Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): farmers

Relationships and incentives: My secret ingredients for better resource management

Author Ann Hayden next to her family farm’s water source

Stewardship of our land and water resources has always played a central role in my life.

I grew up “out in the country,” as we call it, on a-five acre “farm” in Yolo County, California – large enough for raising pigs and sheep, which my older brothers and I would show at the annual 4-H Fair in nearby Woodland.

Living in the Central Valley, we could always count on very hot, dry summers and occasional consecutive dry years, which inevitably were followed by years of heavy rains and even flooding. From a very young age, I understood how important it was to be smart about how we managed our water supply and the surrounding landscape for people, wildlife and the environment.

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Conservation Technical Assistance should not get lost in the shuffle

Farmers understand the importance of sustainability and conservation in ag practices Yesterday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a massive reorganization of the agency. Among other changes, the Secretary plans to create a new Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation to oversee the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Risk Management Agency (RMA), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Previously, NRCS reported to the Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment, and both RMA and FSA reported to the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.

On the surface, combining conservation and farm productivity programs makes sense, since sustainability is almost always good for a producer’s bottom line. Reducing duplication and bureaucracy between these agencies could streamline efforts to implement conservation practices while protecting farmers’ incomes. However, a lot remains to be seen and will depend on who fills the Undersecretary position.

No matter who fills that role, Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) funding and outreach should remain a top priority under the new organization. Here’s why. Read More »

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How my passion for food and history led me to the farm bill

Callie Eideberg pushes for sustainability in the Farm BillDespite growing up without any real interest in conservation or farming, I now spend every working day knee deep in agricultural policy – and I love it.

I grew up in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of a teacher and a salesman. My parents instilled in me a love and deep respect for the place. I was taught to value the importance of rural America, farming, horse racing and bourbon.

But it’s an obsession with food and history that brought me to where I am today. For as long as I can remember, I’ve started planning my dinner at breakfast time. After college, my passion for government led me to law school – but I just couldn’t ignore my love of food. Read More »

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To help the environment, we must first help people

Author Audrey Archer explores her natural surroundings and assesses need for conservation practices

Now living in Austin, Texas where diverse wildlands are numerous and easily accessible, Audrey takes any opportunity she can get to put on her hiking boots and explore her natural surroundings. She also volunteers with the City of Austin to give guided hikes on preserves. Credit: Rob Binder

I grew up in the high and dry panhandle plains of Texas, where trees are scarce, wind is always blowing, and the smell of feedlots lingers in the air. Needless to say, I was not overly inspired by my surroundings – at least not at the time I lived there.

Had I not traveled with my family growing up, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. Throughout these travels, I became enraptured by the biodiversity and lushness of other ecosystems and felt compelled to learn as much as I could about them.

But the stark contrast between some of the natural ecosystems and working landscapes I was exposed to led me to develop a pretty pessimistic view of humans’ impact on the environment. Surely, there had to be a better way of balancing human needs for things like food, water and shelter with nature’s needs.

Determined to tackle this problem, I got my Master’s in Environmental Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and took a job at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where I had heard that scientists and economists were developing incentive programs for landowners to improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restore habitat for at-risk wildlife.

Little did I know my worldview was about to be turned upside down.

Putting people first Read More »

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Let’s make ESA listings extinct, not wildlife

Prairie-chicken

The listing process for the lesser prairie-chicken was tumultuous, with a 2016 ruling that stripped the bird of its previous federal protections and sparked questions about ESA implementation, in addition to what moral obligation humans have to protect wildlife. Photo credit: USDA NRCS

Since the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing two weeks ago to discuss the “Modernization of the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” a new public debate over the act’s effectiveness has begun, even if the arguments on each side haven’t changed much.

On one hand, reform proponents point to the fact that only 47 of 1,652 species have been removed from the Endangered Species List since 1973. On the other, the act’s defenders note that nearly every species on the list has been saved from extinction.

Yet those may be the wrong metrics. Instead, we may want to ask why those species end up on the list in the first place, and whether we are taking common-sense approaches to wildlife conservation before they do. Read More »

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Why privacy is an essential piece of agriculture’s big-data revolution

Your ag data has the possibility of being hackedData science in farm management is one of the biggest trends to hit both agriculture and Silicon Valley in recent years, with an explosion of technologies emerging to help farmers optimize everything from seeding to irrigation to fertilizer application.

