American farmers are facing unprecedented challenges. Trade wars, several years of low commodity prices, extreme weather and the COVID-19 pandemic led to a record government bailout of U.S. agriculture in 2020, with federal payments to farmers projected to hit up to $47 billion.
This federal aid represents approximately 42% of net farm income and is keeping many farmers afloat, but these difficult economic conditions have still led to rising farm debt and bankruptcies.
At the same time, farmers and the entire food supply chain are facing growing pressure to reduce their environmental impacts, from water pollution to greenhouse gas emissions, of which agriculture contributes approximately 10% of all U.S. emissions.
As President-elect Joe Biden assembles his transition teams and looks toward building a better future, he has the opportunity to boost agricultural resilience in ways that improve the health of rural communities and ecosystems.
Here are three ways federal policymakers can prioritize rural resilience in 2021.
First, federal policymakers should support new revenue streams and other incentives for farmers, ranchers and forest owners to prioritize and scale climate-smart practices that build soil health, sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water quality.
Practices like cover crops, no-till and diverse crop rotations have proven financial benefits, in addition to increasing the resilience of the land. However, farmers face short-term costs and risk when adopting these practices. Policies that help farmers overcome these barriers not only benefit farmers, but all Americans who deserve access to clean water and a healthy environment.
Second, federal policymakers should look to the 2018 farm bill, which included important conservation provisions that were the result of robust collaboration across the aisle and with diverse partners in the agriculture and environmental communities. The programs that have grown through this collaboration, including the Environmental Quality Improvement Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, have created a strong foundation that policymakers should build on to scale up conservation.
Third, federal agencies overseeing crop insurance and farm credit should incorporate the risk reduction benefits of agricultural conservation practices in the pricing and terms of agricultural finance and insurance products. This would address some of the challenges raised in a recent report by a subcommittee of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission that highlighted the vulnerability of the U.S. agriculture sector and its financial institutions to climate change.
Agricultural banks and crop insurers can reduce their risk, and that of their farmer clients, by creating incentives for resilient farming practices. This could include loan and insurance products that recognize and reward resilient practices like no-till, cover crops and extended crop rotations. Such products would reduce harmful disincentives to conservation and support farmer adoption of practices that reduce risk to their farms, banks, insurers and, ultimately, American taxpayers.
Given all of the challenges that our rural communities face, America’s farmers need more than the band-aid of ad-hoc federal payments. They need a farm economy that allows them the opportunity to make a living from their crops, from the land that has supported generations of farming families.
These three areas present ripe opportunities to help transform our farm economy to build climate resilience, improve water quality and support long-term agricultural productivity. They offer a clear starting point to build back a better, healthier and more vibrant agriculture sector in America, for our nation’s farms, our rural economies and our future.
Britt Groosman is Vice President of Ecosystems at Environmental Defense Fund, where she helps create environmentally effective and economically sound solutions for working landscapes, including farms, ranches and forests.