Fall 2023

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NACSAA Members in Action

Welcome to NACSAA News, a quarterly compilation of CSA-related developments. “NACSAA Members in Action” features the latest on our partners’ activities; “Featured News” offers some of the biggest CSA-related stories of the past quarter; “Other News We Are Reading,” is a listing of news stories from other sources we think you will find of interest; and “Partner News and Events” offers the latest partner updates. We hope this newsletter will serve to keep you, your members and other constituencies fully engaged in the growing development of climate-smart agriculture policy, programs and practices. Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. To subscribe, click here.

Farmers bought into Biden’s climate program. Now comes the hard part

A year after the first grants through the $3 billion Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is optimistic about the value of farmer-centric approaches to climate change. 

 

 

Robert Bonnie, the USDA official who came up with the plan, said farmers and rural interests opposed to plans for a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions did not like government mandates, but are open to being part of the solution on climate.

One sign of change is in the American Farm Bureau Federation, whose policy as recently as 2019 stated: “We do not believe unilateral action by the United States can make a difference on global temperatures or stop devastating weather events.”

Today, the Farm Bureau is a member of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a lobbying coalition made up of the largest groups in agriculture that is focused on pushing voluntary, incentive-based climate solutions. It also has proved to be an ally to the Biden administration to help blunt GOP attacks on the climate initiative.

The hard part is convincing skeptical environmental advocates that the program will translate into on-the-ground climate-friendly farm practices, rather than subsidies to agribusinesses that are partners in most of the USDA Climate Smart grant projects. Among their big questions:

  • How effective are cover crops and no-till farming in sequestering carbon, and how will it be measured?
  • Will corporate partners in the projects share their findings freely throughout agriculture, or keep it as proprietary data?
  • e the soil benefits of cover crops offset by reduced yields, as posited in a recent Stanford University study?

“If most of the money ends up flowing to farmers and changing practices it becomes less of a concern,” said Cathy Day, climate policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “But we’d really like to know that there’s really good, firm data on that, to ensure that it’s not going to be benefitting the large transnational corporations.”

Bonnie said USDA is walking a fine line between transparency and the success of the business partners, but said they are required to participate in the Partnerships Network, which will bring them together to share learnings. And he underscored that USDA will be able to learn from all of these programs.

“Our hope is, in the end of Year One and Two and Three, we’ll be able to have a better idea of what’s working where [and] what practices work best, what models get more interest from farmers and ranchers,” Bonnie said.

For more information about reactions to USDA programs, click HERE.

Tribes, ranchers, scientists join with nature to preserve water and wildlife

An oxbow restoration on a Sycan River ranch is a straightforward project—dig through a levee to let flood water return to a drought-stricken pasture. However, for those involved, this work provides a great example of how diverse partners can work collaboratively towards solutions in the Klamath Basin. 

The Family Farm Alliance works closely with the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), a leader in utilizing science and technology advancements to link agriculture, hydrology, and wildlife habitat conservation. The IWJV’s Water 4 Initiative is focused on the importance of maintaining agricultural land for habitat conservation and landscape resiliency within western states.
 
The IWJV worked with Oregon rancher Becky Hyde and the Klamath Falls office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife to produce a StoryMap documenting an oxbow restoration project on the Hyde’s Yainix Ranch on the Sycan River.
 
“This project was an amazing example of some simple work that can make a huge difference for both producers and wetland habitat in the Klamath Basin,” said Emily Downing, with IWJV’s “Water 4” program. 
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Ducks Unlimited and the Klamath Tribes (the Yainix Ranch is under a tribally held conservation easement, which was the first one in the nation) were also involved in this project – which was documented in a storymap.

Mark Buettner, an environmental scientist with the Klamath Tribes who has worked closely with the Hydes on the Yainix easement, said that a simple floodplain reconnection like the oxbow project goes a long way in restoring river function.

 

“Projects like these are trying to restore that overall function of the system by reconnecting the floodplain and getting back some of that historic complexity and function of the river, putting the meanders back in and getting the diverse habitats for a wide variety of wildlife,” he said.

 

For more information about the Sycan River project, click HERE.

 

 

Florida researchers use artificial intelligence to quantify the value of ecosystem services

Researchers in Florida are using artificial intelligence (AI) in a groundbreaking effort to quantify the countless benefits of the ecosystem services provided by climate-smart agriculture.

The AI-HARVEST team at the University of Florida begun developing the tools needed to eventually put a dollar amount on those benefits.

The one-year project will focus on quantifying plant biodiversity, how much and how many different kinds of plants cover Florida lands. More biodiverse lands feature more plants and animals, each of which contributes a different benefit to the overall ecosystem.

