My dissertation was motivated by resource conservation concerns raised by the spread of center-pivot irrigation technology in the Northern High Plains.  Since then, I've branched out into issues relating to nonpoint source pollution, soils, and agricultural sustainability more generally.

Some research highlights in this area are:

Research Results


Promoting adoption of BMPs has been the centerpiece of efforts to meet water quality goals in the Chesapeake Bay for over a quarter of a century.  The 1998 Maryland WQIA accelerated those efforts by requiring nutrient management plans for commercial farm operations. Compliance with TMDL water quality regulations is likely to require even more widespread use of BMPs and may require expansion of existing policies or development of new policies.  This report provides an overview of current use of BMPs and characteristics of nutrient management plans in Maryland a decade after implementation of the WQIA.

Lichtenberg, Erik, Doug Parker, and Sarah Lane, “Best Management Practice Use and Nutrient Management in Maryland: A 2010 Snapshot”, Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Policy, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland, College Park, February 2012.

We examine whether subsidies for conservation on working farmland induce farmers to expand cultivation on more vulnerable land, potentially offsetting reductions in environmental spillovers, using a switching regression model with endogenous switching and censored endogenous variables applied to Maryland farm-level data.  We find no indication that cost share awards are targeted toward water quality improvements.  Receipt of cost sharing increases conservation practice adoption but not the shares of land allocated to conservation, implying little adverse selection in awards.  Cost sharing decreases the share of land allocated to vegetative cover, so that environmental quality improvements from conservation are likely offset to some degree.

Lichtenberg, Erik and Ricardo Smith-Ramirez, “Slippage on Conservation Cost Sharing”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 93(1), 113-129 (January 2011).

Research by agricultural economists on natural resources has been distinguished by an interdisciplinary emphasis and a dynamic perspective. It has recognized technological and institutional constraints, has been oriented toward solving concrete resource management and policy problems, and has emphasized empirical and quantitative analysis. Agricultural economists have introduced methods for evaluating natural resource conservation efforts, for predicting adoption of resource conservation technologies, and for designing efficient and sustainable resource management policies. They have identified ways of improving land management and preventing land degradation, proposed reforms of institutions governing water allocation and water quality, and introduced policies for balancing environmental and efficiency considerations in the management of pests, biodiversity and livestock diseases.  Their research has had substantial impacts on the formulation of resource conservation policies.

Lichtenberg, Erik, James Shortle, James Wilen, and David Zilberman, “Natural Resource Economics and Conservation: Contributions of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Economists”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 92(2), 469-486 (January 2010).

Spatially differentiated policy instruments are efficient when landscapes are heterogeneous.  But these policies are generally not self-enforcing, so ensuring compliance is costly. We examine the design of agri-environmental policies designed to achieve reductions in fertilizer application rates and installation of riparian buffers through the use of incentive-based instruments. We derive monitoring strategies capable of ensuring perfect compliance from risk neutral farmers given realistic limits on penalties for non-compliance. We then apply that framework empirically using a parametric model reflecting Finnish agricultural and environmental conditions. The results of our simulations indicate that subsidies for installing and maintaining buffer strips, used alone, are the most cost effective means of reducing nitrogen runoff from crop production. This policy is also the most attractive politically, in that it reduces farm income less than the alternatives considered.

Lankoski, Jussi, Erik Lichtenberg, and Markku Ollikainen, "Agri-Environmental Program Compliance in a Heterogeneous Landscape", forthcoming in Environmental and Resource Economics.

Nutrient management planning has been advocated as a means of improving efficiency and reducing environmental problems but these gains may not be realized if plans overstate fertilizer requirements.  Using data from a survey of Maryland farmers, we find that nutrient management planning was adopted more frequently by larger operations raising grain or cattle but not by those on more environmentally sensitive land.  Independent crop consultants and fertilizer dealers were more likely to recommend increases in fertilizer use, consistent with fears about bias.  Farmers preparing their own plans were more likely to recommend decreases in fertilizer use, suggesting the presence of hidden information.

Lawley, Chad, Erik Lichtenberg, and Doug Parker, “Biases in Nutrient Management Planning”, Land Economics, 85(1), 186-200 (February 2009).

It has long been argued that tenants tend to overexploit land, but this conventional wisdom has been derived largely without considering how landlords might act.  In some caseslandlords can invest in durable conservation measures in addition to choosing rental contract terms.  When tenants are risk neutral, landlords overinvest in conservation under cash rental contracts but can achieve fully efficient levels of output and protection against land degradation when conservation investment is combined with share rental.  When tenants are risk averse, the first best is unattainable.  In this case, conservation investment combined with share rental results in output levels below the first best, while equilibrium conservation investment may be greater or less than the first best.  These results suggest that contract form and conservation investments are likely made simultaneously, so that econometric studies of conservation practice adoption that treat rental status as exogenous are likely subject to bias.

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Tenants, Landlords, and Soil Conservation”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 89(2), 294-307 (May 2007).

