Growing Returns

Four ways conservation pays for dairy farmers, even in a weak agricultural economy

The dairy industry is a critical part of the landscape, economy and social fabric of Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay. But it’s under stress.

Dairy is in the fourth year of an economic downturn in which many farmers have struggled to break even. Dairy farmers in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. are highly motivated to increase their resilience to unfavorable economic and environmental conditions, including highly variable milk and feed prices, unpredictable farm policies and extreme weather – most notably increased heavy rain events and flooding.

While dairy prices have recently trended upward and PennState Extension’s dairy outlook  predicts milk price could approach $20/cwt by the end of 2019, another PennState Extension analysis  found that the gross milk price breakeven point for most farmers in the state is $21.20/cwt.

Most of these factors are out of farmers’ control, but conservation is something farmers can be sure of.

That’s what my colleagues and I concluded after digging into the budgets of four Pennsylvania dairy farmers in our new report: How conservation makes dairy farms more resilient, especially in a lean agricultural economy. The report shows how a variety of conservation practices can deliver multiple returns on investment that simultaneously benefit the farm budget and the local environment.

Here are our four key findings: Read More »

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This Midwest hog farmer wants to create a “butterfly effect” to bring back the monarch

Eastern monarch butterfly populations rebounded last year, largely thanks to favorable weather conditions during the butterflies’ 3,000-mile migration. To help make those increases permanent and reduce chances of an endangered species listing, we need to plant 1.5 million more acres of milkweed, native grasses and wildflower habitat on farms and ranches.

Farmers like Tim Richter, who manages a grain and hog operation in Iowa and Missouri, are stepping up provide monarchs with vital breeding and nectaring habitat.

I sat down with him to discuss what inspired him to restore monarch habitat, and to ask him what he wants other farmers to know about pollinator conservation. Read More »

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Three ways to address increasing flood risk in the Midwest

Historic flooding across the Great Plains and Midwest has been devastating. While waters may be receding, farmers and communities aren’t out of the woods yet. Recovery will be costly and lengthy, and additional floods could be around the corner.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that more than 200 million Americans living in 25 states face elevated flood risk through May, and the risks go far beyond this year. The fourth National Climate Assessment predicts precipitation across the Midwest will increase in severity and frequency in the years ahead.

The region needs a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the dangers of excess water and increase the ability of working lands to withstand and recover from extreme precipitation. Contingency planning will be complex and constantly evolving, but it must do these three things to be successful. Read More »

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New resource to help dairy industry clean up the Chesapeake Bay

It’s a tough time to be a dairy farmer. Nationwide milk prices are at record lows due to an oversupply of milk and changing consumer preferences, and the industry faces increasing public and regulatory pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water quality. These challenges hit home for the dairy industry in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia cannot meet U.S. EPA-mandated water quality goals without an all-hands-on-deck effort that includes dairy cooperatives, processors and farmers. This increases the pressure on the dairy industry, but it also creates an opportunity for the sector, with support from partners and other stakeholders, to show leadership.

A new open-source sustainability guide [PDF] provides a roadmap for the dairy industry to improve water quality and foster economic and environmental resilience at a critical moment. Read More »

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This partnership between environmentalists and corn growers is breaking new ground

Throughout Environmental Defense Fund’s history and my nearly two decades of working on our agriculture team, collaborations with unlikely allies have proven to be a powerful, necessary way to unleash transformative sustainability solutions.

It’s in that spirit that EDF has partnered with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), which represents the interests of more than 300,000 corn farmers, to address one of the most pressing challenges facing our food and agriculture system – how to improve environmental outcomes while optimizing crop productivity and economic performance.

This partnership marks the first time an environmental nonprofit and commodity crop association have joined forces at this scope and scale. Here’s how it came about and what we’ve committed to tackle together. Read More »

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Four near-term market and policy opportunities for increasing agricultural resilience

Every day farmers across the U.S. face unprecedented pressures from a variety of factors, including policy and regulations, markets and trade, and variability in input costs. With extreme weather becoming a new normal and the global population climbing toward 11 billion people by 2100, it is imperative that we build a food and agriculture system that can absorb and recover from these stresses.

This summer, Environmental Defense Fund, National Corn Growers Association and Farm Journal Foundation convened a stakeholder dialogue about the challenges facing the agriculture industry and recommended paths forward.

A new white paper [PDF] summarizes key findings from the discussion, which also included ideas for better equipping farmers with the tools and incentives they need to identify and adopt climate-smart solutions.

Here are four policy and market opportunities that can help boost agricultural resilience. Read More »

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How a farmer ‘think tank’ is shaping agricultural sustainability, far beyond the field

One of the best parts of my job at Environmental Defense Fund is working with our farmer advisory network – a group of 19 producers who farm across the Corn Belt and Great Plains on operations ranging in size from about 5,000 acres to 30,000 acres.

EDF’s advisers farm across the heartland, from Minnesota to Texas, and from Idaho to Ohio.

They’re brilliant business people who know how conservation can benefit their bottom line. With their guidance, we’re making real progress aligning economic and environmental outcomes for agriculture.

Here’s how this unique partnership came about, and three of the most important areas of progress we’ve made through our collaboration over the past eight years. Read More »

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USDA newcomer Bill Northey has 3 big opportunities to scale ag resilience and productivity nationwide

In his new role at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Undersecretary Bill Northey will oversee agencies and programs that are vital to agricultural resilience and productivity, including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency. His portfolio will include crop insurance, conservation, disaster assistance and producer lending services.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Northey and have appreciated his collaborative approach, which I think will be an asset to USDA in pursuing gains in productivity and conservation.

As he leads ag sustainability efforts at USDA, Northey has three big opportunities to scale conservation and productivity innovations nationwide. Read More »

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Sorting through nutrient management marketing claims

Farmer and advisor in a corn field putting precision agriculture technology to use

Farmers need assurance that a nutrient management tool is worth their investment.

Farmers and their advisors face increasing challenges from low crop prices, extreme weather and pressure to improve water quality. A growing marketplace of tools and products promises to help meet these challenges, but has in turn created a new problem: information overload.

This problem is especially acute for precision management of nutrients, one of the fastest growing agricultural sub-sectors. Companies promise their nutrient efficiency tools and products will enable farmers to grow more with less, save money and boost yields. But there is often little available data behind these claims.

As one of the farmers I regularly turn to for advice put it, “We (farmers) need a ‘Big Sort’” – something that sorts through this flood of information, separates the wheat from the chaff and helps farmers make informed decisions about what will work best for them.

To initiate this “Big Sort,” Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) teamed up with a group of experts in technology and nutrient management to develop NutrientStar, which helps farmers determine which products deliver on their promises and are worth the investment. Read More »

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Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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