The research comes at a time when farmers are beginning to embrace climate-smart agriculture and explore the benefits – not just better yields, healthier soil, and less expense for inputs, but also the potential of payment for the ecosystem services they provide.

It also comes at a time when Florida, after exponential growth in recent decades, foresees continued growth in population and development – which means continued competition for land.

Putting a credible price on the benefits of well-managed farmland would allow landowners need to be compensated for being good stewards of the ecosystem—for managing the land in ways that conserves and enhances its ability to provide us all with a clean, productive environment.  

Most people want to be able to enjoy natural lands, to escape the city noise and traffic. But the reality is, natural lands are undervalued based on their natural assets. In Florida, one of fastest-growing states in the U.S., the value of land has skyrocketed for its development potential. While development is not bad, it’s difficult for a family to justify keeping agricultural land in production on thin margins when selling that land for development could yield great, albeit one-time, profits.

“But the key is you need to know what the value of those ecosystem services are,” says Joel Harley, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the University of Florida’s SmartDATA Laboratory. “That’s not easy.”

Harley is part of the AI-HARVEST team led by Alina Zare, professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean for research and facilities in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

To build an AI algorithm that can quantify something as complex as the ecosystem, the researchers have collected and integrated close to a million pieces of data on plant species and locations throughout Florida. They also have more than 50 million square miles of satellite imagery.

The researchers started their data collection by going straight to the source: landowners and land managers who are part of or friends with the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group, led by Jim Strickland, rancher, and Lynetta Usher Griner, co-owner of a cattle and timber operation. Students walked fields, pastures, and woodlands, noting forages, forbs and other plant species.

Satellite images give researchers a Florida-wide view of changes in the landscape each month. The researchers also look from the sky using drone images and tap into public and crowdsourced data. They use the popular iNaturalist app, which allows people to take pictures of and find identifications for plants they see in nature, as well as more comprehensive, research-centric databases from federal and state conservation land managers.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” Harley says. “But there’s a lot of potential, and a lot of potential value to a lot of people, especially in the state of Florida, where our natural lands are one of our biggest attractors.”

As of August, the AI-HARVEST team has developed its preliminary algorithm for quantifying ecosystem services, starting with biodiversity. Through interviews with agricultural producers, the researchers found one of their next key ecosystem services to quantify: water quality.

 “Water quality is a huge concern in Florida right now,” says Harley. “So, we’ve been looking into how we address that next.”

For more information about the AI-HARVEST project, click HERE.

NACD awarded $600,000 U.S. Forest Service landscape-scale restoration grant

A $600,000 USDA grant will open the door to science-based restoration initiatives in priority forest landscapes and key watersheds across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) received the grant for its Northeast Mid-Atlantic Forests and Water Partnership. The grant is from USDA’s Forest Service Landscape Scale Restoration program.

“This grant allows us to establish a regional forum that promotes science and research impacting forest management and water quality,” said Annica McGuirk, NACD Northeast Region Representative. “Through strategic coordination, we will align partners across the region in support of restoration projects, share valuable lessons learned, and continue to drive alignment between the forest and water sectors to achieve greater on-the-ground outcomes.”

The Northeast Mid-Atlantic Forests and Water Partnership brings together a coalition of agencies and organizations dedicated to enhancing forest and water priorities across 13-states, from Maine to West Virginia and Ohio. This collaboration will leverage the expertise of the U.S. Forest Service, USEPA, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and conservation districts. The inaugural projects are in Ohio and Connecticut.

In Ohio, the state Division of Forestry will work with forest landowners on best management practices to protect water quality and promote sustainable forest management, and to provide additional access to Ohio’s Forestry Pollution Abatement Plan program to prevent water pollution from forestry operations. Conservation districts in southeast Ohio will support these efforts and provide landowner education and outreach.

In Connecticut, the state’s Council on Soil and Water Conservation will lead trainings on a new GIS toolkit for mapping riparian restoration, providing landowner outreach and education in support of sustainable forest management, and leading riparian restoration projects in priority drinking watersheds for several major cities.

“This grant brings together diverse stakeholders for forest and water restoration and landowner outreach and education to benefit communities, wildlife, and natural resources,” said Kim LaFleur, NACD President. “It is a partnership that emphasizes the importance of regional collaboration and the crucial role of conservation districts as effective partners in promoting shared stewardship and conservation on all lands.”

For more information about the Northeast Mid-Atlantic Forests and Water Partnership and its restoration initiatives, click HERE.

 

 

Nationwide study shows positive economic impact of soil health management systems

 A nationwide study by the Soil Health Institute and National Association of Conservation Districts found that soil health management systems (SMHS) increased net farm income by an average of $65 per acre. On average, SHMS practices cost producers $14 per acre less to grow corn, $7 per acre less to grow soybeans and $16 per acre less to grow all other crops. 

