Growing Returns

How the farm bill changes the future of climate and water conservation

The Senate and House passed the 2018 farm bill in overwhelmingly bipartisan votes of 87-13 and 369-47, respectively. The bill is now headed to the White House to be signed into law before the end of the year.

In many ways, this farm bill conference report maintains the tradition of incremental improvement that has always defined farm bills. Big-ticket programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program will continue to garner headlines.

But the bill also takes important steps to begin to shape the future of conservation in this country. Many smaller provisions in the fully funded conservation title open the door to new approaches that address water quality and climate change challenges that aren’t bound by a single farm’s borders.

Here’s what farmers and environmentalists need to know about new focus areas and approaches in the farm bill’s conservation title.

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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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Climate news got you down? Here are 3 bright spots that show promise in building resilience.

The federal government’s National Climate Assessment lays bare the grim future we face if we don’t reign in greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation strategies in a hurry. Lost in most of the media coverage, however, is the fact that industry, government and communities are already coming together to build resilience so that people and wildlife can adapt to a changing climate.

Here are three shining examples. It may surprise you that some of these places are decidedly unblue.  Read More »

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How farmers’ business partners benefit from conservation

Most efforts to advance agricultural conservation focus on the farmer – with good reason, since conservation practice adoption is the direct result of farmers’ decisions, time and resources. They also focus, of course, on the environment, as the need to improve water quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture grows.

But conservation efforts must also recognize the relationships between farmers and their business partners. Agricultural lenders, crop insurers and landowners are critical to achieving widespread conservation adoption, and it’s in their financial interest to do so. Here’s why. 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 one company’s sustainability goal is poised to change an entire industry

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has committed to a major increase in manure-to-energy projects. The company will invest in infrastructure and provide farmer incentives to install manure lagoon covers and digesters on 90 percent of its total hog finishing capacity, a standardized measurement that excludes sow and nursery farms, in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah over the next ten years.

This is a major step forward for the hog industry. Open lagoon and sprayfield systems of manure management are predominant in North Carolina and raise concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, odor and resilience to extreme rainfall.

There are currently only a few manure-to-energy projects in North Carolina. This commitment from Smithfield means they will become the new status quo.

The company’s largest source of greenhouse gases is methane emitted from open manure lagoons. Here’s how this commitment will turn that liability into an asset – and how we can ensure that it delivers the full potential benefits of the change. Read More »

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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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