Selected tag(s): U.S. Department of Agriculture

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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How Congress can help farmers stay profitable and resilient

Department of Agriculture

Credit: Flickr user jkc photos.

At the first field hearing for the 2018 Farm Bill held in Kansas last week, producers had one clear message for the Senate Agriculture Committee: the stakes for farmers have never been higher. Commodity prices are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade, and farmers’ incomes are predicted to drop nearly 10 percent this year.

Members of Congress – and the new Secretary of Agriculture – will have their hands full in helping producers navigate the innate uncertainties of farming, balancing the myriad needs of farmers in different geographies, and ensuring that growers remain profitable.

There are two bright spots offering some low hanging fruit for agricultural legislators:

  • There’s agreement on at least one big issue: producers testifying last week conveyed a desire for continued funding for conservation programs in the Farm Bill.
  • Government doesn’t have to go it alone when it comes to sustainable agriculture: the private sector’s investment in conservation is unprecedented, and companies are eager to collaborate.

Here’s how to increase the impact of these already popular conservation programs. Read More »

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Three areas ripe for public investment in U.S. agriculture

Farm in Sichuan Province, China

Sichuan Province, China

Agriculture doesn’t often attract big investments like those that flow to technology.

But that may have just changed.

The Chinese government recently announced plans to invest $450 billion over the next four years – yep, billions – to help modernize agriculture and scale up practices that increase food security while hopefully minimizing impacts to the environment.

This eye-popping investment should be seen as a wake up call to the United States. 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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Breaking through ag's glass ceiling

Woman on a ranchNearly one-third of U.S. farmers are women, yet their contributions aren’t well known. The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, a new book from the University of Iowa press, aims to change this.

Women are diversifying agriculture – not only demographically, but also in terms of production practices. Within the next two decades, they “may own 75 percent of transferred farmland” according to the American Farmland Trust, with enormous implications for American agriculture. From innovative business models to a deep focus on stewardship, women are changing the face – and future – of farming.

As their numbers grow, women farmers are finding and building support networks. Last year, for example, the USDA’s Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced the creation of the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network. The book argues that more needs to be done to unlock the full promise of these new farmers.

Dr. Carolyn Sachs, a professor in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is the lead author of the book. I sat down to discuss the agricultural transformations underway, how to create opportunities for new farmers and the implications for land stewardship.

Read More »

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Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

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The science behind agricultural carbon markets

Dry seeding rice reduces early season methane emissions.

Dry seeding rice reduces early season methane emissions.

There’s been a lot of recent attention on the California Air Resources Board’s (ARB) rice protocol, the first ever carbon offset protocol for crop agriculture in a compliance market.

The protocol, approved in June 2015, allows rice farmers who reduce methane emissions to become eligible for carbon credits through California’s cap-and-trade program, though growers from any rice-growing state can participate. The momentum is building. In less than one year, rice growers on more than 22,000 acres have expressed interest in the protocol – representing nearly 1 percent of all rice grown in the U.S.

When the first credits become available for purchase this summer, policymakers and regulated companies can have confidence in the rice protocol’s ability to improve climate stability, and growers can earn extra revenue, thanks to the sound science that measures emissions reductions. Here’s a primer. Read More »

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USDA gives big boost to sustainable farming in North Carolina

Woman on a farmEnvironmental Defense Fund’s efforts to improve sustainable farming practices through the grain supply chain received another boost, thanks to a USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant of $500,000 in North Carolina.

The award supports EDF’s collaboration with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, and brings in university and grower organization partners. In 2014, Smithfield’s hog production division made a commitment to engage 75 percent of its grain sourcing acres, or about half a million acres, in sustainable farming practices by 2018. These practices reduce fertilizer losses to the water and air, thereby improving water quality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2015, through a sustainability program called MBGro, Smithfield helped farmers plant cover crops, use efficient nitrogen sensors, and employ other conservation practices on nearly 100,000 acres in the Southeast. Earlier this year, the company announced the expansion of its sustainable grain program to its Midwest sourcing region with ag retailer United Suppliers.

And now, the RCPP project officially kicks off this week – and will directly engage producers to expand conservation practices in agriculture. Here’s what it entails. Read More »

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