As President-elect Joe Biden promises to ramp up federal efforts to promote climate-friendly farming practices, the Agriculture Department is quietly taking some steps that could lead to new incentives for farmers to take measures such as skipping fall fertilizer applications, planting cover crops and reducing tillage. 

USDA recently signed a landmark agreement with university researchers and the Meridian Institute, the host organization for the AGree Economic and Environmental Risk Coalition, to use the massive amount of private farmer data collected by USDA to study the impact of conservation practices in six Midwest states during 2019. 

The study, which will be the first of its kind using USDA's farm records, is intended to assess how the use of cover crops and conservation tillage affected whether fields could be planted that year, when they could be planted and what impact the practices had on crop yields. A key goal of the study, according to an AGree summary: Determine if there is a basis for anecdotal reports that farmers who implemented conservation practices reduced their prevent-plant risk or were able to plant earlier than growers who were using conventional practices.

The study will require marrying records from three different USDA agencies — Risk Management Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency — with detailed weather data compiled by the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University.

Bruce Sherrick

Bruce Sherrick, University of Illinois

University of Illinois economist Bruce Sherrick, who will lead a team of data scientists, economists and agronomists in analyzing the USDA data, said research like this using the department's extensive records could eventually be used both to improve crop insurance as well as conservation records and show farmers they can use their own data to improve their practices.

"This is an incredibly powerful, hopefully forward-looking effort," Sherrick said. 

The USDA-authorized study is notable in part because it allows the use of the department’s extensive in-house data on farm yields, crop insurance claims and conservation practices. 

According to an FAQ document developed by AGree, the study “establishes a framework for collaboration between USDA and land grant universities in order to facilitate research that will assist USDA in carrying out its missions in the areas of conservation and crop risk management.”

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The University of Illinois will be responsible for handling the data, which is supposed be destroyed as soon as the research is completed.

A team of lawyers was enlisted to make sure farmers' private information couldn't be leaked as art of the project, said Sherrick. Any information identifying farmers that remains when the data is transferred to the university will be scrambled and removed. The identity of farm operators is irrelevant to the research, he said. 

USDA spokesperson said in a statement to Agri-Pulse that the university will be responsible for protecting the privacy of the data under terms of the agreement with the department. "At no point will any producer-level or field-level data be shared, released, or otherwise distributed publicly. Any data used in public reports or analyses will be sufficiently anonymized and aggregated to at least the county level,” the statement said. 

Farmers filed prevent-plant claims on 19 million acres in 2019 because of widespread flooding and successive storms through the spring. The study will focus on six states that had some of the most prevent-plant acres: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

The study grew out of a provision inserted in the 2018 farm bill to require USDA to report on sharing data that researchers could use to answer questions about the impact of conservation practices. The report led to the agreement to undertake the pilot study.

Deb Atwood

Deb Atwood, AGree

“It is critical that the relationship between conservation practices on crop risk exposure, yield variability, and farm resilience be better understood to help farmers and ranchers improve their productivity, profitability, and sustainability,” the AGree document says of the study. 

In a separate development, AGree is seeking to commercialize two crop insurance products intended to remove disincentives to growers to implement conservation practices. 

The first product, possibly an insurance policy endorsement, is for growers who don’t apply nitrogen fertilizer in the fall. It could be OKed as soon as April by the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. board, the USDA arm that oversees new crop insurance approvals, said AGree Executive Director Deb Atwood. She declined to disclose details about the product, citing FCIC disclosure restrictions. 

A farmer who bought the product and then “is prevented from making a spring (nitrogen) application due to wet weather … will be insured against whatever potential reductions occur,” Atwood said. 

The product was developed using privately sourced data on millions of acres over a period of 10 years, she said. The data is necessary to prove that new insurance products are actuarily sound. 

The product is designed to help farmers reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, an important greenhouse gas, as well as prevent nitrogen from being washed into waterways. Atwood said the product fits with recommendations made by the head of Biden’s USDA transition team, Robert Bonnie, and by a coalition of farm and conservation groups, the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance

The recommendations called for USDA to produce a report on the use of crop insurance incentives for climate-friendly practices. 

“We're actually hoping we'll have a product, not just a report but a product,” said Atwood.

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