 

Among the 30 farms studied across the country, 42 percent of those growing corn saw yield increases; 32 percent of those growing soybeans also saw increases, as did 35 percent of farms growing other crops.  

“We know practices like cover crops and no-till benefit the environment by storing soil carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving water quality,” said Dr. Wayne Honeycutt, President and CEO of the Soil Health Institute said when results were released in August. “However, investing in soil health is also a business decision. This project provides farmers with the economic information they need to feel confident when making that decision.” 

Individual farmer videos, two-page economic factsheets, and one-page narratives were created for each of the 30 farmers interviewed to support soil health education and outreach. Results from the wide range of farms, production systems, and geographies included in this national study indicate that many more farmers may also benefit economically from adopting SHMS, thereby expanding the associated on-farm and environmental benefits for farmers and society. 

The study, a multi-year and data-driven collaboration among the Soil Health Institute, the National NACD, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service assessed the economics of SHMS for a range of crops including canola, chickpea, corn, cotton, dried bean, grain sorghum, millet, pea, peanut, rye, soybean, sunflower, walnut, and wheat.

Some of the operations also raised dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens, and hogs. The study included extensive interviews with 30 farmers, who have successfully implemented a wide range of SHMS, including cover crops, no-till, reduced till, strip till, planting green, rotational grazing, livestock integration, and manure incorporation across 20 states. Interviews were designed to learn about farmers’ experiences with adopting those systems and to evaluate their economics by comparing the costs and benefits before and after practice adoption.  

“Soil health management practices help producers increase profits, reduce costs, and limit risks while conserving our nation’s resources,” said NRCS Chief Terry Cosby. “The results experienced by these 30 diverse farmers from across the country show the financial benefits of implementing soil health management systems across many different production systems, and highlight how critical voluntary conservation programs are to the viability of U.S. agriculture.” 

For detailed information about the economic case studies, including videos, producer narratives and fact sheets, click HERE

Featured News

Hurricane Idalia damage to Florida agriculture

Early reports on Florida agriculture damage from Hurricane Idalia estimated $78 million to $371 million in losses, in addition to widespread damage to such infrastructure as irrigation rigs and fences. The Category 3 hurricane came ashore Aug. 30 along Florida’s Big Bend region with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph, sweeping across rural areas that include crops such as peanuts and cotton as well as cattle, poultry and aquaculture operations

Predicted losses for livestock ranged from $30.1 million to $123.4 million, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences report. Estimates for field and row crop losses are between $30.7 million and $93.6 million, with greenhouse and nursery products accounting for between $4.7 million and $68.8 million.

Though preliminary loss estimates do not include agricultural infrastructure, it appears some of the worst losses were to irrigation systems, roofs blown off farm buildings and damage to fence lines. Researchers have difficulty calculating these losses initially using a variety of data sources and modeling because there isn’t enough baseline data available from past storms.

Researchers said the wide ranges in these estimates will narrow as more on-the-ground assessments are completed. The storm’s main farm impacts occurred in Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor counties in an area between the Gulf of Mexico and the Georgia state line. Four people in Florida were killed during the hurricane, according to medical examiner reports to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Less than 80 miles south of where Idalia made landfall on the Gulf Coast., Cedar Key is home to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Nature Coast Biological Station. Idalia created the largest storm surge (10.69 feet) Cedar Key has seen in more than 100 years, wrote Mike Allen, Ph.D., director of the Nature Coast Biological Station, in a memo to UF/IFAS administration and facilities staff.

“The best news is that all of our team in Cedar Key are safe,” Allen wrote on Sept. 5, noting that one team member’s home was severely flooded. “With the help of many, we were able to clean out the wet lab and get things organized and ready for reconstruction of the lab.”

The University of Florida continues its survey to estimate damages from the storm, but there’s no doubt the hurricane hurt fishers and aquaculture farmers along the coast.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson said an assistance program would target at repair or replacement of existing irrigation systems. The program offers a reimbursement rate of 75 percent up to a maximum of $150,000 per producer or entity except those covered fully by insurance, according to a news release.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered disaster assistance to Florida farmers and livestock producers impacted by the hurricane, and the Florida Farm Bureau’s Women’s fund is collecting funds to assist farmers and ranchers who suffered agricultural losses.

The university’s report is one of several ways federal and state agencies determine how to distribute response and assistance in natural disasters such as hurricanes. A final report will be released in the coming weeks that will include county-by-county agricultural loss estimates.

