Growing Returns

Lake Erie cleanup efforts highlight need for market drivers

Every year, blue-green algae in Lake Erie impacts lake tourism and sometimes elevates concentrations of a toxin that can harm human health and impair drinking water. While multiple sources contribute to this nutrient-fueled problem, fertilizer runoff from farms is the largest.

Cleaning up the lake requires farmers’ active participation, and many agricultural conservation partnerships with farmers are underway in the Lake Erie basin. For example, the Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) helps farmers and landowners defray the costs of setting aside land and planting grasses or wildflowers, or creating wetlands to help capture and treat nutrients leaving the farm field.

Algae bloom along Lake Erie shoreline

Photo credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The first wave of Lake Erie CREP contracts began to expire last month, highlighting a growing vulnerability for this conservation model: how to maintain conservation practices on marginal, less productive or flood-prone acres after the initial contract runs out.

This question is especially urgent for land in sensitive areas that provides disproportionately large ecosystem benefits like water filtration. Read More »

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We can solve North Carolina’s manure challenges. Here's how.

Hurricane Florence caused more than $1.1 billion in agricultural losses, according to the latest estimates from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Row crop losses total nearly $990 million. Livestock, poultry and aquaculture damages total $23 million, and include the deaths of 4.1 million chickens and 5,500 hogs.

Many farmers and friends have confided to me that flooding from Florence has been worse than the flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd, which until now had been North Carolinians’ point of reference for agricultural devastation wrought by too much water. Florence also followed on the heels of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which caused flooding that many communities in North Carolina’s coastal plains had only just recovered from.

The losses for farmers, their families and rural communities are staggering. This devastation underscores the need for action. Solutions exist to help the agricultural sector build resilience and long-term prosperity, but the private and public sectors can’t delay implementing them any longer.  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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4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Drones have taken off in popularity, as updates in technology have made them more affordable and maneuverable. These advancements are allowing researchers to capture high-resolution data with accuracy, precision and ease, making drones a valuable tool for understanding how the world around us is changing, and how we can manage this change.

My Environmental Defense Fund colleagues are exploring ways drones can help us build ecosystem resilience, from corn fields in the heartland to wetlands along our coasts.

Here are four inspiring examples. Read More »

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The market for grassland carbon credits is on the rise. Here’s why.

A new study from UC Davis found that “grasslands and rangelands are more resilient carbon sinks than forests in 21st century California.”

While forests remain vital to global climate mitigation efforts, the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires has heightened the need to explore additional carbon sinks in fire-prone regions. Grasslands lock carbon into the soil, and they don’t release it during wildfires.

Photo credit: Nicole Rosmarino, Executive Director of the Southern Plains Land Trust

It’s because of this resilient carbon-capturing power that grasslands and rangelands are essential to meeting climate goals. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are being converted into croplands at the highest rate in decades. Landowners converted 1.6 million acres of long-term grasslands – those that have existed for 20 years or more – into croplands between 2008 and 2012.

Record high land rental values make land conversion a compelling economic choice, but a new market opportunity may soon change this calculus. Read More »

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Elite food consumers won’t make sustainable ag the norm. Here’s what will.

I recently participated on a panel discussion with a provocative title: “Elite Food Consumers: A Force for Environmental Good?” The panel was moderated by The Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel and organized by the Breakthrough Institute.

It was a great discussion because there is no doubt that consumer preferences are changing food – and not just for elite consumers. Even the larger and more affordable food retailers are responding to new consumer demands for how food is produced, what ingredients it contains and how products are marketed. But consumer choices alone won’t reshape the food system.

Minimizing the environmental footprint of agriculture – in ways that don’t hurt farmers’ profitability or consumers’ pocketbooks – will require additional levers. Read More »

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How the farm bill helps landowners and wildlife thrive together

This week, the Senate advanced a farm bill that includes many important provisions for conservation on America’s working farms, ranches and forestlands. Among these provisions is language codifying the Working Lands for Wildlife program that helps farmers and ranchers restore habitat for at-risk wildlife. It’s the first time the program has been formally recognized in the farm bill.

Thanks to the work of private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, and state and government agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in September 2015 to remove the New England cottontail from the endangered species candidate list due to recovery. (Photo credit: Brian Tefft, Principal Wildlife Biologist at Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife.)

Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program, USDA provides technical and financial assistance to landowners who voluntarily make improvements to wildlife habitat on their property. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pairs this with regulatory predictability under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s a win-win approach for improving agricultural productivity while enhancing habitat for wildlife.

Read More »

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5 reasons why the Senate farm bill is a conservation powerhouse

The Senate votes this week on the farm bill – an $867 billion piece of legislation. Within the bill’s 1,200 pages are big advances for conservation, technology and innovation.

In addition to the bill maintaining full funding for the conservation title, here are five reasons why producers, consumers and environmentalists should celebrate the Senate farm bill and champion the inclusion of these key provisions in the House and Senate compromise bill.

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Venture capitalists find rising market in rural America via data-loving farmers

Technology investors are discovering a new and largely untapped market: farmers in heartland America eager to fly drones, employ robots and crunch big data to boost their business.

In 2017, tech startups in the agriculture sphere raised $670 million to develop software management, big data analytics, automated equipment and other cutting-edge tools that help farmers grow crops with scientific precision, AgFunder reported. Agriculture is one of the last major sectors to experience the digital revolution and it’s a market ripe for growth.

New technology allows farmers to manage their fields down to the square foot – tracking plant health, soil moisture and estimated profit in real-time. That requires advanced software, sensors and state-of-the-art imaging technology.

A farmer flies a drone to aerially inspect crop health.

Precision agriculture could account for 80 percent of civilian drone use by 2020.

To meet such needs, investors raised more money for ag tech startups in 2017 than during the previous two years combined. Read More »

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Farmers join international climate talks prepared to take action

Nearly one year ago, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. In the absence of federal government leadership, the agriculture sector is making its voice heard in the international climate change discussions taking place this week at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Farmers are on the front lines of a changing climate and increasingly extreme weather. They know that climate-smart agriculture is critical to ensuring their operations continue for generations to come. That’s why they’re pulling up a chair to take a seat at the global climate table. Read More »

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