ECU professor using economics to influence farming

As eastern North Carolina farmers continue to adjust to commercial challenges in the face of an aging population and overall decline in farmland, one East Carolina University professor is using the power of economics to aid the region.

Dr. Greg Howard, an assistant professor of economics, is helping shape policies to encourage best farming practices that assist rural farmers while also benefiting the environment.

Howard’s work at ECU focuses on determining what incentives are useful to farmers to change the way they handle nutrient runoff from fertilizer and waste byproducts produced by their farms. This nutrient runoff often finds its way into a region’s rivers and streams, potentially contaminating water sources.

As an economist, Howard is charged with finding a balance between economic incentives that are cost effective and provide the greatest benefit to the environment. An example would be subsidizing a farmer’s installation of a field-edge filter strip, which reduces the contamination of surface water.

Howard’s previous work in northwest Ohio’s Maumee River watershed, which feeds into Lake Erie, sought to examine what incentives could be offered to farmers to attempt to reduce agricultural runoff. The watershed – which faced extensive pollution in the 1960s due to point-source pollution from industries and urban homes – was facing another crisis, this time from agricultural pollution.

“The watershed was becoming polluted again and was producing harmful algal blooms,” Howard said. “In order to solve the problem, we had to control the pollution coming from rural farms. Our study looked at not putting the burden only on farmers through regulations and taxes, but using voluntary incentive programs to change behavior.”

Howard and his research team sought ways to offer farmers cash incentives, provided by the USDA and other federal and state agencies, to entice them to follow best management practices that would reduce runoff. The team surveyed current practices, compared those to best practice methods, and determined which incentives provided the most cost-effective measures to produce positive environmental changes.

“We wanted to find out what farmers in this region would do, and how much money it would take, to change their farming practices to reduce pollution,” Howard said. “The question we had to ask ourselves was, ‘What can we do at a low cost to make the most impactful changes to land use and land management?’”

Regional impact

While Howard’s previous work focused on farmers in Ohio, he believes the same strategies can be put into place in eastern North Carolina.

“Researchers are taking a similar mindset in identifying optimal policies and using them here in the Tar-Pamlico region,” Howard said. “There are some important differences – the watersheds are not the same – but we have groups of biologists and engineers that can examine how different land-use changes can impact nutrient loading in local river systems.”

North Carolina’s Pamlico estuary has faced nutrient-related pollution problems from agricultural runoff since the 1980s. The state has established the Tar-Pamlico Nutrient Strategy, which aims to reduce the excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus introduced in the watershed that harms fish and plant life.

Howard said that his job, once again, will be to figure out what incentives regional farmers need to keep eastern North Carolina’s water systems healthy.

“My job, and the job of others in the area, will be to survey farmers in the region and find out what practices they’re not doing and what we need to do to lessen the amount of nutrients entering water systems,” Howard said. “If we don’t do this sort of thing, and we do not take steps to reduce nutrient loading, it can create problems that are harmful to the area.

“If we do not clean up the problem ourselves, the state could come in and heavily regulate the process,” he said. “We want to achieve better outcomes by helping the environment, while bringing money to rural areas. If we implement these types of incentive policies, it benefits the farmers, it benefits the environment, and when it’s done at a low cost, it benefits taxpayers as well.”

Rural prosperity

Howard’s research highlights a key ECU mission – solving challenges faced specifically by rural North Carolinians.

The university announced its Rural Prosperity Initiative last year, which harnesses the intellectual strengths and research facilities of ECU to improve the quality of life, health, education and employment for people and communities in eastern North Carolina.

Howard said that ECU’s commitment to combining its resources through interdisciplinary collaborations can be seen in this type of research.

“Everyone in academia understands the strengths of their own discipline,” Howard said. “The big problems we face in rural areas are issues that one group cannot tackle alone. No one is well trained enough in every discipline to take on these problems alone.

“These problems are big and complicated; that’s why they’re still around,” he said. “If they were small and easy, they wouldn’t be there. It takes a group of people, with a lot of different strengths, to face these problems. Our different departments at ECU work well with one another to face these challenges as we come together to understand the impact economic policies will have on the land and our environment.”

North Carolina’s Pamlico estuary has faced nutrient-related pollution problems from agricultural runoff since the 1980s.

North Carolina’s Pamlico estuary has faced nutrient-related pollution problems from agricultural runoff since the 1980s.