Farming is predictably unpredictable, especially now. South Dakota farmers and ranchers like myself are familiar with the many challenges facing production agriculture. The vagaries of markets, weather conditions and longer-term climate impacts are felt not only on my operations, but across the country and globe. That is why we need USDA and Congress to lead the charge and dedicate more resources to collect, organize and analyze data to help inform our on-farm decisions. 

During my time as a senior agriculture policy advisor to U.S. Senator John Thune, R-S.D., of South Dakota, I had the opportunity to support a cooperative research effort at USDA to initiate the Conservation and Crop Insurance Research Pilot. Folks were trying to understand the potential benefits conservation practices may have on crop risk exposure, yield variability, and farm resilience; however, more research was needed. This research opportunity was realized in 2019, when excessive moisture and flooding prevented planting on 19 million acres of cropland, resulting in more than $4 billion in crop insurance claims. Planting was delayed by multiple weeks on tens of millions of additional acres, which reduced potential yields on this land. 

Despite record spring moisture in my area, we were able to plant 98% of my cropland in 2019, for which I credit crop rotation, cover crops minimum-till, and other conservation practices we have installed over the years. Anecdotal reports indicated that other farmers who implemented conservation practices may have reduced their prevent plant risk as well; and, in some cases, planted earlier than on conventionally tilled fields, but we need credible data-driven proof to verify these conservation benefits. 

USDA collaborated with the University of Missouri, the University of Illinois, and the Meridian Institute to develop a research pilot to identify whether there is scientific validity to such anecdotal reports, or whether the datasets available can be used in this manner with a degree of confidence and scientific precision. The results speak for themselves. The pilot research shows there was a clear connection: cover crops and no-till practices reduced the risk of prevented planting. And cover crops and no-till implementation also had a notable impact on planting dates in 2019.

The results of this program also shed light on the opportunities to improve data gathering and management across farms in the United States while still maintaining farmer privacy and security. Researchers realized that there really isn’t a consistent and efficient way for collecting data linking conservation benefits to crop insurance. For example, annual cover crop data is collected systematically in some counties and rarely in others. Some reports include the date a crop was planted, others when it was harvested. Even the definition of a unit of land varies depending on the data set. There is most certainly room for improvement to collect more robust and consistent data so farmers can have more confidence in implementing conservation practices that would help them plant and grow their crops in a timely fashion.

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As I have advocated for my entire career, it is of critical importance to better understand the impacts of conservation practices on crop risk, yield variability, and farm resilience to help farmers and ranchers improve their productivity, profitability, and sustainability. I will continue to advocate for USDA to responsibly unlock its vast archive of agricultural data critical to helping farmers and ranchers increase their productivity, profitability, and environmental performance. 

American farmers will continue to battle weather extremes; let’s not let political bias or complacency get in the way of common-sense efforts to improve farming. The results of properly collected and analyzed data can positively influence agricultural policy, crop insurance ratings, technical assistance programs at USDA, and farmer decision-making. We need USDA and Congress to improve data research management so farmers can better understand how conservation and risk management practices have the potential to build our farms’ resilience and sustainability, not just for our sake as farmers, but for food security for all of us, as well. 

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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