 Bulte and van Soest (JDE 1999) argue that higher agricultural output prices result in greater soil conservation when labor markets function well but have ambiguous effects when labor markets are absent. The latter result is not attributable to labor market failure but rather occurs whenever labor supply is less than perfectly elastic. Consistent with the more general model presented here, empirical evidence from a number of developing countries suggests that well-functioning labor markets are associated with decreases in investment in soils.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "'A Note on Soil Depth, Failing Markets, and Agricultural Pricing': Comment", Journal of Development Economics 81, 236-243 (2006).

Maryland farmers' adoption of some best management practices is highly responsive to adoption costs, suggesting that cost sharing can induce substantial increases in adoption.  Several practices appear to be complements.

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Cost-Reponsiveness of Conservation Practice Adoption: A Revealed Preference Approach”, Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 29, 420-435 (December 2004).

The sustainability of agriculture and prospects for improving its environmental performance are inherently limited.  Agriculture's high degree of variability makes direct regulation inefficient.  Subsidies for improving environmental performance can have perverse consequences.  Pollution taxes are likely the most efficient and effective form of policy.  Interdisciplinary research is needed to provide models for performance evaluation.

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Some Hard Truths about Agriculture and the Environment”, Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 33, 24-33 (April 2004)

Subsidies for conservation on working farmland can worsen environmental problems by inducing farmers to expand the amount of land cultivated and by increasing cultivation intensity.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Are Green Payments Good for the Environment?", Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 33, 138-147, (April 2004).

Policies for addressing environmental quality problems in agriculture have been adapted from agricultural resource conservation programs.  Modern agricultural technologies have partially eliminated the complementarity between resource conservation and farm profitability implicitly assumed in this approach.  Policies aimed at promoting the use of resource conservation technologies to address environmental quality problems can, under some circumstances, have perverse results.

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Agriculture and the Environment”, in Bruce L. Gardner and Gordon C. Rausser (ed.), Handbook of Agricultural Economics. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2002.

On average, corn and soybean growers in the Mid-Atlantic report the same degrees of concern about environmental risks associated with pesticide use as the general public.  But farmers as a group seem more polarized in their attitudes than the general public.  These farmers are  willing to spend more on pesticides that won't leach into groundwater.  Growers who have experienced adverse health effects from pesticides (either directly or indirectly) have heightened concern about environmental and occupational safety problems arising from pesticide use and are more likely to use certain non-chemical control practices.   

Lichtenberg, Erik and Rae Zimmerman, “Information and Farmers’ Attitudes About Pesticides, Water Quality, and Related Environmental Effects”, Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 73, 227-236 (1999).  

Lichtenberg, Erik and Rae Zimmerman, “Farmers’ Willingness to Pay for Groundwater Protection”, Water Resources Research 35, 833-841 (March 1999).

Lichtenberg, Erik and Rae Zimmerman, “Adverse Health Effects, Environmental Attitudes, and Pesticide Usage Behavior of Farm Operators” Risk Analysis 19, 189-211 (April 1999).  

Organic grain production can be as profitable as conventional grain production even without organic price premia.  But organic farming systems require more labor and have longer peak labor periods, making it difficult for part-time farmers with off-farm employment to use them.  Organic grain production systems improve soil capital (as measured by organic matter)--but so does conventional no-till grain production.  

Hanson, James C., Erik Lichtenberg, and Steven E. Peters, “Organic versus Conventional Grain Production in the Mid-Atlantic: An Economic and Farming System Overview”, American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 12, 2-9 (January 1997).  

Chambers, Robert G. and Erik Lichtenberg, “The Economics of Sustainable Agriculture in the Mid-Atlantic”, submitted to the USDA/EPA ACE Program, December, 1995.

Adoption of water-saving irrigation technologies may be a cost-effective means of solving drainage problems in irrigated farming areas with perched water table problems.  Excessive adjustment for uncertainty may make it unfeasible to use such a strategy, however.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Determination of Regional Environmental Policy Under Uncertainty: Theory and Case Studies", in Ariel Dinar and David Zilberman (ed.), Issues in the Economics and Management of Agricultural Drainage Water.  Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1991.

Shah, Farhed, David Zilberman and Erik Lichtenberg, "Optimal Combination of Pollution Prevention and Abatement Policies: The Case of Agricultural Drainage", Environmental and Resource Economics 5, 29-49 (1995).

Caswell, Margriet F., Erik Lichtenberg and David Zilberman, "The Effects of Pricing Policies on Water Conservation and Drainage", American Journal of Agricultural Economics 72, 883-890 (November 1990).

Farmers in the Northern High Plains tend to use center-pivot irrigation systems on low-quality land (sandy soils) that is more vulnerable to groundwater contamination.  Commodity price supports may exacerbate problems of groundwater quality and excessive depletion of groundwater stocks in fossil aquifers.

Just, Richard E., Erik Lichtenberg and David Zilberman, "Effects of the Feed Grain and Wheat Programs on Irrigation and Groundwater Depletion in Nebraska", in Richard E. Just and Nancy Bockstael (ed.), Commodity and Resource Policies in Agricultural Systems.  New York: Springer-Verlag, 1991.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Land Quality, Irrigation Development and Cropping Patterns in the Northern High Plains", American Journal of Agricultural Economics 71, 187-194 (February 1989).