Hongli Feng

Assistant Professor
Dr. Hongli Feng

Dr. Feng is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics, Iowa State University. She is also the Endowed Professor for Excellence in Agricultural Economics and the Director of the MSAE program. Dr. Feng conducts research and teaches in the areas of agriculture, the environment, and the interface of the two. She has contributed to the understanding of agriculture as a managed ecosystem and examined incentives, policies, and ecological consequences related to various agricultural and land use practices.

One area of her current research is the trends and determinants of land uses and agricultural production systems in the United States. Another current research area investigates farmers’ strategic and operational decision making with a behavioral economics approach. Examples of specific research topics include how climate and social infrastructure have impacted the evolution of regional land use patterns in the U.S. Corn Belt; what are the likely intended and unintended consequences of agri-environmental policies; and what roles economic, psychological, and social factors play in farmers’ decision making (regarding, e.g., land uses, crop insurances, grazing practices, and antibiotics use). Dr. Feng collaborates closely with other economists and colleagues from other social and natural science disciplines.

Research and Outreach Interests

  • Environmental and Resource Economics, Agricultural Economics
  • Example research topics include agricultural and environmental policies, climate change, GHG emissions, solar energy, land use changes, crop insurance, antibiotics use, adoption of conservation practices, and the economics and biophysical modeling of water and soil quality.

Summaries of some example collaborative projects

  • Crop Insurance policy design and program participation: Conceptual and empirical analyses with economic and psychological decision paradigms

The U.S. crop insurance program currently has a primary role in federal government efforts to promote the economic stabilization of agriculture. Policy effectiveness depends on attaining high participation, both for acres covered and coverage levels chosen. The government faces a trade-off between the goals of maintaining high program participation and reducing program costs. The program has been expensive in large part because farmer demand has been weak -- even though the government covers administration costs, requires actuarially fair pricing, designs products to target risks faced, and provides large premium subsidies. However, weak demand for crop insurance is in stark contradiction with standard economic theory. A better understanding of farmers’ insurance decisions would support policy changes to achieve higher participation and more effective risk management at the same cost or meet budget cutbacks with little detriment. Hongli is part of a team that aims to thoroughly characterize preferences for crop insurance and inform policy decisions with insights from economics and psychology. There are 4 specific objectives: (1) Translate decision theories such as expected utility theory, versions of prospect theory, and disappointment aversion theory to crop insurance and formulate theory-based hypotheses; (2) Identify program characteristics and formulate data-based hypotheses with county- and unit- level data; (3) Evaluate economic and psychological factors with experiments that test hypotheses and focus on heterogeneous heuristics, reference points, probability formation, and choice contexts; (4) Assess expected impacts of policy options that have been regularly proposed to improve performance of the federal crop insurance program.

  • Mapping and Bridging Barriers in Knowledge Flows of How Solar Photovoltaics Affect Rural Community Economies

Continued growth in solar photovoltaics (PV) will rely on more utility-scale PV deployment, which often occurs in rural areas due to high availability and low cost of land. In most states, deployment can only occur if permitted by local zoning rules. Work in Michigan indicates that less than a quarter of zoning ordinances mention utility-scale PV. When local regulations and ordinances ignore solar PV, they increase soft costs and impose a significant barrier to adoption of solar energy. Many rural communities lack zoning rules for utility-scale PV because they lack objective measures of how utility-scale solar will affect their economies in the short- and long-term. Addressing this knowledge gap will reduce utility-scale PV soft costs in rural areas and is essential to enabling widespread deployment in those areas.

To reduce soft costs of and barriers to utility-scale PV and enable its widespread deployment, the goal of this project is to increase the prevalence of solar zoning rules by enabling communities to make informed zoning decisions. Achieving our goal requires understanding how knowledge flows through rural communities, how utility-scale PV will affect rural economies, and how communities and their leaders absorb new information, then combining knowledge across these three areas to effectively disseminate information to community stakeholders. Consequently, our project spans four phases to achieve the following objectives: (1) Characterize how knowledge flows and trusted stakeholders affect rural communities’ decisions on zoning utility-scale PV. (2) Develop a scalable model for estimating the short- and long-term impacts of utility-scale PV deployments in rural economies. (3) Experimentally test mechanisms for disseminating knowledge on how utility-scale PV will affect rural economies. (4) Disseminate knowledge on rural economic impacts of utility-scale PV through trusted stakeholders and empirically tested means.

  • Connecting Farming Communities for Sustainable Crop Production and Environment Using Smart Agricultural Drainage Systems

Artificial subsurface drainage is among the most important land use improvements for agriculture. Relative to total croplands, drained croplands produce a disproportionately large amount of grain, but also deliver a disproportionately large amount of nitrate to downstream waterways. Drained croplands rely on complex networks of perforated pipes that include individual and community managed components. Communities that share drainage infrastructure are organized into ‘Drainage Districts’, which are quasi-municipal organizations that have power to assess fees, and are mandated by state laws to maintain drainage infrastructure. In the northern US Corn Belt, >50% of cropland is drained and Iowa alone contains >3,000 drainage districts. Farmers are rapidly expanding and intensifying drainage infrastructure due to climate change and changes in farm management. Hence, there is an urgent need to balance the effects of drainage on productivity, profitability, and environmental quality. As farmers and communities upgrade drainage systems, they are faced with difficult decisions about how much to invest and how to invest because balancing the drainage needs of individual farmers, drainage districts, and surrounding regions are challenging. We will develop an integrated Smart and Connected Communities (SCC) platform to improve drainage district function. The platform will identify drainage needs and opportunities for farming communities from integrated technological and socioeconomic perspectives. The platform will enable precise prediction of water flow, crop production, and nutrient loss to improve production and environmental sustainability through optimum drainage solutions and farm management.

  • How effective can carbon credit programs be in reducing nutrient losses: an assessment of public and private conservation programs and their interactions

There have been intense interests in carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction in the agricultural sectors recently. Meanwhile, there have been decades of efforts and investment to reduce nutrient loss from agriculture. Currently, the vast majority (about 95 percent) of the resources directed at nutrient reduction is appropriated through public funds according to the latest annual report of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. From a policy standpoint of view, carbon and nutrient reduction is inseparable due to two links: (i) most conservation practices that reduce nutrient loss also sequester carbon; and (ii) both government and private incentives can be used to support the same set of conservation practices. By investigating these links, our team of cross-disciplinary researchers and non-governmental organization (NGOs) partners will evaluate how carbon credit programs will affect nutrient loss reduction with a focus on farmers’ decision-making regarding program participation.

Sponsors of projects: NSF, USDA, DOE, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

Teaching Experience

  • Natural Resource Economics (Michigan State University, EEP 460)
  • Decision Making in Ag-Food System (Michigan State University, ABM/FIM 100)
  • Data Analysis for the Agri-Food System (Michigan State University, ABM 203)
  • The Economies of China and India (Iowa State University, Econ 387, co-taught)
  • Environmental and Resource Economics (Iowa State University, Econ/Env S 380)
  • Public Finance (Iowa State University, Econ 344)
Area of Expertise: 
Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics
578C Heady Hall, 518 Farm House Lane