A Rising Number of Women Farmers: Is There a Need to Adjust Conservation Incentives?

Cornhusker Economics September 27, 2017A Rising Number of Women Farmers: Is There a Need to Adjust Conservation Incentives?

Currently, male principal operators predominate the farming industry. However, the number of female operators is increasing. Hoppe and Korb (2013) reported the share of farms headed by females increased from 5.2% in 1978 to 13.9% in 2007. According to the US 2007 census, there were 300,000 principle female operators and about 700,000 secondary female operators on American farms (as cited by Hoppe and Korb, 2013). Women also tend to head smaller farms and are more likely to use sustainable agricultural practices (rather than conventional practices) than men (Fremstad and Paul, 2016). Simultaneously, there is a growing concern regarding the sustainability of agriculture and the effectiveness of financial incentives coupled with dwindling governmental support of conservation projects. In response to this concern, non-monetary incentives and soft nudges have been shown to be effective in some contexts (Akerlof and Kennedy, 2013). In light of these statistics and current developments, we set to investigate whether there is a difference between women’s and men’s response to financial incentives, empathy nudging, and the combination of both in the context of environmental conservation.

Women are stereotyped as being more empathetic and emotional, while men are generally believed to be more oriented toward profit considerations and motivations. Consequently, if stereotypes correspond to reality, to encourage men to participate in conservation, policies should offer primarily monetary incentives, while to encourage women to participate, policies should appeal to empathetic considerations.

Based on these stereotypes and the previous literature, we formed our hypotheses/prior expectations regarding the study results. Our expectations across genders were that financial incentives would work better with men, empathy nudging with women, and the combination of financial and empathy nudging will be equally effective. We also hypothesized, that there are differences within genders. Within women we expected that the combination of nudges will be the most effective, followed by empathy nudging and by financial incentives. Within men, we similarly expected that the combination of nudges will be the most effective. However, it will be followed by financial incentives with empathy nudging being the least effective.

We used a framed laboratory experiment to test our hypotheses. The experiment modeled a situation in which the upstream farmer chooses the level of conservation, which then affected the downstream water user. Higher conservation level led to a decrease in the farmer’s payoff, but an increase in the payoff to the water user. To encourage conservation, the farmer was either given financial incentives, a message from the water user nudging for empathy, or a combination of both.

The results (see Figure) confirmed our expectations only in part. As we expected across genders, financial incentives were more effective for men than for women. However, contrary to our expectations, the combination of monetary incentives and empathy nudging was much more effective for women than for men. Within a gender we also received mixed results. Intriguingly, and contrary to our expectations, for women, both financial incentives and empathy nudging were equally effective. Men behaved in line with expectations, demonstrating high sensitivity to financial incentives, while empathy nudging was not effective. For women, the combination of nudges was much more effective than each nudge alone. For men, the combination seemed less effective than financial incentives. However, when we controlled for past behavior (the results are available upon request), the combination turned out to be generally slightly more effective than each nudge alone. Since conservation policies are implemented against the background of existing operations/past behavior, this result confirms the importance of such nudges.

Figure. Increase or decrease in conservation levels in response to the policy change by gender.

bar graph depicting Increase or decrease in conservation levels in response to the policy change by gender

In conclusion, we suggest that the current trend of increased female ownership and farm operation warrants reconsideration of environmental and conservation policies and their incentives. To be effective, these incentives need to appeal to both male and female agricultural producers. The wider incorporation of soft nudges, such as empathy nudges, can do just that. An additional argument is that such nudges are cheaper and often easier to implement. Moreover, they require no expenditure or governmental enforcement as they will rely on social enforcement and compliance to behavioral norms. Examples of these nudges are letters addressed to farmer operators urging them to consider the impact of their actions on their neighbors and future generations, educational meetings where extension educators/conservationists provide verbal and non-verbal cues to be more empathetic to the environment, and local efforts to build a sense of community and unity with the ecosystem.


Marianna Khachaturyan, Ph.D.
Department of Agricultural Economics Alumna
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Natalia V. Czap, Associate Professor
College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters
University of Michigan-Dearborn

Hans J. Czap, Assistant Professor
College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters
University of Michigan-Dearborn

Mark Burbach
School of Natural Resources
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Gary Lynne, Professor Emeritus
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Akerlof, K., and C. Kennedy. 2013. “Nudging toward a healthy environment: How behavioral change research can inform conservation.” White paper for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University.

Hoppe, R. A., and P. Korb. 2013. "Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms," USDA-ERS Economic Information Bulletin (111).

Fremstad, A., and M, Paul. 2016. “Opening the farm gate to women? Sustainable agriculture in the United States,” PERI Working paper no. 422. https://www.peri.umass.edu/publication/item/763-opening-the-farm-gate-to-women-sustainable-agriculture-in-the-united-states