Growing Returns

As if things weren’t already hard enough, farmers must brace for another wet spring

Farmers have already been dealing with tough economic conditions exacerbated by a trade war, extreme weather and now the coronavirus. Unfortunately, the latest 2020 spring flood outlook shows that farmers in the Midwest could be facing yet another wet year.

Although projected to be less severe than 2019, the U.S. Spring Flood and Climate Outlook for 2020 predicts widespread flooding across 23 states with severe flooding in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. As a result of the 2019 floods, soils across the Midwest are full of moisture this spring, increasing the likelihood of flooding in 2020. Source: NOAA 

Making American farmland resilient to growing weather shocks like flooding requires greater adoption of conservation practices such as no-till and cover cropping practices that improve water infiltration and reduce erosion and field runoff. Despite the financial benefits of these practices, adoption remains low across the country. In 2017, only 3.9% of U.S. farmland adopted cover crops.

How can we scale conservation practice adoption to reduce risk and boost resilience of the agricultural sector? Read More »

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3 things Cuba can teach us about boosting climate resilience in agriculture

Fernando Funes gestured at the breathtaking scene of contour terraces brimming with greens.

“Everything here is about working with nature,” he explained to me and a group of visitors at his family farm just outside of Havana, where we admired the diverse assortment of crops, chickens strutting through a grove of trees, and colorful rows of beehives.

The opportunity to visit Fernando’s farm and learn about agricultural conservation practices in Cuba was part of a larger three-day symposium on sustainable agriculture and food systems organized by Environmental Defense Fund, the Foundation of Antonio Núñez Jiménez and the Vermont-Caribbean Institute.

The symposium allowed experts and stakeholders from Cuba and the Americas to learn from each other and make some surprising connections between the considerably different Cuban and U.S. farming systems.

Here are three takeaways that can help inform thinking on how to produce food in a changing climate.

Read More »

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3 must-haves for USDA to cut agriculture’s environmental footprint in half

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Agriculture Innovation Agenda sets a promising and necessary goal: Cut the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050. The agency aims to achieve this in part through lower greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality and increased soil health.

Meeting this objective will not only benefit the people who rely on American farmers and the natural resources they steward. It will also make agriculture part of the solution and build climate resilience on the front lines – America’s farms.

Farmers are coming off one of the most difficult growing seasons on record, and more extreme and variable weather is becoming the norm. Boosting climate resilience to reduce production risk has never been more essential.

But for USDA to effectively deliver on this goal, it will need to arm itself – and farmers – with robust data, science and economics. Here are three ways that USDA can boost its climate roadmap to put U.S. agriculture on the path to success. Read More »

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Plant-based foods are booming, but we need sustainable meat, too

By Ame Igharo, originally published on the EDF+Business blog

The statistics on plant-based proteins are eye opening: Beyond Meat’s shares have more than tripled in value since in its IPO in May, Impossible Foods can now be found in about 10,000 restaurants, and the market for meat substitutes is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2023. In fact, dollar sales of plant-based products are growing double digits across the country, and you can now find meat alternatives in Burger King, White Castle and Carl’s Jr, among other chains. Read More »

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Farmer grit created unexpected bright spots in a difficult year

It is a wild understatement to say it has been a hard year in agriculture. It has been a year of loss, heartbreak and stress. As a frontpage Washington Post article captured, “Farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising, calamitous weather events are ruining crops and profits are vanishing during Trump’s global trade disputes.”

I had to dig deep, but I was determined to find some silver linings.

As I sat with my pen, paper and thoughts, I found I had more and more to write. I was reminded that farmers have amazing grit and determination, which is why, despite the incredible challenges ahead, I remain firmly optimistic that we will find the ways to feed the world while sustaining the natural resources on which we all depend. Read More »

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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.

Read More »

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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.

Read More »

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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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