Florida agriculture and related industries such as processing accounted for more than $270 billion in sales revenue and supported some 2 million jobs in 2022, the University of Florida estimated. Only the tourism industry is larger in Florida.

Hurricane Idalia created a mess for farmers and aquaculturists, but it also created moments in which rural communities came together. As Scott Angle, the University of Florida senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and the UF/IFAS leader, said in a recent article, “The worst of times can bring out the best in us.”

Florida Climate Smart Agriculture is bringing together groups of people who manage and take care of Florida’s land and water, creating new collaborative connections to benefit all as climate change creates new challenges for agricultural and aquacultural production—including but not limited to increasing risks of more frequent, more intense storms.

 

Economic growth can be compatible with conservation

 

A different way of looking at economics can help balance economic growth with environmental conservation, say researchers at the World Bank.

 

We shouldn’t have to pick sides we’ve already demonstrated that “our desire to accumulate wealth and our need to lift people out of poverty have pushed Earth to the brink,” according to the Climate Forward newsletter at The New York Times. Instead, we need balance and tradeoffs.

“Suppose you were to use all the resources that you have efficiently and properly, and allocate those resources efficiently and properly. How much could you produce?” said Richard Damania, chief economist at the bank’s sustainable development practice group. “We come up with some shockingly large numbers.”

In a report issued in late June,  Damania’s team, in collaboration with the Natural Capital Project, a partnership of groups focused on quantifying the value of ecosystems, has drawn a new road map for countries to achieve that.

The researchers estimated that countries could sequester 85.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to two years’ worth of global emissions at current rates, without denting economic growth. Alternatively, they could increase annual income from forestry and agriculture by $329 billion per year, which could meet the world’s food needs until 2050, without damaging the environment.

In a U.S. example, preserving land and water does double duty, contributing to the economy and helping nature at the same time. New York City’s water comes from a forested watershed in the Catskill Mountains that costs about $167 million a year to maintain. Without it, the city would need to spend $6 billion to build filtration plants that would then cost $250 million per year to maintain.

Farming practices such as no-till and cover crops are proven ways to enhance soil health and avoid erosion and nutrient runoff. These tactics, growing in popularity, are the low-hanging fruit. But the World Bank model’s full potential would also require paying people to move and farm somewhere else, or to find a new line of work. 

“Where you are retiring land or changing its use, if you are going to get losers, my own personal view is that you have to compensate the losers,” Damania said. “And if you don’t, you’re going to bump into resistance.”

The report said the answer is the $1.25 trillion in direct subsidies that governments provide annually for agriculture, marine industries and fossil fuel extraction. Those payments and tax breaks fuel deforestation, overfishing and excessive use of resources like fertilizer, which can be toxic in large amounts. Repurposing those financial supports would thus give a double boost to countries trying to be more efficient, though that poses huge political challenges.

Increasing the intensity of agriculture can have plenty of environmental downsides. And increased crop yields can actually amplify incentives to push into protected areas, since the soil becomes even more lucrative. That makes the rule of law paramount.

Spending on enforcement may pay off amply, though. In Brazil, for example, the World Bank calculates that the forest provides about $20 billion in value for farmers that includes rain, healthy soils and lower fire risks. That’s several times more than Brazil is spending to keep people from illegally clearing land.

For more information about the World Bank study, click HERE.

GACSA webinar focuses on climate-smart investment opportunities

National governments are the entities best equipped to support farmers seeking funds to transition to climate-smart agriculture, according to participants in an international webinar hosed by the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA) on September 20. In a survey before the program, participants selected international institutions as the second-best entity. 

In a second survey question, participants seemed to suggest that “conscious choices to transform our agrifood systems” was a factor essential to securing funding for climate-smart agriculture.

The survey set the stage for panelists to discuss the need to support initiatives that incentivize and prepare farmers around the globe to embrace climate-smart agriculture practices.

In a world ever more interconnected, said GASCA co-chair Imelda Bacudo, investment opportunities in agriculture must transcend national boundaries. International collaborations and partnerships can harness the collective wisdom and resources of nations to transform agriculture into a global engine of sustainable growth. As an independent and global platform, she said, GACSA has an important role to play in promoting climate-smart agriculture and its three pillars: increase agricultural productivity and incomes; mitigate agricultural greenhouse gas emissions; and adapt agricultural practices to climate change.

