Taking Conservation to a Higher Level

Published on: 08:24AM Jun 12, 2020

With Skip Hyberg

Evidence suggested that in many respects, the environmental gains from the adoption of conservation practices by U.S. farmers may have stalled in recent decades.  Farm Journal Foundation, working with the Trust in Food division of Farm Journal Media, recently signed an agreement with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to devise ways to kick-start this process in five pilot watersheds across the country.

The National Resources Inventory (NRI) has collected information on soil erosion from U.S. cropland since 1977, an activity mandated by Congress in the Rural Development Act of 1972.  An analysis of that data, collected by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, found that the average soil erosion rate on cropland in terms of tons per acre fell by 35 percent between 1982 and 2007, but actually increased slightly (albeit by less than 1 percent) between 2007 and 2015.

Based on data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have projected that the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a “dead zone” of low oxygen that can’t support marine life, to register at about 6,700 square miles later this summer.  This estimate is slightly lower than for 2019, which was nearly 7,000 square miles, but 76 percent higher than the first estimate recorded in 1985.  A quick examination of charts showing the size of the zone over the last 20 years suggests that efforts to shrink the zone have failed to meet their mark.  The hypoxic zone is primarily the product of run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from agricultural and urban sources upstream in the Mississippi River Valley basin.  This area stretches from Wyoming in the west to Pennsylvania in the east, and drains into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans.

Measurements of impaired waters at the state level also suggest that current conservation efforts are not meeting water quality goals.  For example, in Illinois, there was an estimated 3,710 miles of impaired waters in 2004 according to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, with agricultural activities accounting for 43 percent of the damage.  In 2016, the overall estimate of impaired waters had increased nearly 80 percent to 6,551 miles, with agriculture accounting for 58 percent in the more recent period.

For their part, many farmers have been adopting conserving agricultural practices, but not yet in the numbers needed to fully address the problems enumerated above.  According to data collected in the 2017 Census of Agriculture, U.S. farmers utilized conservation tillage practices on 202 million acres in that year, either no-till or reduced tillage, but 80 million acres of cropland were still tilled conventionally.  Similarly, the Census reported that 15.4 million acres were cover cropped in 2017 outside of the Conservation Reserve Program, a 50 percent increase over the figure reported in 2012, but that practice was used on less than 5 percent of all cropland reported.  More worryingly, livestock farmers decreased their use of rotational grazing practices between 2012 and 2017, from about 290,000 farmers in 2012 down to 265,000 farmers in 2017.

The Agricultural Resource Management Survey (or ARMS) is administered jointly by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and collects information about farming and financial management practices employed by producers of the major row crops on a rotating basis.  This includes their participation in voluntary conservation programs operated by USDA.  For example, in 2012, only about 10 percent of planted soybean acres were enrolled in a USDA conservation program, and less than 20 percent were operating under a written plan to address soil erosion.

The Farm Journal Foundation effort in the five pilot watersheds, found in California, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Nebraska, will be focusing on reaching farmers who are not currently utilizing conservation practices.  That population includes farmers who have never adopted such practices, either because they are reluctant to depart from family traditions or because their landlords like to see “neat” fields rather than the untidy landscapes that no till or cover cropping typically exhibit.  The second category is a group we call the ‘conservation-curious’, who may have utilized such practices in the past, but have discontinued them for a variety of reasons.  They may have enrolled in a conservation program in order to capture cost-share funding, then dropped the practice when the enrollment period ended.  Alternatively, they may have tried to utilize a conservation practice such as cover cropping and in one or more years ran into problems terminating it in the spring before planting their cash crop in that field.

To achieve this goal, Farm Journal Foundation has been seeking out farmers operating in or near the pilot watersheds who have adopted conservation practices in the recent past, find them to be valuable on their operations, and are willing to talk about their decision-making process to adopt conservation to other farmers in the watershed who are not utilizing them.  Those farmers will serve as spokespersons for the project within the watershed, with the title of “Conservation Steward”, and will be modestly compensated for the time and effort they expend on the project.

In addition, the Trust in Food division of Farm Journal Media, with the assistance of Farm Journal Foundation, will be conducting two events over the next two years within each of the five pilot watersheds to help inform farmers about the benefits they can gain from adopting conservation practices, both from enrolling in federal or state programs and from the reduced production costs and/or enhanced yields from the new practices.  Staff involved in the project will also generate three workbooks to assist farmers in their decision-making process, on the topics of conservation planning, soil health, and water resource quality.

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