A new farm bill proposal could make it possible for farmers to know with some precision what impact cover crops, no-till farming and other conservation practices could have on their crop yields. 

A bill sponsored by senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Thune, R-S.D., would require USDA agencies to aggregate data on farming practices and crop yields and make the information available to researchers in a way that individual farms could not be identified. 

The Agriculture Data Act stems from work of the AGree coalition, which has been seeking ways to improve agricultural sustainability in ways that are workable for growers. An AGree briefing paper says that making the analysis of USDA data available to farmers will help them "reduce risks and increase profitability." 

The bill “could provide land-grant universities, such as South Dakota State University, better access to USDA-compiled conservation data, resulting in more accurate recommendations for conservation practices and precision agriculture tools that are most beneficial for crop production and soil health,” Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, said.

Among the goals of the bill is to integrate data which is gathered and compiled in different forms by the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service so that the information can be compared by researchers. USDA would be authorized to set up a secure database that approved researchers could use. 

The department would be required to ensure the confidentiality of proprietary data and to report annually to Congress on the information that has been collected. 

The bill’s supporters say it will help that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is merging NRCS under the same mission area as FSA and RMA. NRCS has previously reported to a different undersecretary, hindering coordination among the agencies. “It makes a lot of sense to remove those silos,” said Callie Eideberg, a senior policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. 

"EDF has always worked under the basic premise that good strong conservation practices will help not only the environment in the long run but will also help a producer’s yield," she said. 

Several USDA programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program, have provided payments to farmers for years to follow practices that could be analyzed by researchers. 

“One of the greatest challenges with applying the most effective conservation practices, like cover crops on working lands, is measuring the economic value these practices can provide, such as increased crop yields on subsequent crops,” Thune said.

Thune and Klobuchar are both members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. No similar bill has been introduced in the House yet. 

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