What Would the Apprentice Do? ISO a More Strategic Approach to Agricultural Conservation

By Jon Scholl

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Last month, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee submitted to the full House a bill that would cut over $565 million in conservation program funding and slash funding for farm and ranch land protection by a full 25 percent in FY2012.   While these actions are not surprising given our burgeoning budget deficit, they are nonetheless extremely shortsighted. 

Maintaining the stock, quality, and environmental attributes of prime farmland is essential to safeguarding our nation's long-term agricultural productivity. These kinds of budget cuts don't make sense at time when we anticipate increased demand for food, fiber, fuel, and the land that produces them. 

We need more-not less-funding for agricultural conservation and protection. Moreover, given the growing public concern about agriculture's impact on the environment and a demand for accountability, we need to be smarter about how we use these funds, no matter how much funding there is.

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What would a more strategic approach look like? If the conservation budget crunch were a business challenge on a TV show like the Apprentice, the contestants would develop a variety of strategies to cut costs while still accomplishing the program's goals.   Recognizing that protecting the future of America's agricultural resources is a far more serious and high-stakes endeavor, I have begun and will continue to present in future Agri-Pulse commentaries what we at American Farmland Trust (AFT) believe are promising directions for reform.

Strategy #1: Like the compensation systems used by many leading companies, the government could adopt a pay-for- performance-in this case environmental performance-approach for working agricultural lands. Paying farmers and ranchers for measurable environmental outcomes, rather than for the implementation of conservation practices, would help ensure that conservation measures were applied where, when, and in a manner that would achieve the greatest environmental good. 

In pilot tests of pay-for-performance conservation conducted by Winrock International in Iowa and Vermont, farmers were offered up to $25 per pound for reductions in phosphorous losses. Farmers had total flexibility to design conservation measures, so they developed innovative approaches tailored to their specific farms. The farmers took on a wide variety of conservation measures, including customizing their fertilizer application, redistributing manure, changing their crop rotation, expanding grass buffers for hay production, adding cover crops, and reducing tillage.  In each case, farmers naturally chose the most appropriate and cost-effective practices and, and thanks to the performance-based incentive, were able to turn a profit while benefiting the environment. AFT, Winrock, Sand County Foundation and The Bradley Fund for the Environment are hosting a workshop on pay-for-performance for farmers, conservationists, and policymakers in Washington, DC on July 20-21 (www.flexincentives.com/2011workshop).

Strategy #2: A related strategy would involve encouraging farmers to optimize conservation and environmental practices at the whole-farm level, rather than addressing each conservation practice individually.   Although this holistic approach requires more customization and fine-tuned attention than does a practiced- based menu, it would ensure that conservation programs realize the greatest possible gains. 

 

In addition to enhancing stewardship, managing conservation at the whole-farm level could benefit producers in other ways. For example, after earning a stamp of approval from the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, farmers enrolled in the program may receive reductions in their liability insurance premiums.   These savings are a reward for the higher level of planning and management required by the certification process.

For reasons I've previously discussed, both of these strategies will be more successful if the agriculture community takes the lead in setting reasonable goals, rules and regulation for stewardship and agri-environmental performance. Additionally, inter-governmental and public-private cooperation in implementing conservation and farmland protection programs would further enhance our chances for success.

A farm bill and accompanying appropriations need to recognize that funding spent to preserve, protect, and assure responsible stewardship on America's farm and ranch lands is an investment in the future. Agriculture's resilience in the face of volatile and changing weather conditions and its ability to produce more food and energy to meet future demands depend upon it. The productivity of future seed and other input technologies also relies on a foundation of high quality farmland.

This is not the time to be cutting funds for the conservation and protection of our agricultural lands.   But given our nation's fiscal reality and the mounting strains on these natural resources, even the worst Apprentice contestant would tell you that we cannot continue with business as usual.

Jon Scholl is the President of American Farmland Trust and is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois. American Farmland Trust is the nation's leading conservation organization dedicated to saving America's farm and ranch land, promoting environmentally sound farming practices and supporting a sustainable future for farms. Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, AFT has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more.

AFT's national office is located in Washington, DC. Phone: 202-331-7300. For more information, visit http://www.farmland.org/news/.

 

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