Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): USDA

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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$1 million USDA award expands public-private partnerships for ag sustainability

A collaboration between Smithfield Foods and Environmental Defense Fund has reduced fertilizer loss and improved soil health on more than 400,000 acres in the regions where Smithfield sources feed grain. That acreage is set to grow thanks to a new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award of $1,080,000.

The RCPP project will expand Smithfield’s ongoing grain sustainability efforts in North Carolina and scale up the program in Iowa, providing additional opportunities for farmers interested in improving their operations. Participating farmers will be supported by the combined efforts of 16 partner organizations, which include producer groups, government agencies, universities and nonprofits. 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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Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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Why we need a new era of collaborative conservation

This year’s Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the largest ever recorded, affecting 8,776 square miles – similar in size to the state of New Jersey.

Agriculture – from fertilizers and livestock production – is a major source of the nutrients that cause these harmful algal blooms in our lakes and coastal areas. Fertilizers are required to grow food, but we know that making farming practices more efficient and creating natural buffers and filters around farms can reduce runoff.

Farming is already risky business, with unpredictable weather, tough global competition and fluctuating commodity prices.

Implementing conservation practices at scale without hurting growers’ productivity requires understanding the challenges of different sectors and bringing together their expertise and investment. It’s a collaborative effort, and we must recognize that we are all working around a common goal: a more sustainable food system.

This month, Environmental Defense Fund is launching a series of public events – in Bozeman, St. Louis, and Des Moines – to highlight, advance, and celebrate collaborations among private landowners, food and agriculture companies, policy makers, and the public.

Read More »

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3 ways the Farm Bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 Farm Bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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What does the end of the Paris deal mean for agricultural innovation?

Agriculture has faced increasing disruption from extreme weather and climate shifts over the past 40 years.

In the face of an ever-changing climate, agricultural innovation is more important than ever.

No matter your views on climate change, the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement could compromise the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

In the absence of federal leadership, individual farmers, state and national ag associations, food companies, retailers, and environmental organizations will need to fill the void.

I’m confident we can do this, because all the farmers I’ve ever known are incredible innovators and are willing to implement practices that can mitigate the effects of an unpredictable climate – practices that also protect their businesses. Read More »

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These farmers sparked agricultural carbon markets across the U.S.

Rice held by Jim Whitaker of Whitaker Farms

Rice held by Jim Whitaker of Whitaker Farms. Credit: Adam Jahiel.

I want to tell you a story about a handful of growers whose commitment to sustainability and desire to innovate inspired an ag carbon credit movement.

Today, the first ever carbon credits generated from rice farmers were sold to Microsoft, all because of a handful of pioneers who tested out a radical idea – that by implementing conservation methods on their crops, farmers could reduce methane emissions and thereby generate a carbon credit that could be later be sold on the carbon market. Not to mention the fact that these farmers also reduced water use by as much as 30 percent. Read More »

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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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Why Sonny Perdue should prioritize these 3 farm programs

Sonny Perdue will now lead the United States Department of AgricultureThe U.S. Senate will confirm the Secretary of Agriculture today, empowering former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to lead an agency with a $155 billion budget, some 100,000 employees and ultimate responsibility for our nation’s food security.

Over 80 percent of this budget goes toward farm programs, food stamps, school meals and other mandatory spending programs. The remainder goes to protect farmers’ livelihoods, rural economies and the environment – but according to the Administration’s budget proposals, this pot of funding could be cut by over 21 percent.

Retaining current funding levels for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – and conservation programs in particular – ensures that farmers can remain productive during periods of extreme weather, protects habitat for wildlife without sacrificing profitability and improves on-farm efficiencies.

Secretary Perdue will need to advocate on behalf of farmers to protect these programs – and he’ll need help from the private sector, since the federal government alone cannot maintain farming as a core industry in America, make sustainable agriculture the norm or feed a growing population.

Here are three programs that provide widespread benefits – and that should be a top priority for the new Secretary. Read More »

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