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  1. Improving the use efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most effective ways to mitigate agriculture’s contributions to climate change and water-quality degradation. However, studies suggest that many farmers worldwide are exceeding annual-profitable nitrogen rates and thus “overapplying” nitrogen. This paper utilizes a case study to understand overapplication at the individual level, focusing on (1) prevalence and severity of overapplication as defined by maximum profitable thresholds and (2) gaining an understanding of what factors limit overapplying farmers’ desire and capacity to lower their rates. Using a sample of 132 interviews with row-crop farmers in three states in the Midwestern United States, I find that 37% of interviewed farmers overapplied nitrogen by 5 lbs./acre or more, with few farmers adjusting rates annually and the largest farmers being most likely to overapply. When asked what prevented them from reducing their rates, overapplying farmers felt their current rates were appropriate or profitable, and thus, they did not desire to reduce them. Of these farmers, some assumed they could not be overapplying, some used more N to achieve maximized production, while others intentionally overapplied as a risk-mitigation strategy. I conclude by offering recommendations for policy and future research to build on this casemore »study.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 1, 2023
  2. Technical best management practices are the dominant approach promoted to mitigate agriculture’s significant contributions to environmental degradation. Yet very few social science studies have examined how farmers actually use these practices. This study focuses on the outcomes of farmers’ technical best management practice adoption related to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer management in the context of Midwestern corn agriculture in the United States. Moving beyond predicting the adoption of nitrogen best management practices, I use structural equation modeling and data from a sample of over 2500 farmers to analyze how the number of growing season applications a farmer uses influences the rate at which synthetic nitrogen is applied at the field-level. I find that each additional application of N during the growing season is associated with an average increase of 2.4 kg/ha in farmers’ average N application rate. This result counters expectation for the outcome of this practice and may suggest that structural pressures are leading farmers to use additional growing season applications to ensure sufficiently high N rates, rather than allowing them to reduce rates. I conclude by discussing the implication of this study for future research and policy.
  3. Scholars are increasingly calling for the environmental issues of the industrial agricultural system to be addressed via eventual agroecological system-level transformation. It is critical to identify the barriers to this transition. Drawing from Henke’s (Cultivating science, harvesting power: science and industrial agriculture in California, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008) theory of “repair,” we explore how farmers participate in the reproduction of the industrial system through “discursive repair,” or arguing for the continuation of the industrial agriculture system. Our empirical case relates to water pollution from nitrogen fertilizer and draws data from a sample of over 150 interviews with row-crop farmers in the midwestern United States. We find that farmers defend this system by denying agriculture’s causal role and proposing the potential for within-system solutions. They perform these defenses by drawing on ideological positions (agrarianism, market-fundamentalism and techno-optimism) and may be ultimately led to seek system maintenance because they are unable to envision an alternative to the industrial agriculture system.