Your farm is at a critical crossroad. Demands from consumers, the government and supply chain are zeroing in on how you nurture your operation’s crops and livestock. Combine that with extreme weather and a changing climate, and you likely feel headwinds smacking you in the face.
Today, terms such as conservation agriculture, sustainability and regenerative practices are tossed around frequently and purposefully — a sign they are becoming expectations instead of blue-sky wishes.
Problem or Solution?
For years, the agricultural community has tried to hush naysayers and critics of its practices with science and cold, hard facts. Yet, the pressures mount. Agriculture is increasingly seen as a problem, even though farmers and ranchers are often on the front line of solutions.
“Unfairly, farmers and ranchers are at times viewed as villains by some members of the general public,” says John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust.
The Big Opportunity
The good news? Agriculture has a fantastic story to tell. Since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, farmers have zeroed in on soil health, says Kevin Norton, associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). They’ve enrolled millions of erodible acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, adopted reduced tillage practices, incorporated cover crops and managed water quality.
Around 140 million U.S. farmland acres receive conservation-related financial and technical assistance from the federal government for incorporating resource and wildlife preservation practices.
But, Piotti says, farmers can do more: “Right now, American agriculture is contributing to 9% of our greenhouse gases. We may need to go beyond carbon neutral. All farms can move toward better environmental processes.”
A stronger focus on conservation and transparency is an opportunity for producers to find new markets and potentially more profits. These options could include:
- price premiums for sustainably produced crops and livestock.
- carbon credits.
- government payment programs.
“Farmers and ranchers are the original conservationists,” adds Adam Putnam, CEO of Ducks Unlimited. “So much of what we’ve accomplished as a nation in the conservation movement takes place on lands that are working agricultural lands.”
For years, the agricultural industry has complained people don’t know where their food comes from, says Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. “Now they want to know where their food comes from; God bless them! This is wonderful, and we now have an opportunity.”
Challenges & Opportunities for Conservation Agriculture
Return on Investment Versus Promise
“From the 30,000-foot level, sustainability is a three-legged stool with environmental, economic and social components,” says Sean McMahon, executive director of Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance. “Some conservation practices benefit all three, but the economic value proposition for farmers can get overlooked.”
McMahon says farmers and landowners should be 100% compensated for wetlands, bioreactors and saturated buffer costs to scale up use of those practices, which are expensive but effective in improving water quality.
The Hurdle of Transformative Change
Many conservation practices offer economic and environmental benefits. Yet, practices such as no-till and tile drainage are used on fewer than 15% of U.S. farmland acres.
“Farmers are naturally reluctant to change,” says John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust. “Plus, with incredibly tight margins, they can’t afford to do something wrong.”
With the average age of farmers nearing 60, many aren’t far from retirement. As such, change is difficult.
“The real issues are not technical, they are sociological,” he adds.
Commitment by the Owner and Operator
Sustainability is becoming more of a focus for landowners, says Mark Gannon, owner of Gannon Real Estate & Consulting. This is especially true on the 40% of U.S. farmland that is not owner operated.
While many landowners want to improve their soil and conserve water, the price tag is a hurdle.
“Landowners are winding down their careers just like farmers,“ he says. “They inherited these farms, so it’s just a cash cow. To put money into terraces, drainage, cover crops, etc., takes money out of their income.”
Insufficient Data to Back Practices
As a North Dakota farmer and certified crop adviser, Sarah Lovas is often frustrated that most agronomic research pertains to the heart of the Corn Belt.
“We try to take information and apply it here,” she says. “But so much research lacks hard numbers I can pencil in for my own farm.”
“Any business investment needs a clear objective, and many conservation programs lack financial transparency for the investment required by the farmer,” adds Chris Barron, Iowa farmer and consultant with Ag View Solutions.
Snapshot of In-Field Practices
Farmers and landowners can use numerous NRCS conservation standards and practices. “It is our goal to deliver science-based solutions so those who produce food can protect natural resources,” says Kevin Norton, NRCS associate chief.