Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): soil health

How Congress can help farmers reduce loss and risk in uncertain times

By Keith Alverson, a sixth-generation grain farmer in Chester, South Dakota and an adviser to Environmental Defense Fund.

It goes without saying that 2019 was an extremely difficult year for farmers like me. Unprecedented amounts of snow and rain led to 3.9 million acres in our state that couldn’t be planted.

Lake County, South Dakota, were I live, received 32% more rainfall than in a normal year. For most farmers in the area, this record-setting wet spring meant that they could only plant about 50% of planned corn acres and 80% of planned soybean acres. Read More »

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What are cover crops doing on a pecan orchard? Hopefully attracting bugs.

You don’t typically hear farmers saying they want to attract bugs to their farm, but that’s what a unique conservation project in California’s Sacramento Valley is doing – determining whether cover crops can attract more at-risk native pollinators, like monarch butterflies, in addition to insects that serve as pest control, like ladybugs.

The project 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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Scientists urge action to increase soil carbon

Soil is one of the most precious and finite natural resources, and maintaining healthy soil is mandatory to provide enough food for the planet in the face of a changing climate.

There is strong scientific consensus on the urgent need to rebuild agricultural soil carbon. That’s the topline message of a comment published this week in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Scientists and farmers know that increasing soil carbon can improve soil fertility, stabilize yields, reduce the need for inputs like fertilizer, and boost resilience to droughts and floods. That’s why so many soil health initiatives focus on building soil carbon.

While the importance of building soil carbon is widely endorsed, there is scientific debate about exactly how much carbon can be sequestered in soils. That is important data to know, but it should not distract us from doing all we can to continue to build carbon in the soil.

Read More »

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How the farm bill changes the future of climate and water conservation

The Senate and House passed the 2018 farm bill in overwhelmingly bipartisan votes of 87-13 and 369-47, respectively. The bill is now headed to the White House to be signed into law before the end of the year.

In many ways, this farm bill conference report maintains the tradition of incremental improvement that has always defined farm bills. Big-ticket programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program will continue to garner headlines.

But the bill also takes important steps to begin to shape the future of conservation in this country. Many smaller provisions in the fully funded conservation title open the door to new approaches that address water quality and climate change challenges that aren’t bound by a single farm’s borders.

Here’s what farmers and environmentalists need to know about new focus areas and approaches in the farm bill’s conservation title.

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5 reasons why the Senate farm bill is a conservation powerhouse

The Senate votes this week on the farm bill – an $867 billion piece of legislation. Within the bill’s 1,200 pages are big advances for conservation, technology and innovation.

In addition to the bill maintaining full funding for the conservation title, here are five reasons why producers, consumers and environmentalists should celebrate the Senate farm bill and champion the inclusion of these key provisions in the House and Senate compromise bill.

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Farmers open their books to show financial impact of conservation

Farm accountants have a lot more to offer than advice on how to maximize tax returns. In fact, they play a pivotal role in scaling conservation.

Environmental Defense Fund and K·Coe Isom AgKnowledge, a managerial accounting service for farmers and ranchers, teamed up with three Midwestern grain farmers to study how the adoption of conservation practices affects farm budgets.

These farmers, based in Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio, have all adopted some combination of no-till, crop rotations, cover crops and nutrient management. They were generous enough to open up their books so that AgKnowledge could analyze the financial impact of these conservation activities.

The full report will be out later this year, but initial results show how conservation can benefit farmers’ bottom lines. Here are three lessons we learned from this analysis. 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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This Illinois farmer is breaking down siloes. Here’s how.

My first impression of Len Corzine was that he isn’t the kind of guy who sits back and waits for people to bring him ideas on how to innovate or improve stewardship – he actively searches for them himself. He then shares these ideas with peers and colleagues.

When I visited Len’s farm in Assumption, Illinois, five years ago, I immediately saw that Len was an early adopter of tools and technologies to help him grow more with less. Like a kid with a brand new bike, Len could not wait to show me the computer software he was using for soil samples and variable rate application of nutrients, or the maps that helped guide his every decision.

To date, Len’s farm has reduced soil erosion, cut fertilizer use per bushel by half, and adopted satellite-guidance technology in its tractors to reduce fuel and chemical use. All while yield productivity has increased 80 percent. Read More »

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Conservation relies on profitability

Conservation practices help make this wheat field more profitable Whether in agriculture or any other business, if you don’t have enough money coming in to pay the bills, it’s hard to find the time or resources for anything other than working to turn a red budget spreadsheet black.

A wheat farmer friend from Washington recently told me that current prices are $4/bushel, the same as 40 years ago. Take into account inflation, and that’s a significant decline. Nationally, the USDA predicts that net farm income will drop by almost 9 percent this year, the fourth year in a row of declines after reaching a record high in 2013. Farmers also face enormous volatility in income, with fluctuations in yield, demand, as well as crop and input prices.

It’s no surprise then that environmentalists’ calls to cut crop insurance, disaster programs or other conservation payments fall on deaf ears in the agricultural community – or serve only to raise blood pressure levels across the Corn Belt. Read More »

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Why ag advisers should increase conservation offerings to farmers

Ag retailers help these farmers manage their farm sustainablyFarmers have a host of competing priorities clamoring for their time, energy and money. Fortunately, they often have trusted advisers to help them make good decisions for their operations – including about conservation practices on the farm.

These practices, such as improving fertilizer efficiency and planting cover crops, can provide significant benefits for farmers: increasing or stabilizing yields, reducing erosion, and ensuring more of the fertilizer applied delivers yield instead of being lost to water or air. They can also increase profitability.

But in order to get the best bang for every conservation buck, many of these practices require technical and agronomic expertise. As PrecisionAg suggested, who better to help integrate these practices into farm operations than the ag retailers and consultants who know their clients’ farms so well?

By expanding their conservation service offerings, ag retailers and crop advisers can meet growing demand from farmers – while also keeping their businesses, and that of their farmer clients, competitive. Read More »

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