Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): farming

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.

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Groundwater plans are due in California, but the hard work is just getting started

January 31 is a big day for California water. It’s the day when 19 critically overdrafted groundwater basins must submit plans to the state for how they will bring their groundwater demand in line with available supplies over the next 20 years.

This deadline was set by the state’s most sweeping water law change in a century – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). SGMA, passed during the last major drought, was designed to put an end to groundwater overpumping and ensure there’s enough water for people, the economy and wildlife in California for generations to come.

SGMA is taking water managers and users into uncharted territory. Since its passage, California water managers have made important progress, creating new groundwater agencies and learning more about their local groundwater supplies and demands. These are important first steps toward sustainability, but SGMA requires a deeper paradigm shift to succeed.

Here are four actions that will help drive this massive shift and move California closer to truly balancing groundwater supply and demand.

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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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How agriculture can help drive a low-carbon economy

Reducing methane emissions from cows is a step in the right directionThe White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently released an intriguing report on how the United States can transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050 while continuing economic growth. The report gives a starring role in this job to agricultural lands.

Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” outlines a 3-pronged strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent while accelerating job-creating innovation. Calling each strategy “critical,” CEQ first lists the familiar call to transition to renewable and low carbon forms of energy.

The second key strategy, however, is less often discussed: the potential of cropland and grassland soils, as well as forests, to store and sequester hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 annually. The report – informed by decades of scientific research – describes the opportunities to explore in this area. Read More »

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Ranchlands: An untapped reservoir of monarch butterfly habitat

The monarch migration path through central Texas is often referred to as the "Texas Funnel." Source: Journey North

The monarch migration path through central Texas is often referred to as the “Texas Funnel.” Source: Journey North

As monarch butterflies have returned to Texas on their fall migration south, so have my colleagues and I to Shield Ranch for another round of field testing for the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, a new conservation program we expect to launch in key states in 2017.

Texas offers a lot of potential habitat for monarchs, being a critical layover on the species’ annual migrations north and south, and having a number of landowners willing and eager to find a solution for the iconic butterfly’s decline.

During our visit to Shield Ranch, we saw dozens of monarchs and other butterflies, as an unusually high amount of rain in August sparked a profusion of fall wildflowers in central Texas. With targeted conservation funding through the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, we can make rapid progress on the ground. 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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Why Kansas farmer Justin Knopf strives to emulate the native prairie

Farmer in fieldI first met Justin Knopf at a meeting in DC about five years ago. At 6’3”, he definitely stood out, but not just physically. He openly conveyed how important his family and his land are – the reason he cares so much about making sure his Kansas farming operation can live on is for his children. It’s rare to meet someone so articulate, sincere and committed to sustainability.

Over the years, I have become more and more impressed by Justin, who started farming at age 14 when his father gave him the means to rent land and buy seed and fertilizer.

Fast forward to today, and Justin is one of the country’s champions of no-till farming – a practice that has boosted his yields and made his crops more resilient to the effects of extreme weather. His dedication and success caught the attention of Miriam Horn, author of the new book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five individuals in the enormous Mississippi River watershed (Justin included) who are embracing sustainability and defying stereotypes. I asked Justin about the book, his beliefs on sustainability and what’s next for no till. Read More »

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These heartland conservation heroes defy stereotypes

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Western ranchers, Midwestern commodity crop growers, fishermen who make their livelihoods along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. In some circles, these folks wouldn’t necessarily be considered models of sustainability. And yet, many are leading a quiet revolution in the way our food is raised, harvested and produced.

In her new book Rancher Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland, my colleague Miriam Horn journeys down the Mighty Mississippi River System to meet five representatives of this unsung stewardship movement: Read More »

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Got grasslands? How to get paid for keeping them intact.

Heartland Ranch in Colorado.

Heartland Ranch in Colorado. Credit: Nicole Rosmarino

One year ago this month the Climate Action Reserve, the premier carbon offset registry for the North American carbon market, approved the voluntary grasslands protocol: a landmark opportunity for ranchers to get paid for keeping their land as grazing lands, versus converting it to crops.

And now, the protocol is underway. Today, the Reserve officially listed the first two grassland conservation carbon projects– the first step in the process towards generating carbon credits for landowners.

The Southern Plains Land Trust, directed by Nicole Rosmarino, enrolled more than 15,000 acres in Southeastern Colorado in the first two projects. She plans to enroll 7,600 more acres in an additional project in 2017.

Even though ranchers lose the opportunity to convert land for crop production, the protocol provides landowners with a guaranteed revenue source in addition to what they earn ranching on the land. Nicole will work with a project developer to monitor and report on the status of the Southern Plains Land Trust’s grasslands. We expect they’ll start earning credits in early 2017 that can later be sold on the North American carbon market.

Here’s why you can get paid for protecting grasslands, too. Read More »

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