The U.S. needs better economic options for farmers at all scales, and the 2024 Farm Bill is our opportunity. 

We need food and farm systems that deliver better outcomes for the health of our communities, our local landscapes, and the waters and climate that connect us all. Farmers need resilience—not only through public programs that support us through transitions but also through transitions to farming systems built to thrive in changing weather patterns, economic trends, and social conditions. 

Three proven and scalable solutions are within reach: perennial crops, managed grazing, and agroforestry – and all three received critical investments in both proposals rolled out by the Senate and House Agriculture Committees. Perennial crops grow year after year, allowing us to produce food with minimal disruption to the land, and managed grazing integrates livestock to enhance farm ecology and economic opportunities. Agroforestry puts trees to work to make farms more productive, diverse, and climate-resilient. 

These forms of perennial agriculture work to meet the 21st-century needs of farmers and communities, and yet, a surprisingly small percentage of farm payments and agricultural research supported by past farm bills goes to perennial agriculture. Another business-as-usual farm bill is a wasted opportunity. President Lincoln nicknamed the USDA “The People’s Department” when he established it; this Congress can help the USDA live up to that name by passing a Farm Bill that invests in perennial agriculture. 

Perennializing the world’s most eaten food is a big deal for farmers and the climate. Last year, we celebrated a breakthrough moment for perennial rice. Compared to annual rice, new perennial cultivars have equal yields and require less labor and fewer inputs since annual replanting is not required. When the soil is not disturbed by planting, it accumulates more carbon. The Farm Bill can build on this success by prioritizing funds for research and development for other perennial crops, such as hazelnut, chestnut, or elderberry, which thrive in many parts of the U.S. but are largely imported. Perennial crops can enhance soil health, reduce runoff, and mitigate emissions. By investing in perennial crop R&D, we can boost crop resilience to climate variability and reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based farm inputs, benefiting both farmers’ bottom line and the environment. 

                Cut through the clutter! We deliver the news you need to stay informed about farm, food and rural issues. Sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse here.

Managed grazing moves livestock out of confinement facilities and onto perennial pasture. If managed properly, livestock on perennial pastures can not only have far better outcomes than conventional systems for animal welfare, soil health, and water quality, but they also have economic benefits. Research shows that grazing systems frequently produce higher net profits, with significantly lower startup costs, than confinement systems. A fifteen-year analysis by University of Wisconsin researchers found that dairy farms with managed grazing systems had consistently higher net profit per gallon of milk produced. Because of this, managed grazing offers a more accessible entry point for the entrepreneurship of beginning farmers, who can start their own enterprises without large capital investments in facilities and equipment. Rural communities need the next Farm Bill to support beginning and underserved farmers by leveling the playing field for small-scale managed grazing. 

Agroforestry integrates trees and shrubs to improve all kinds of farming systems.  For instance, by growing trees amid row crops — as buffers or in interspersed strips — we can increase crop yields, improve soil health, and add wildlife habitat corridors to local landscapes. Trees in managed grazing can improve livestock performance and welfare by providing shelter in extreme heat and cold. Regardless of the production system, adding trees to the landscape is an effective way to sequester carbon in branches, trunks, and roots while also enhancing soil carbon accumulation. In fact, growing trees generally remove several fold more carbon per acre than farming practices that store carbon in soils alone. In this way, agroforestry can boost farms’ resilience, diversity, and yield while having a beneficial climate impact. For this reason, recent research tells us that the greatest opportunity for agriculture to positively impact our climate is to do more agroforestry. 

Because these diverse, perennial systems are more complex, farmers need better support — both financial and technical — to successfully integrate trees into their crop and livestock systems. Authorization for new regional agroforestry centers and technical education in the Farm Bill would be a lifeline for farmers waiting for technical assistance to get started.

The 2024 Farm Bill is a key opportunity to secure a prosperous, truly climate-resilient agricultural sector. Let’s seize it by investing in perennial agriculture.

Dr. Keefe Keeley, executive director of the Savanna Institute and member of the Agroforestry Coalition