The role of systems thinking in cover crop adoption: Implications for conservation communication

Sarah P. Church, Junyu Lu, Pranay Ranjan, Adam P. Reimer, Linda S. Prokopy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


To address critical water quality problems, significant public and private sector resources in the U.S. have been directed to promoting and supporting the adoption of conservation practices. Cover crops, in particular, have been a focus of outreach and policy efforts due to their multiple benefits for crop production, carbon sequestration, soil health, and water quality. We hypothesize that Indiana's state and local agencies have emphasized a systems approach to conservation planning and farm management, which has been successful in reaching a subset of farmers and has established Indiana as a national leader in cover crop adoption. We contend that the systems approach to conservation adoption is not a salient message to farmers who have yet to implement conservation, thus adoption (particularly cover crops) may be stagnant. Early work on systems thinking (ST) in conservation is dominated by qualitative research. Here, we make a first attempt to quantify the relationship between ST and cover crop adoption through producer surveys administered in three Indiana watersheds – St Marys, Big Pine, and Upper White. We found that farmers who adopted cover crops were more likely to be systems thinkers than farmers who had not adopted cover crops. These results have significant implications for conservation planners and educators across the U.S. and internationally who are working to implement additional conservation acreage – a whole farm systems approach to conservation messaging may not be an effective method for farmers who have yet to implement conservation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104508
JournalLand Use Policy
StatePublished - May 2020


  • Agriculture
  • Communication
  • Conservation
  • Environment
  • Systems thinking
  • Watersheds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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