Nadine Valat, Green Climate Found Team Leader at the Food and Agriculture Organization FAO), gave an overview of the main climate and environment funds:

  • Green Climate Fund, the world’s largest climate fund mandated to support low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways.
  • Global Environment Facility, a multilateral fund dedicated to confronting biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, and strains on land and ocean health.
  • Adaptation Fund, implemented by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010 to finance concrete adaptation projects in developing countries which are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Sara Burrone, an economist at FAO, said climate-smart agriculture is a framework to merge productivity and sustainability, and that its trade-offs can be linked to specific circumstances in which sustainable practices are being pursued or planned for implementation. She cited a bottom-up approach in Bhutan to help her audience grasp how farmers embrace innovative practices. When farmers decide to invest in adopting a particular practice, they show a greater inclination toward adopting innovative methods if they offer a high return relative to the effort required.

To watch a recording of the Webinar, click here.

A “good soil discount” for cover crops, no-till and crop rotation?

 When farmers improve the health of their soil, they are building a resilient system that, over time, can reduce their financial risk.

And at the same time, they’re also reducing nutrient runoff and soil erosion, reducing the need for some chemical inputs, and sequestering carbon in a time of warming climate. A lot of initiatives are under way to capitalize climate-smart agriculture. 

And one more is emerging that adds a new twist. New research will try to determine whether farms with demonstrably better soil have less risk of crop failure and should therefore see a reduction in the cost of crop insurance and other financial benefits.

A young non-profit called Land Core, along with the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), is hoping to find the answer. FFAR awarded a $​715,611 Seeding Solutions grant to Land Core this past summer to create an unprecedented market-based, actuarially-sound model that can determine the risk-mitigation benefits and related cost savings associated with specific soil health practices. ​

In particular, Land Core will focus on cover cropping, no till/conservation tillage, and crop rotations, Harley Cross, cofounder of Land Core, told AgFunderNews.

The value of these practices is widely known, but less widely used, in part because of high upfront costs; the benefits don’t come overnight, and immediate financial incentives are not always available.

“We have discounts for being a good driver and a non-smoker because those behaviors are scientifically proven to mitigate health risks and save insurers money,” said Land Core Co-founder and Executive Director, Aria McLauchlan. “It’s commonplace across industries to incentivize the adoption of low-risk practices. Healthy soil should be no different.”

But until this initiative began, there was no “market-based, actuarially sound model” for a “good-soil discount.”

With its FFAR grant, Land Core is creating a market-based model that can determine the risk-mitigation benefits and related cost savings associated with specific soil health practices.

For more information about the Good Soil Discount, click HERE.

Climate Week: Big differences of opinion on how to get the job done

 

Climate Week 2023 in New York City was a mix of protests, panels, and street theater, but The New York Times’s annual Climate Forward live event brought together thought leaders with a wide range of views.

 

Policymakers, activists and business leaders agree that resolving the climate crisis is the hardest joint project humanity has ever taken on. But there are big differences of opinion on how to do it. And in the meantime, the cognitive dissonance between hope and despair is enough to make everyone’s head spin.

“The future is very bright and every day is a freaking crisis,” Jason Grumet, C.E.O. of the American Clean Power Association, told The Times.

Divisions were most clear over the questions countries are set to consider in the global climate negotiations in Dubai this December: Is it time to start phasing out fossil fuels now? And how much should oil companies be involved in that process?

Al Gore warned that fossil fuel interests are trying to co-opt climate action, especially with a top oil executive, Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, leading this year’s global climate talks in Dubai. “That’s just, like, taking the disguise off,” the former vice president said. “They have captured control of the political and policymaking process in too many countries and too many regional governments, and they’ve reached out to try to capture the U.N. process.”

Fossil fuel industries, Gore added, “have portrayed themselves as the source of trusted advice that we need to solve this crisis. But they are responding to powerful incentives to keep digging and drilling and pumping up the fossilized remains of dead animals and plants and burning them in ways that use the atmosphere as an open sewer, threatening the future of humanity. It’s enough already.”

But some corporate and government leaders at the forum, including the billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, were adamant that the world is not yet ready to give up fossil fuels. “We are not going to get away from using oil for the next 10 or 15 years and we are not going to say everybody that has a gas-guzzling car can’t drive it anymore and they will have to start walking today,” he said. “Big oil is part of the problem. They are also part of the solution.” Bloomberg added that he thought al-Jaber was a smart choice to lead the COP28 talks.

Projections by the International Energy Agency say nations must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the world to maintain warming below dangerous levels. Still, oil-producing nations and corporations haven’t yet shown any signs that they are ready to slow down: Britain’s government, a climate leader for years, just announced a change of course that will weaken key environmental pledges, including delays to a ban on the sale of gas and diesel cars. And Norway’s prime minister said that, this is the century when the world will phase out fossil fuel, he also said he is against setting a deadline for the transition, and defended his country’s continued investment in oil and gas expansion.

Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, who has become a leader of the climate movement, said that for her country and others it is impossible to get rid of fossil fuels without alternatives in place. “Natural gas continues to be a bridge in fuel because there is a genuine lack of capacity globally,” she said. “I would love somebody to pay me to keep our natural gas in the ground in our oceans. But in they don’t, how am I going to finance my net zero and how am I going to ensure that my country has access to credible supply of energy?”

Almost four months into his presidency at the World Bank, Ajay Banga said he was looking for intelligent ways to get developing countries enough resources to build up that capacity. “We’ve created processes to work on this,” he said. “I would tell you don’t think the door will open and the trillions will flood in it. But don’t give up hope.”

But what are countries willing to sacrifice for the green transition? Activists are concerned that impacted communities and ecosystems could suffer.

“We often get caught up in the cycle of trying to move things fast; however, if you want to go further, you have to go together and that often takes time,” Ebony Twilley Martin, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said. “When we don’t do a proper assessment, we see biodiversity loss, economic burdens.”

Groundwater irrigation moving eastward, even to the Land of 10,000 Lakes

Americans’ hunger for flawless French fries is clashing with people’s thirst for fresh water in some parts of Minnesota. 

A severe drought in 2021 depleted the wells of many people in the west central part of the state as a number of large farms collectively pumped at least 6.1 billion gallons more groundwater than allowed under state permits. One company alone accounted for almost one-third of that total. 

R.D. Offutt Farms, based in North Dakota, is one of the largest potato growers in America, and farms thousands of acres in Minnesota, about a third of in planted in potatoes any given year.

The sandy soil that allows potatoes to grow into French-fry friendly oblong, uniform tubers also needs more water than other soils. Offutt executives said their irrigation methods have gotten more efficient in recent years, adding that they’re working with scientists to develop new varieties of potatoes that aren’t as water-intensive.

The region is more widely known for production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and other crops, and groundwater irrigation, traditionally most common in the West, is being used more frequently in the Midwest. Over the last 60 years, permits for irrigation wells in Minnesota have jumped from 50 to over 7,000. A recent Times data investigation looked into groundwater depletion nationally.

Agriculture is a significant user of groundwater, but cities, power plants, factories and golf courses are, too. Construction accidents can also be a problem. In 2021 a company digging an oil pipeline breached an aquifer in Minnesota, unleashing groundwater.

For more information about groundwater irrigation in the Midwest, click HERE.

Let’s not forget non-operating farmland owners

It’s become clear that climate-smart agricultural practices are not only good for soil health, but also good for the broader environment – and for the bottom lines of farmers. But there are barriers to such practices as no-till and cover-crop use becoming universal.

One is persuading some farmers to make a change knowing that yields may be lower and margins tighter for a few years during the transition to new ways of farming.

But another is access to land. Most producers do not own all the land they farm. Investing in soil health is an investment in time and money, and the benefits continue to accrue over long periods of time. It’s difficult to make such investments in land rented by the year, or even longer increments.

In Iowa, 58 percent of farmland was leased, or operated by someone other than the landowner, according to the 2022 Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure survey, released this summer. The same study found that two-thirds of the state’s farmland is owned by people at least 65 years old – with 37 percent owned by people 75 and older. Among other findings:

  • Many older, retired farmers and/or their spouses have no succession plan for the land they own.
  • Many people who have inherited Iowa farmland neither live near nor intend to farm it themselves.
  • Still others have purchased land as a relatively safe, long-term investment. Families go in together to buy land, which they lease to one or two family members or neighbors. Companies exist to buy land and sell shares in the corporation, making anyone who is a shareholder an invested landowner.
  • About 37 percent of Iowa farmland is primarily owned for family or sentimental reasons; and about 20 percent is owned by someone who is not an Iowa resident.

Jason Russell, who farms with his brother in Linn County, Iowa, has seen different reactions from landowners who rent farmland. He said some view innovation as a financial risk that could limit a farmer’s ability to pay rent. Landlords may also have concerns that new practices would harm the land or create a messy look when they pride themselves on “clean,” weed-free fields.

“But I do know a handful of landowners that actually seek out tenants that like to do these things,” Russell added. “They’re great people, and we need more of them.”

He said communication is key when operating land that is not your own, and suggests farmers keep landowners informed with pictures, videos and an open dialogue.

“Take them to the field and show them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Russell says. “Show them your financial situation. There’s a great deal of secrecy when it comes to that, and it can be problematic. A lot of times, the landowner thinks they’re not getting treated fairly.”

Solutions from the Land believes the whole world will benefit when farmers are at the center of discussion and decision-making on global needs, like climate action. If farmers are to get climate-smart agricultural practices on the ground, they need the support of landowners, especially in places like Iowa where so many farmland owners are not currently operators themselves.

