On paper, I appear to be the picture perfect stereotype of an east coast liberal: I’ve been working at environmental nonprofits for over 20 years, I’m an Ivy League grad, and I live in the “bluest” county in Virginia. When it comes to first impressions in the world of agriculture, I’ve been met countless times with skepticism and even contempt.
The reality is that I spend nearly every waking hour of my career collaborating with farmers – exploring ways to implement on-the-ground practices that help producers save money and protect yields while also reducing impacts to water and air. After years of building relationships, I’m proud of the diverse and unlikely partnerships I’ve formed. Many of my closest friends and allies would be labeled as “big ag.”
But I’m worried that today’s political divisions will roll back the decades of progress reducing nutrient runoff across the Corn Belt and beyond. I don’t want to see doors closed because of assumptions on either side of the political divide that now dominate the country.
Urban elites versus rural America, farmers versus environmentalists, there are just too many fights to count. For example, the majority of farmers and agribusinesses cheered on the confirmation of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, while dozens of environmental advocacy organizations (including my own), vehemently opposed his nomination. The “Waters of the U.S.” rule and the Endangered Species Act, generally unpopular with the farming community, are on the chopping block at the same time that environmental groups are receiving record-breaking donations to keep these regulations in place.
Everyone seems to be walking on edge and hesitant to engage in constructive dialogue. Even among like-minded conservation organizations, there is disagreement about how to proceed - should we protest, or roll up our sleeves and try to find common ground even with those who appear to be adversaries?
I’m of the latter camp – and I suggest we change the conversation to something that rings true, time and again: economics drive real change.
Sustainability and profitability can and must go hand-in-hand. For years, farmers have told me that environmental initiatives cannot come at the expense of profits. And that’s never been more true than today, as the economy was top-of-mind for voters in last year’s election.
To keep farming, growers need to be profitable. This is not easy, thanks to record low farm income levels and commodity prices. And from an environmental perspective, only those initiatives that make good business sense will get to scale and be truly successful.
Working in agriculture for nearly two decades, I’ve learned that farmers are innovators and business minded. They don’t want to be told what to do (let’s be honest – who does?), but they want to be given the opportunity to make decisions based on market opportunities.
So if environmentalists want sustainability at scale, what we ask of farmers has to be good for their bottom line. Regulations clearly have a role, and they can even make good business sense, but farmers are far more motivated by economic sustainability – they have families to feed and businesses to run.
I don’t see the political divisions letting up anytime soon. But I do think agriculture is one area where, because sustainable farming practices can and do lead to big cost savings and even increased yields, farmers and environmentalists can meet each other halfway.
About the Author: Suzy Friedman is the senior director of sustainable agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund