Straight From D.C.: Quantifying Productivity Gains With Conservation

Straight From D.C.: Quantifying Productivity Gains With Conservation

For many farmers, their love of the land is one of the main reasons they chose the profession. However, in order to be good stewards for the long-term, farmers need to make enough money to support themselves and their families.

Ken Rulon, an Arcadia, Ind., farmer, is convinced of the soil health and productivity benefits of conservation 
agriculture because he reaps the rewards on his own farm. To encourage greater adoption of conservation practices, there needs to be a systematic effort to demonstrate all farmers could enjoy similar benefits. One way to start this process is to provide better data and subsequent analysis of the relationship between conservation and productivity and profitability, including average yield, yield variability and production costs.

While working on a project for the food and farm policy initiative AGree, I found there is no single database in existence today that can facilitate such an analysis for U.S. agriculture. However, between the surveys and data collected by USDA, it appears all the needed information is available, it is just not in the same place.

In the past few years, members of an AGree task force, USDA officials and other interested stakeholder groups have been in discussion to determine the feasibility and benefits of pulling together farm-level data from several sources.  Ideally, the new database or data warehouse would allow analysts to link observed measures of productivity, such as yield and yield variability, with participation in certain USDA conservation programs that entail adoption of certain practices, such as cover crops or conservation tillage, on a large number of farms. Using the unified data structure, economists could then quantitatively evaluate the relationship between productivity and the use of conservation practices.

In addition to providing evidence that adopting conservation practices can boost a farmer’s bottom line, the  analyses could facilitate lower risk management costs. The federal crop insurance program allows outside parties to propose crop insurance products, which offer lower premiums or increased premium subsidies to farmers who use specific conservation agriculture practices.  

Other opportunities might arise in markets for “environmentally preferred” goods or carbon sequestration offsets, or in private sector initiatives on sustainability, or with organizations involved in regional markets for environmental services. For example, the Nature Conservancy partnered with local conservation districts in southwest Michigan in 2012 to develop a tool that calculates the groundwater recharge achieved by farmers’ adoption of new conservation practices. The calculator helps the Coca-Cola Company establish incentive payment levels for farmers implementing the new practices. In this arrangement, the company will benefit by having cleaner water to source for its bottling facilities in the area. 

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