We cannot lose sight of the complexity of agriculture. This extends beyond the biological and climatic complexities of working on the land. There are social aspects—the culture of agriculture—that must be understood and considered when developing educational outreach and policy.

For more information about climate-smart practices and rented farmland, click HERE.

Other News We Are Reading

There is a market for climate-smart agriculture. That, in short, was U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s message to crowds at the Farm Progress Show Aug. 30 in Decatur, Ill. “Climate-smart agriculture can give you a value-added proposition that can increase farm income,” he said, arguing that agroecological practices are among the most effective pathways for small producers to diversify their revenue streams and compete against major food companies with “a value-added proposition that can increase farm income. So instead of two or three ways to generate profit and income on a farm, we have five or six or seven different ways each farm becomes a center of entrepreneurship,” Vilsack said. Among the potential income sources he mentioned are methane digesters, ecosystem markets, new processing opportunities, conversion of waste products, generating renewable energy on their properties and taking advantage of emerging markets for bioproducts. And he put it all in the context of rural communities, noting that the “fate of small-town America” hangs in the balance. The greater economic opportunities farmers gain through climate-smart agriculture, Vilsack said, translates into stronger, more prosperous communities.

For more than a decade, USDA’s Climate Hubs have been at the forefront of supporting climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts for U.S. farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. In May, the department significantly boosted its efforts globally by launching the International Climate Hub. The new hub builds on the experience with 10 regional Climate Hubs throughout the United States and the Caribbean to compile, share, and significantly expand knowledge, understanding, and implementation of climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices in the United States. By broadening international awareness and access to information and tools, USDA continues to position itself as a global leader in highlighting agriculture and forestry practices as solutions to address climate change. The international hub is a platform to share research, tools, collaborative efforts, and best practices on a global scale to improve the world’s ability to adapt to climate change and mitigate its impacts. It joins the USDA regional hubs as part of the premier model for developing and delivering science-based, region-specific information and technologies to U.S. agricultural, forest, and natural resource managers to reduce risk, build resilience, and enable climate-informed decision making. “We have seen significant investment and interest from the global community in support of tools, resources, and expertise to help meet global adaptation and mitigation goals,” said Jeremy Adamson, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) senior policy advisor. “The International Climate Hub expands our cooperation and sharing, demonstrating approaches that are successful, and connecting users around the world with much-needed tools to help them address climate and sustainability goals.”

David Brandt was practicing climate-smart agriculture long before it had a name. Before his untimely death in May, he had been no-tilling his Central Ohio farm for 50 years and planting cover crops for 40 years. Nobody taught him or told him to do it. He just started because it seemed right – and then proved to be right. Brandt, 76, died May 21 when his truck crashed near Champaign, Ill., as he returned from a seed-buying trip. He was mourned in publications around the country, including The Washington Post, which noted his impact on sustainable agriculture, as well as the Internet. David Brandt – the man in the meme – looked like somebody sent from Central Casting to a movie director who wanted The Quintessential Farmer on the set. But truth is stranger than fiction and Brandt was not an actor. He’s the real deal. Sometimes called “the godfather of cover crops,” Brandt was just another farmer in his own community, about 20 miles southeast of Columbus. A good farmer, but not a celebrity – at least not until 2012, when USDA organized an event at his farm to roll out a national education campaign on soil preservation. A few years later, a photo of Brandt from that event went viral online after Reddit users added a slogan to the picture: “It ain’t much, but it’s honest work.” He nurtured more than the soil. To spread his ideas, he started a seed business for cover crops. And he nurtured his family: His son and a grandson have been fully engaged in and long been poised to operate the farm. His daughter-in-law and another grandson manage the seed business. In addition to the Post, his passing was noted in newspapers as diverse as the New York Post, the British Daily Mail, and Ohio the ag weekly Farm & Dairy.

Partner News and Events

Business of Biogas conference, Oct. 10-12 in St Louis

The Business of Biogas is the focus of the Fall conference of the American Biogas Council in St. Louis Oct. 10-12. It is aimed at biogas project developers and investors who want to network and learn how to design projects to maximize biogas production and profitability. Registration information is available here.

The conference kicks of the afternoon of Oct. 10 with a 2 ½-hour “Developer 101 Boot Camp” at 2 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel. Among the speakers is Bryan Sievers of Sievers Family Farms and Horizon II. Sievers also is a co-chair of Iowa Smart Agriculture, and has a 1.0 MW combined heat and power (CHP) anaerobic digester system on his grain and livestock farm.

