Growing Returns

3 ways agricultural lenders can help farmers reap millions in savings from conservation

The U.S. farm economy is in its worst condition in decades due to several years of low crop prices, ongoing trade disputes, natural disasters and other variable weather. But many farmers are adapting and innovating – implementing conservation practices that build soil health and resilience, such as nutrient optimization, cover crops and no-till.

Still, there is a growing need for farmers to understand the full financial benefits of these practices and prove their value to ag lenders and other financial partners.

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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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Scientists urge action to increase soil carbon

Soil is one of the most precious and finite natural resources, and maintaining healthy soil is mandatory to provide enough food for the planet in the face of a changing climate.

There is strong scientific consensus on the urgent need to rebuild agricultural soil carbon. That’s the topline message of a comment published this week in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Scientists and farmers know that increasing soil carbon can improve soil fertility, stabilize yields, reduce the need for inputs like fertilizer, and boost resilience to droughts and floods. That’s why so many soil health initiatives focus on building soil carbon.

While the importance of building soil carbon is widely endorsed, there is scientific debate about exactly how much carbon can be sequestered in soils. That is important data to know, but it should not distract us from doing all we can to continue to build carbon in the soil.

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“60 Minutes” interview with Land O’Lakes CEO underscores urgency of climate resilience

Sunday’s edition of “60 Minutes” featuring an interview with Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford put an urgent spotlight on the struggles that farmers are feeling from weather, tariffs and low prices.

From massive rainfall in the Midwest to flash droughts across the South, extreme weather is becoming a top concern among farmers, many of whom are acknowledging that climate change is impacting their operations, and they’re committing to resilience strategies. EDF’s farmer partners are telling us firsthand how climate change is altering their livelihoods, and they are thirsty for climate-smart tools and practices.

Ford rightly hones in on the role that technology plays in helping farmers hedge against the unpredictable in today’s tough environment and economy. Precision ag tools and technologies optimize inputs to achieve a more robust crop yield, in addition to healthier soils, improved water quality and other environmental benefits.

Technology is essential to advancing sustainability, but not without the corresponding informational, financial and policy drivers that will ultimately help us reach the goal of a resilient agricultural system. Read More »

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A new guide for farmers to boost profits through conservation

As the struggling U.S. farm economy continues to make the news, agricultural organizations, government agencies and conservation groups are rightly focusing their attention on the affordability of conservation adoption.

A 2018 report from EDF and agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom, Farm Finance and Conservation, found that farmers who adopt conservation practices such as no-till, nutrient optimization, cover crops and diverse rotations improved their profitability and were more resilient.

Despite these benefits, the costs of transitioning to conservation management practices can be a barrier to adoption. In addition, any change carries some risk, and farmers are likely to be reluctant to take on additional risk in the current economic climate.

For these reasons, it is more important than ever to provide farmers with practical guidance on how to minimize the costs and risks of conservation adoption. Fortunately, a new technical bulletin from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture does just that.

Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops [PDF] describes seven different management scenarios in which farmers can speed their transition to cover crops and achieve profitability more quickly — in some cases within the first year of adoption. Read More »

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How conservation can enhance a farm’s financial health — even in challenging times

With the U.S.-China trade war and flooding in the Midwest continuing to make headlines, national attention is focused on the increasing economic challenges facing farmers and their families.

After years of weak commodity prices, these financial stresses are adding up. In the Corn Belt, farm bankruptcies are at the highest level in over a decade.

Given this challenging economic outlook, some might assume that farmers will abandon conservation efforts and focus exclusively on their finances. However, many of the financial best practices cited by farmers and encouraged by farm financial advisers are the very same principles that can help farmers continue to improve environmental outcomes. Here are four examples. Read More »

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Three takeaways from the largest-ever dataset about fertilizer management in North Carolina

In the face of uncertainty about everything from variable weather to market prices, fertilizer is one variable that farmers can control — but only if they have access to actionable, scientific information about how to select the appropriate application rate and tools.

A new report, Nitrogen management in North Carolina agriculture: Results from five years of on-farm research [PDF], helps fill this need. It provides the most comprehensive dataset ever collected about on-farm nitrogen management practices in North Carolina to identify fertilizer solutions that increase operational resilience, and improve economic and environmental outcomes.

These findings are the result of five years of participatory on-farm research through the North Carolina Farmer Network, a group of crop consultants and nearly 100 farmers across 26 counties in North Carolina’s eastern Coastal Plain.

The network formed through a collaboration between Environmental Defense Fund, North Carolina Farm Bureau, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, and others.

As grain farmers and their advisers gear up for the 2019 growing season, here are three top findings from the network’s research to consider. 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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What food companies can learn from Smithfield Foods exceeding its grain sustainability goal

“Can you help us achieve this?”

That was the question that Smithfield Foods’ chief sustainability officer asked Environmental Defense Fund more than five years ago, after Walmart challenged the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor to improve sustainability in its feed grain supply.

At the time, very few food companies considered grain sustainability to be their responsibility, and even fewer were taking steps to improve that segment of their supply chain. But Smithfield responded to Walmart’s challenge.

In 2013, the company committed to work with grain farmers in its supply chain to adopt farming practices that would optimize fertilizer and build soil health on 75 percent of the area from which Smithfield directly sources grain — about 450,000 acres. EDF partnered with Smithfield to figure out how to reach this goal.

Smithfield announced today that it exceeded that goal, improving practices on 560,000 acres in 2018. Read More »

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New resources help farmers and advisers maximize sustainability and profitability

Winter is a critical planning period for farmers and their advisers. As they gear up for the 2019 growing season, a new set of resources can help build operational resilience in the near- and long-term.

Sustainability Programming for Ag Retailers and CCAs (SPARC) was recently launched by the Agricultural Retailers Association, the American Society of Agronomy, Environmental Defense Fund and Field to Market to provide farmer advisers with resources and training modules to help producers continuously improve agronomic and environmental outcomes.

Here’s why advisers should take advantage of SPARC resources as they help farmers plan for the year ahead. Read More »

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