For far too long, there has been the perception in agriculture that conservation practices undercut profits. Because farmers and ranchers lack adequate data, we are forced to rely on anecdotal information when valuing conservation.  We know conservation practices have value – but how much and are they cost-effective?

When profit margins are slim, agricultural producers are understandably reticent to take risks in adopting new practices that may not yield the desired outcome. To end this past due debate, we must better quantify the risks and rewards of conservation practices, and align the agriculture finance system to incentivize the practices that work. This will ultimately enable farmers and ranchers to increase profitability while increasing the sustainability of their operations and mitigating against the effects of a changing climate. 

The troublesome impacts of climate change are being felt across the country and the world - and farmers and ranchers bear the brunt. In 2019, midwestern farmers suffered from excessive moisture, which flooded millions of acres in multiple states that resulted in a record 20 million acres of Risk Management Agency-reported prevented planting – double the previous record. The reverse has also occurred, over the past 20 years 19% of Indiana cropland, 23% of Illinois, and 31% of Iowa have suffered from drought conditions. 

On my farm in South Dakota, I have placed filter strips along waterways to greatly reduce nonpoint source pollution, planted cover crops to preserve topsoil moisture and build organic matter, and placed marginal less-productive land in federal easement programs. I believe these practices are the most effective but have no way of knowing whether they are or not, other than seeing my financial bottomline. 

Weather is the biggest determining factor of production, and its impact and extremes will only continue if we fail to act. Action starts with information. The Thune-Klobuchar provision of the 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to share conservation data with researchers. The first pilot is underway, with trusted university researchers analyzing anonymous producer data to assess the impact of cover crops. With more than 140 million acres enrolled in federal farm conservation programs, the farmers and ranchers who are using these programs, the policymakers in Congress who write and authorize them, and the taxpayers who pay for them deserve to know these programs’ significance to the sustainability of farms, ranches, and our nation’s food supply. It’s that simple. 

We can and should expand on this by making more anonymized data available to trusted researchers, not just for the direct benefit for farmers and ranchers but also for the indirect benefits that could ripple through the sector. For example, we might see a reduction in crop insurance premiums on land where conservation practices have been applied and have proven to have reduced production losses. This would have a ripple effect that could lead to saving additional tons of topsoil, reducing nonpoint source pollution, conserving the environment, and improving profitability.

Secretary Vilsack, Senators Klobuchar and Thune, and their colleagues in the Administration and in Congress need to continue this work through Administrative action and bipartisan legislation. It is common sense, and it is essential for the future of agriculture in this country. 

Lynn Tjeerdsma is a South Dakota Farmer, former Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), and member of the AGree Economic and Environmental Risk Coalition, a bipartisan group focused on innovation in agriculture policy.

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