlife. Consequently, NCAAR researchers explored these additional factors by analyzing survey data to discover additional socio-demographic factors that influence their decision to try and continue certain conservation practices in their operation. This is a brief summary of the main lessons learned from those analyses.

The Role of Farmer Perceptions and Beliefs

Perceptions and beliefs are psychological mechanisms that help humans capture and interpret information; and subsequently inform the actions and behaviors associated with that information. In this case, the survey data collected allowed us to understand that the belief or perception that there exists a groundwater problem at the farm or state level is an important determinant of adopting several groundwater-conserving practices. For example, farmers who have this perception or belief are 25% more likely to adopt tailwater recovery systems, 30% more likely to adopt computerized hole selection, 26% more likely to employ surge irrigation, and 41% more likely to have pump timers installed. These beliefs are significantly (positively) correlated with the number of practices employed by a given producer. An important insight gained from the analysis is that this perception or belief is greatly determined by what the farmers perceive happens with their own water well levels (see Table 1). Furthermore, they are more likely to perceive a change in water levels if they are located in the so-called “cone of depression” area. The challenge this imposes to conservation agencies and the farmers themselves is that the nature of the alluvial aquifer itself makes it difficult for changes in aquifer levels to be perceived or identified by farmers. Consequently, an important role exists for the agencies monitoring the evolution of the alluvial aquifer to effectively communicate with regards with the current and projected status of the aquifer in different locations.

The Role of Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in Adoption Decisions

These factors do not necessarily have a clear mechanism by which they influence producer behavior towards conservation practices, but they are observable. There is also evidence that they correlate with the unobservable underlying factors that do affect such behavior. Consequently, it is highly important to inquire about these factors in surveys while ensuring that the producer responses remain anonymous and to reassure participating farmers that the information they provide remains unidentifiable and confidential. Once significant correlations between these factors and behaviors are identified, the social scientists describe mechanisms that could explain the correlations. For example, the more years of formal education the farmer receives, the more likely they are to practice surge irrigation or employ sprinklers. A plausible explanation is that this factor allows the producer to better cope with systems that are more complex. In contrast, the greater the number of years of farming experience, the least likely, all else equal, the farmer is to plant cover crops—this factor is also negatively associated with the total number of practices employed. The survey inquired about broad categories of household income levels and significant relationships were identified but the use of categorical variables made it difficult to draw any inference from the result. This highlights the importance of allowing farmers to voluntarily and confidentially report approximate levels of income to facilitate the analysis.

The Role of Incentive Programs in Adoption Decisions

Sponsored conservation programs that offer incentive payment to producers are an important resource that helps cover implementation costs and reduce the risk of potential losses derived from implementing a new conservation practice. Our regression analyses revealed that these programs are not significantly associated with adoption of any particular groundwater conserving practice (except soil moisture sensors) but they are significantly and positively associated with the number of practices employed by growers. Figure 1 illustrates this relationship graphically. The survey responses allowed us to construct adoption curves for different practices based on the estimated dates farmers started to employ different practices (left axis). Plotting administrative NRCS expenditure data for the Delta region of Mississippi (right axis) we can see the tracking and tracing of these curves.


The potential of agronomic practices to alleviate the depletion of the alluvial aquifer is the compounded product of the inherent water- saving potential of the practice (maximized via discoveries in agronomic research) and the degree by which they are adopted by growers (understood via social science research and propagated via outreach and extension efforts). These components are at the core of the organization design of NCAAR that aims at addressing the challenge to produce ever- increasing levels of agricultural output while sustainably accessing groundwater for irrigation from the alluvial aquifer.


This report is based on ongoing research, including the following publication: Quintana-Ashwell, N., Gholson, D. M., Krutz, L. J., Henry, C. G., & Cooke, T. (2020). Adoption of water-conserving irrigation practices among row-crop growers in Mississippi, USA. Agronomy, 10(8), 1083.

Project Photos
Understanding Farmer Adoption of Practices That
Conserve Irrigation Groundwater and the Role of
Sponsored Incentive Programs
  • Topic:
  • Decision
  • Irrigation

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