Growing Returns

Birds, snakes and butterflies: Farming for more than crops and cash

Davis Ranch manager John Brennan pointed out a hundred year-old valley oak. Resting in the highest branches was a large nest about two feet wide, where a pair of hawks were nesting. As we dispersed about the ranch, one of the hawks greeted us by spreading its wings and soaring off into the blue sky.

A pair of Swainson’s hawk nest in a 100-year-old valley oak tree at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California. (Credit: Emily James)

The Golden State is well known for its robust and diverse agricultural output, even during times of drought. In 2014, California’s farms, ranches and nurseries turned out $54 billion worth of everything from oranges to rice, and milk to nuts.

Our farms and ranches are less renowned for the rich wildlife habitat they also provide, in some cases for threatened species like the Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, which have long struggled with the disappearance of their historic habitat in open grasslands and tule marshes.

The Swainson’s hawk population in California used to be close to 17,000 mating pairs. Today, that number is closer to 2,000. And the giant garter snake has faced the loss of 95 percent of its historic Central Valley wetland habitat. In both cases, landscape conversion and fragmentation, in addition to land management practices such as rodent control, have steadily worn away the suitable habitat for these species.

Fortunately, many species are adapting to these landscape changes and, with wildlife-friendly practices, are able to thrive on productive California farms and ranches. Farms like Davis Ranch. Read More »

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California takes giant step toward approving first crop-based carbon standards

CA rice farmA significant milestone was achieved today in the California cap-and-trade market. For the first time, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) considered a land-based carbon offset protocol that will allow U.S. rice growers to earn additional revenue for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation.

This is a big deal. U.S. agriculture has tremendous potential to not only provide the nation with the food we eat, but also the climate solutions we need to sustain our growth.

Farmers grow carbon credits

The protocol covers rice cultivation practices in both the Sacramento Valley of California and the Mississippi River Valley, which encompasses Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Growers here can implement any combination of three practices – dry seeding, early drainage or alternate wetting and drying – and collect data to be independently verified to create a carbon credit.

Nearly two dozen farmers have already expressed interest and are starting to gear up their operations to generate offsets in the spring of 2015. Read More »

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Farm budget analysis finds 3 ways conservation affects the bottom line

Soil health practices can provide many public environmental benefits including reduced soil erosion, increased soil organic carbon and improved water quality. However, adoption of soil health practices such as no-till and cover crops only represent 26% and 4% of U.S. farmland respectively.

Still, we know farmers can be rapid adopters of new technologies, including new seed varieties and equipment, when presented with a profitable solution. Read More »

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These farms planted wildflowers to attract bugs to control pests. And it’s working.

Last fall, two farms in California’s Sacramento Valley planted a wildflower cover crop mix as part of a commitment to restore habitat within 325 acres of pecan orchards. The farms, Pacific Gold Agriculture and Bypass Farms, are participating in a project called “Orchards Alive” in hopes that wildflowers will attract pollinators and naturally reduce pest pressure.

Orchards Alive came about thanks to a $3 million monarch and pollinator recovery bill (AB 2421) designed to establish habitat restoration projects for important pollinator species facing steep population losses. 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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Scientists agree: Soil health matters but climate mitigation potential still uncertain

To keep global temperature increases below 1.5o Celsius — the threshold for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change — the world needs both rapid reductions of new climate pollution and removal of existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Increasing the amount of carbon stored in cropland soils is one pathway for carbon dioxide removal, and it has gained traction over the past several years in voluntary agricultural carbon markets and U.S. climate policy discussions. The idea is that farming practices, such as using cover crops, will add carbon to agricultural soils, and thus help slow climate change.

Scientists agree that agricultural soils can be part of the climate solution, but their estimates about when and how much carbon agricultural soils can store — and thus the magnitude of climate mitigation that soils could deliver — vary widely. Read More »

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Small North Carolina farms find profitability in climate resilience

Farms across North Carolina are experiencing more variable and extreme weather associated with climate change, including hotter nights and more frequent and severe rainfall. Small farms are adapting to these changes by adopting climate-resilient practices that help buffer weather extremes and improve soil health.

Measuring and communicating the financial costs and benefits of these practices is important to help more farmers adopt them profitably and find financial support for the transition. Cooperative extension agents — small farms’ closest technical advisers — will increasingly need to inform farmers about climate-resilient practices and their financial impacts.

Environmental Defense Fund and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Cooperative Extension collaborated with three small North Carolina farms to measure the financial impacts of adopting reduced tillage, high tunnels and cover crops. The results are summarized in a new report and set of case studies. Read More »

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What agricultural lenders need to know about emerging carbon market opportunities

Carbon markets have captured the attention of the agriculture sector, and agricultural lenders are no exception. I recently heard from a lender that their number one question from their farmer borrowers is about carbon credit opportunities.

As trusted advisors to farmers, here’s what lenders need to know to navigate these conversations. Read More »

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3 recent USDA wins and what the department should do next

Over the past several weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made important progress in advancing climate-smart agriculture and creating equitable opportunities for producers to be part of the climate solution.

Here are three recent examples of progress you may have missed in the news, plus next steps for the agency to continue this momentum. Read More »

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How a data-driven approach makes profitable on-farm conservation possible

New data and insights are now available from Precision Conservation Management, a partnership organization that connects 280 Illinois and Kentucky farmers with conservation specialists from local soil and water conservation districts to provide actionable data on conservation financials.

Over the last five years, PCM gathered field-level farm management data — including the number of passes across the field, the rate of inputs into those fields, tillage passes and cover crop use — integrating that management data with cost tables created by the University of Illinois to provide farmers with the financial outcomes of different conservation practices.

Here are the top three insights from five years of farm data. Read More »

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