Growing Returns

What to watch for during today’s farm bill markup in the House

The House Agriculture Committee meets today to begin markup on the 2018 draft farm bill. While markup is only the first step of a long process, it will tell us a lot about the road ahead.

The farm bill provides the largest source of federal funding for conservation on private lands – and with 70 percent of U.S. land privately managed, the farm bill is a major driver of efforts to improve water and air quality, increase wildlife habitat and build drought resilience.

While much of the focus will be on whether the Conservation Stewardship Program will be folded into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), here are six additional conservation items to keep an eye on during markup. Read More »

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Farmers open their books to show financial impact of conservation

Farm accountants have a lot more to offer than advice on how to maximize tax returns. In fact, they play a pivotal role in scaling conservation.

Environmental Defense Fund and K·Coe Isom AgKnowledge, a managerial accounting service for farmers and ranchers, teamed up with three Midwestern grain farmers to study how the adoption of conservation practices affects farm budgets.

These farmers, based in Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio, have all adopted some combination of no-till, crop rotations, cover crops and nutrient management. They were generous enough to open up their books so that AgKnowledge could analyze the financial impact of these conservation activities.

The full report will be out later this year, but initial results show how conservation can benefit farmers’ bottom lines. Here are three lessons we learned from this analysis. 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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The Farm Bill can make the ag data revolution a reality

For big data to truly revolutionize agricultural productivity and sustainability, data needs to be accessible. Industry and government have already collected troves of data points. The trick now is to combine disparate data sets and make them available to farmers, researchers and advisers – all while meticulously protecting producer privacy.

The private sector moved aggressively in 2017 to provide farmers with solutions for collecting and interpreting their data. $500 million in investments flowed to start-ups providing farm management software, sensing and other data solutions – a sector with 27 percent year-over-year growth.

It’s time for the public sector to do the same. Here’s how the next Farm Bill can ensure farmers see benefits from their data. Read More »

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3 reasons animal agriculture should be leading the way on supply chain sustainability

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that Americans will eat a record-breaking amount of meat in 2018 [PDF] – 223 pounds per person of chicken, pork and beef. That’s why I went to Atlanta last week to speak to environmental managers for the nation’s largest meat companies at a conference held by the North American Meat Institute.

My message for those I met? Animal agriculture should be leading the way in addressing the full impacts of their supply chains, from feed grain production all the way to the consumer.

Read More »

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Climate-resilient agriculture requires both global and local action. Here’s how.

2017 saw 16 weather and climate disasters that cost a billion dollars or more, from freezes and hail, to fires and flooding. Agricultural losses from Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria and California wildfires alone totaled more than $5.7 billion – and counting.

With extreme weather becoming more common, we all have a stake in building a food system that can absorb and recover from such stress. A resilient food supply equips farmers with the tools and incentives to find climate-smart solutions, and that requires action globally and locally. Read More »

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How the Army prepared me for a conservation career in agriculture

I’ve always been mindful of the environment, but it never struck me that conservation was something you could focus on professionally. It was just something that you cared about.

That’s why my career until now has included a range of other pursuits – playing music professionally and teaching percussion to public school students, collecting and analyzing intelligence in the U.S. Army, and conducting social network analysis for the Department of Defense.

When U.S. military involvement (and thus my own involvement) in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to diminish, I took stock of what was important to me and what I wanted to spend the rest of my career doing. Read More »

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3 steps to close the conservation data gap between farmers and investors

Farmer Scott Henry stands in a soybean field with a tablet computer.

Sustainable agriculture must be economically viable. Photo credit: Leslie Von Pless

In addition to benefiting the environment, on-farm conservation practices tend to create economic value for farmers and surrounding communities. Anecdotal examples of these benefits abound – fertilizer efficiency saves farmers money; no-till lowers labor and fuel expenses; and buffers and wetlands reduce downstream flood risk and drinking water treatment costs.

Quantifying them, however, remains a major challenge. The resulting data gap limits broader adoption of conservation measures.

Farmers care about stewardship, but many conservation practices require large upfront investment or take too long to produce returns. At the same time, investors want to help farmers generate financial and environmental benefits, but a lack of economic data holds them back, according to a study from Encourage Capital [PDF] and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 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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The next Farm Bill can jump-start agricultural conservation. Here’s how.

An Ohio farmer uses the latest agricultural technology.

Precision agriculture technology can accelerate on-farm conservation, including nutrient management. (Photo: John Rae)

Benjamin Franklin, an experimental farmer and author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, once said that in order to succeed, you must jump as quickly at opportunity as you do at conclusions.

The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity for agriculture policy to champion locally led projects, new ideas and entrepreneurship. Such policies can move the needle on conservation outcomes with relatively minimal investment from the federal government. So let’s jump quickly.

In the face of a changing climate, growing population and complex macroeconomic shifts, agricultural resiliency is more important than ever. We need to protect water quality, address climate impacts, establish species habitat and maintain farm profitability. Government alone can’t accomplish these goals. But smart policies can catalyze investments and innovations that do. Read More »

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