By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 – Minnesota farmer, researcher and entrepreneur Tim Gieseke tackled a demanding goal: “to turn agriculture’s traditional environmental liabilities into ecological assets that return value back to the farm.” The result is his 426-page about-to-be-published blockbuster “EcoCommerce 101: Adding an ecological dimension to the economy.”

Policy gurus have prioritized keeping American farmland from being blown and washed away ever since thick red clouds of Oklahoma soil darkened Washington, DC skies during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Those clouds lent weight to Aldo Leopold's 1934 essay “Conservation Economics” which recommended paying farmers for soil conservation. A year later, Congress reacted to the clouds and Leopold by passing the Soil Conservation Act.

Now Gieseke is championing his “EcoCommerce” framework which would create just what last year's failed cap-and-trade legislation promised – a dependable new revenue stream for farmers, rewarding them for the “ecosystem services” they provide. The difference, Gieseke told Agri-Pulse, is that despite good intentions, “rather than a valuation system,” the cap-and-trade bill “was more of a command and control system which didn't make sense to me or other farmers like me.”

Tim Gieseke at 4 below, on his home place where he grew up and now farms, near New Ulm, Minnesota.

What Gieseke proposes in his book is to take full advantage of new tools such as geographic information systems, precision application of inputs made possible with GPS, and biotech's genetically stacked seeds. He believes farmers themselves can use these tools to be precise about their farm's ecosystem benefits – “outcomes that society may want” such as soil conservation, cleaner water, cleaner air, wildlife habitat and protected green space.

With EcoCommerce, Gieseke explains, “when I provide my ecoservices portfolio on my farm, I can compile that with other farms on a watershed level, or a milk-shed level or a cellulosic-shed level. I can compile what we are doing at these other geographical scales that are important to perhaps the cheese factory that wants a sustainability plan, a TMDL [Total Maximum Daily Load] plan.” He calls for using USDA and university resources to develop ecosystem “landscape intelligence” that's just as precise as it is for crop intelligence. “We know very well how many corn acres are planted, how many bushels we are going to produce. By June 20, we have a good idea of what the crop's going to be. We can parallel that concept with ecoservices management and begin to get a sense of our watershed, cheese-shed, cellulose-shed, how we're impacting our natural capital that we're using in our economy and yet not accounting for or rewarding farmers for.”

Gieseke would like his EcoCommerce approach tested with “a pilot project to maybe start with the Chesapeake Bay or the Upper Mississippi here in the Minnesota area, and begin to see what the transaction actually looks like.” The result would be a market system like the current Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) where companies pay for the carbon emissions reductions achieved by farmers. The difference, Gieseke says, would be the EcoCommerce market would be far more comprehensive. This new market would use assessments of farmers' and ranchers' total ecosystems benefits, thanks to modern technology making it possible to measure these benefits precisely.

Gieseke sees corporate America already moving aggressively toward EcoCommerce, as demonstrated by Walmart's Sustainability Index. (Click HERE for more the Walmart initiative.) He says “Having a government entity or a non-profit decide the level of management we should call sustainability and the value, just has not worked . . . The EcoCommerce model uses USDA and university assessments to provide that market signal, so if we have people in the Chesapeake Bay area saying they want certain ecoservices and we have farmers with the ability to deliver, here is the mechanism for that negotiation to take place on a recurring basis, much like how the price of corn is negotiated.”

Gieseke believes modern technology makes it possible to establish a common “currency” for ecosystem benefits. He says market value can be set because “when I produce a soil conditioning index of .1, it means something across the country and if I have a habitat suitability index of 50, it means something.” Pointing to some 30 complex, competing conservation efforts today, he says that “It's much like if 30 entities had 30 different ways to measure corn, we'd have the same problems we have with ecoservices. But we have bushels and that works no matter where we sell our corn. That's the same kind of organizational structure which I believe will come into ecoservice markets and begin to allow me, as a producer, to produce ecoservices of value” – and allow the EcoCommerce market to develop.

Gieseke would go beyond the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) experiment

The CCX shortcoming was that it just looked basically at carbon equivalents. . . But when I put a 40-ft buffer strip on my waterway, I'm gaining multiple benefits. It's more than just carbon. It's water quality, it's habitat and other benefits . . . As I'm growing corn and beans and using rotational grazing, I'm producing ecoservice values . . . Those values need a way to get back to me as a producer so I'm motivated to find the most efficient way to capture the most carbon, the most habitat, the most water quality all in one swoop, whereas the Chicago Climate Exchange picked one commodity, focused on it, and didn't develop a common currency down at the land level.”

To learn more about EcoCommerce or to order Gieseke's book, click HERE. To learn more about Gieseke's work carrying out assessments for Minnesota's Livestock Environmental Quality Assurance Program, click HERE.

To return to the News Index page, click: