Resource conservation and stewardship is key to ensuring both the long-term productivity and profitability of American farms and ranches and to mitigating concerns about climate. While many producers have successfully used existing conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in a way that makes sense from both a financial and conservation standpoint, expansion of existing programs will not be enough to achieve both climate and conservation goals.

Reimagining our federal conservation programs will be critical if we want to encourage American producers to adopt sustainable practices. I believe the best way to do this is by shifting our current practice-driven model to an outcomes-based one. American farmers and ranchers are already accomplishing many environmental, climate and sustainability goals each day. We must recognize and reward farmers and ranchers who incorporate smart conservation practices into their operations. 

If a farmer were to abandon current conservation practices to solely accumulate carbon credits, what would be the impact on water quality, nutrient management, erosion control or soil health? From an environmental and conservation perspective we want to optimize the overall outcome for our farms and ranches - not maximize a single benefit.     

A shift in policy to outcome-driven programs would open the door to rewarding farmers, ranchers, industry partners and others that already have conservation efforts in place that sequester carbon, slow erosion, improve water quality, manage nutrients and regenerate our agricultural lands while also providing incentives for adopting new and innovative practices.

Under an outcome-based system, a farmer or rancher would be evaluated on the totality of conservation practices that he or she had enacted on the land, both current practices and new practices. No-till farming, buffer strips, irrigation management, rotational grazing, nutrient management and cover crops, among other practices, could all be considered when calculating incentive payments. This approach would give producers more flexibility than the current model affords; it also would allow for greater innovation, as progressive farmers and ranchers could try emerging practices without being penalized for dropping out of established, rigid programs that may not work as well for them. Strip tillage, and cover crop blends with additional grazing or soil health benefits currently get different considerations to no-till practices and cover crops that do not allow for grazing benefits.

The first step in building successful outcome-based programs is to develop a science-based model that could measure the conservation cost/benefit tradeoffs for an individual operation. Federal agencies would need to work closely with land-grant universities to evaluate and implement practices and programs that fit local agricultural conditions. Partnering with local, trusted land-grant institutions would also help make participation in conservation programs more attractive to producers that have traditionally been wary of the U. S. Department of Agriculture programs that may not recognize regional differences in soils or growing seasons. In Nebraska, farmers have embraced minimum and no-till practices that may not be feasible in Minnesota where soils have much different structure. Farmers I have visited with are concerned that conservation based solely on carbon sequestration will not result in sustainable, resilient farming practices in the longer term.  

The world’s consumers want to be assured that agriculture production is responsible and sustainable. Farmers and ranchers are ready to provide that assurance if the programs are reasonable, recognize past efforts, and are based on locally developed and implemented scientifically proven practices while providing flexibility for innovation. 

Greg Ibach has a farming and ranching operation in central Nebraska. He served as Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at USDA. He currently holds the position of Under Secretary in Residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

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