As ag tech products grow more sophisticated, so too has the innovation trend evolved. What began as a slew of single-purpose tools has now evolved to include apps that integrate different types of information to give farmers a “dashboard” view of their land. And it includes new apps that can help multiple farmers pool their data to analyze a crop’s performance across a range of growing conditions, or to benchmark their input costs against one another.

The agriculture sector stands to gain insight from all this data. Farmers need metrics to help them figure out how to increase yields sustainably while improving soil health and protecting natural resources for future generations.

But they have valid concerns about sharing data. Read More »

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Will Trump’s victory defeat the environment? It’s time to rally around shared values

Farmers and ranchers across the country value the benefits of environmental protectionsLike all Americans, I woke up on November 9 to a new reality: A few more Democrats in Congress, and yes, a President-elect who promised to dismantle our nation’s core environmental protections.

Though the overwhelming majority of rural counties voted for Donald Trump, I do not believe they voted to increase air and water pollution or jeopardize wildlife.

We live in amazing times. Compared to 40 years ago, our environment is healthier, even as our economy has grown 300 percent.

But 40 years is a long time ago, and it’s easy to forget that progress didn’t happen overnight. It took Republican and Democratic administrations to put our bedrock environmental protections in place so the rules laid out in them could be enforced. These laws include:

  • A wildlife protection act that brought our national symbol, the bald eagle, back from the brink of extinction.
  • A clean air act that has helped to reduce smog and acid rain that was threatening our children’s health and killing our forests.
  • A water quality act that has cleaned up our rivers so they may never catch fire again. (Yes, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it ignited in 1969.)

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What was left off the menu at the WSJ Global Food Forum?

Mother with childMany of us spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food – whether it’s deciding what’s for dinner or how healthy something is for our family. Given that I work on food sustainability and am married to a chef, I spend an even more extreme amount of time thinking about food.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the first annual Global Food Forum in New York City – more proof that food and agricultural issues are increasingly on the radar screens of many executives, including those from Walmart, Campbell’s Soup, Panera, Perdue, Monsanto and many more.

I was eager to attend the event and hear the discussions among some of the most powerful food companies out there. They covered many topics including food safety, “clean” labels, biotechnology, antibiotic use and the humane treatment of animals.

All important stuff – but given the prestige of the event, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room (or more accurately the elephant not in the room): sustainability. The environmental impacts of agriculture were barely touched upon, and considering the corporate heavyweights who were in the room, this was a missed opportunity on a massive scale. Read More »

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What Michael Pollan gets wrong about Big Ag

Tractor in farm fieldJournalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.

But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.

In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.

Food production is actually changing

All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.

Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.

Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.

The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition. Read More »

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Farmers are helping to heal the Chesapeake Bay, but they can’t do it alone

Callie Eideberg, EDF's new senior policy manager for sustainable agriculture.

Callie Eideberg, EDF’s new senior policy manager for sustainable agriculture.

We often hear about the deep-rooted water quality challenges in the Chesapeake Bay, and how not enough progress is being made. While agriculture, urban/suburban runoff, vehicle emissions, and other sources share responsibility for the bay’s poor health, all too often farmers shoulder most of the blame.

Earlier this month, USDA released the Chesapeake Bay Progress Report, which revealed that since 2009, federal investments helped area farmers implement nearly $1 billion worth of conservation practices on more than 3.5 million acres and install nearly 3,500 miles of riparian buffers that reduce nutrient runoff into waterways. Between 2006 and 2011, farmer efforts reduced sediment loss by 15.1 million tons per year.

This is encouraging news, and part of the reason the overall health of the bay is improving. Supporting farmers and their livelihoods is key to solving the watershed’s environmental challenges. As the report notes, “a thriving and sustainable agricultural sector is critical to restoring the bay.”

There is still a lot of work to do. Because a significant increase in public funding is unlikely, relying too heavily on federal investment in voluntary conservation programs is not a good pathway to fully heal the bay.

Here are two ways that agriculture can further accelerate improvements in the watershed. Read More »

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