Other sessions, on Oct. 11 and 12, include Today’s Financing Toolkit; Realtalk on Monetizing Biogas; Mergers, Acquisitions and Attracting Investors; Developing the Harder Projects; New Regulatory Issues; and Emerging Markets, Non-Methane Revenue.

COP 28 Food Agriculture & Water Day December 10

COP28, hosted this year by the United Arab Emirates at Expo City in Dubai, begins n Nov. 30 – with Dec. 10 set aside as COP28 Food, Agriculture and Water Day. It includes the first-ever High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on Building Water-Resilient Food Systems, which will build on the momentum created at the UN Food Systems Summit and the UN 2023 Water Conference.

  • The day’s events include a session on best country practices on climate-food nexus, and launch of the Climate-Food Guidance Toolkit from the special task force on creating the climate frameworks toolkit for food.
  • Joint policy dialogues on integrating agriculture, climate and finance. To support implementation of the Emirates Declaration on Food Systems, Agriculture, and Climate Action, this session will bring together leading platforms serving policy makers in the domains of agriculture, climate, and finance
  • A high-level ministerial on protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems. The Ministerial roundtable on The Freshwater Challenge will announce new country signatories and new commitments to the Challenge
  • Accelerating transformation at the nutrition-climate nexus. Climate change is compounding existing challenges to end all forms of malnutrition. This event will introduce new efforts and assess progress for delivery of holistic, scalable solutions.

For more information, click here.

Canadian Fertilizer Products Forum, Nov. 7 and 8 in Ottawa

For the last 17 years, Fertilizer Canada hosted this event in partnership with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) – and more recently with the Fertilizer and Supplements Advisory Committee (FSAC) – to help ensure that fertilizers and supplements in Canada are globally competitive and that growers have access to new products in a timely manner.

At this event, you can expect CFIA regulatory workshops, breakout sessions, industry expert presentations, and opportunities for networking. The forum is an in-person event, with a hybrid option that is audio-only. Click here for the agenda and registration information.

ASABE organizes evapotranspiration symposium at Penn State in October

With a focus on advances, challenges, and future needs in measurements, modeling, and applications, the 2nd Global Evapotranspiration Symposium will be held October 23-27 in the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center at The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania.

Population growth, energy demands, agricultural expansion, groundwater extraction, and global climate change are placing enormous pressure on limited water resources – resulting in environmental and social crises around the globe. Evapotranspiration (ET) is a major component of the hydrologic cycle that links to water resources availability and use, water quality, ecosystem productivity, food and fiber production, and Earth’s energy balance and climate system. ET science is central to understanding the consequences of environmental, ecosystem and agricultural systems change and human adaptation to global change.

People from many fields – including scientists, researchers, engineers, land and water managers, planners, academicians, consultants, producers, policymakers, industry professionals, Extension professionals, and public officials – are invited to join. For registration information, click here.

GACSA seeks entries in Climate Smart Agriculture photo/video contest

The Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture is seeking photos and videos for a contest that will highlight the impact of climate-smart agriculture on different communities and ecosystems. The contest is intended to inspire further collaboration and actions that promote these agricultural practices. The selected pictures and videos will be used in exhibitions at international conferences such as the COP28, World Food Forum, and Committee on World Food Security. All the slogans and the descriptions of the pictures and videos will be jointly coordinated upon consensus and approval of the participants. 

To participate, submit high-quality images or one- to two-minute videos. Entries should demonstrate innovative practices, adaptation to changing climate conditions, improved yields, and any other relevant aspects of your work. Also include brief descriptions in which the context, impact and significance of the projects are well explained as well as successes featured in the images and videos. This information will help visitors to better understand the importance of your work. 

Send entries and supporting information to GACSA Facilitation Unit email GACSA-Facilitation-Unit@fao.org]by close-of-business October 15.  By submitting your photos/videos, you grant GACSA the right to use these media as well as showcasing them at GACSA social media platform as part of promotional materials. Please ensure that you have all the necessary permissions and rights to share these visuals. For more information, click here.

ABOUT NACSAA

About NACSAA

The North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA) is a farmer-led platform for inspiring, educating, and equipping agricultural partners to innovate effective local adaptations that sustain productivity, enhance climate resilience, and contribute to the local and global goals for sustainable development.

NACSAA reflects and embraces all scales of agriculture in Canada, Mexico and the United States, ranging from small landholders to midsize and large-scale producers. NACSAA encourages climate smart agriculture (CSA) strategies to enhance the adaptive capacity of North American agriculture to changing climate conditions and works to achieve this goal through three complementary strategies: 1) sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and livelihoods (i.e. sustainable intensification); 2) enhancing adaptive capacity and improving resilience; and 3) delivering ecosystem services, sequestering carbon, and reducing and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.

North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA)

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