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Conservation relies on profitability

Published on: 20:49PM May 04, 2017

Suzy Friedman of the Environmental Defense FundWhether in agriculture or any other business, if you don’t have enough money coming in to pay the bills, it’s hard to find the time or resources for anything other than working to turn a red budget spreadsheet black.

A wheat farmer friend from Washington recently told me that current prices are $4/bushel, the same as 40 years ago. Take into account inflation, and that’s a significant decline. Nationally, the USDA predicts that net farm income will drop by almost 9 percent this year, the fourth year in a row of declines after reaching a record high in 2013. Farmers also face enormous volatility in income, with fluctuations in yield, demand, as well as crop and input prices.

It’s no surprise then that environmentalists’ calls to cut crop insurance, disaster programs or other conservation payments fall on deaf ears in the agricultural community – or serve only to raise blood pressure levels across the Corn Belt.

Advocating for sustainability from an ivory tower will never get us anywhere. If we really want to see farmers embrace conservation practices, doing so needs to add value to them and make it easier, not harder, to make a living. Faced with economic uncertainty, it’s human nature to protect family above all else – even if it means choosing short term benefits over stewardship.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) understands the economic challenges that farmers face, and we support approaches and programs that protect farm income and profitability. Yes, our mission is to protect natural resources such as water quality and climate stability – and we will advocate for the environment no matter who is in office. But when it comes to sustainable farming, we believe the most effective way to get results is to take into account economic viability.

Contentious debates on Capitol Hill often skip over the valuable role conservation measures can play in protecting farm profits. Conservation is not inherently a drain on the balance sheet for agriculture. In fact, the opposite is true when taking an integrated and multi-year view of farm management and profitability.

Practices like using nutrients more efficiently enable farmers to get more bushels per pound of fertilizer. This is a win-win, with farmers getting more value out of the inputs they buy and less fertilizer ending up in the air or water.

Cover crops, more diverse crop rotations, and reduced tillage can deliver more consistent and thus higher yields over time. These practices reduce the negative yield impacts of weather extremes like this weekend’s loss of winter wheat from heavy snowfall in Kansas, improve soil quality, and reduce soil erosion, weeds, and pests.

A long-time farmer and advisor to EDF recently told me that by digging into the economics of crop management systems and sustainability practices, he discovered that conservation is a method of profit protection. And this profit protection really shines through if you look at the data for practices in combination and over multiple years.

But right now, we cannot sufficiently document conservation’s ability to protect profits. We need a lot more data on the economics of different conservation practices across key geographies. Instead of pointing fingers and lobbying for cuts to programs that support farmers, environmentalists can and should invest in creating the business case for sustainable agriculture.

Gathering these data won’t happen overnight, but we’re working on it, as are many others, including the National Corn Growers Association’s Soil Health Partnership, the Conservation Technology Information Center, and many university programs.

Our ability to continue enjoying a diversity and abundance of food depends on the economic viability of farming.


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