Jim Moseley 2015-02-23 23:26:41
In 1977, the soil in my Indiana community had been slowly degraded and could not perform at peak productivity. Yet our yields were increasing due to new technologies— better seeds, low-cost fertilizer relative to grain price, chemicals that cleaned the fields of pests. As a result, we hardly noticed the productivity decline. However, we had removed a significant amount of the “building blocks” of soil formation, what soil technicians called organic matter. That slow and subtle change, hardly perceptible from year to year, was beginning to limit crop performance. We discovered this discouraging state of affairs when a new crop advisor arrived on the scene. He first helped us to see the problem, and then he led us to the tools and practices we needed to restore the natural quality of our land. Soon our productivity increased, due to new technology as well as the soil resource. This new concept became the mission for the whole community. This is the learning process in farming communities. When improved soil management is combined with new technologies to yield improved crop performance, local farmers see the progress and become part of the effort. Wider participation leads to improvement in other areas of public interest—things like water quality and wildlife habitat. In our case, we created a network of over 100 operations in three counties, all working together to improve soil quality. Managing our farm operations and the watershed in which we all lived as systems—connecting yields, soil health, organic matter, water quality, and cropland resilience—was good for us as farmers and very good for the rest of society. Cooperative conservation provides an excellent model for farmers and ranchers anywhere who are working to meet the long-term food, feed, fuel, and fiber needs of a growing population. The key is to have local leadership guiding all aspects of productivity, rather than just following the technology trail, as we did in the decades after WWII. In fact, farmers and ranchers who work the land are the only members of the food production system who can change the way we align productivity, profitability, and high-quality natural resource management. If we are going to feed 9 billion people in 2050, we must fully utilize the soil resource, as well as new technology as it emerges, to improve productivity. AGree asks farmers and ranchers of all types to weigh in on the challenge. We also convene supply chain leaders, researchers, health experts, nutrition experts, international policy experts, and representatives from conservation and environmental organizations. Together, these thought leaders challenge each other to articulate collaborative means by which the food and agriculture system can meet the challenges of the 21st century. Our sensible solutions for making cooperative conservation a reality on a broader scale include: • Companies interested in sustainable sourcing should reward producers who are actively engaged in collaborative conservation. Companies should recognize producers who actually demonstrate continuous, measurable sustainability improvements, rather than assigning onesize- fits-all checklists. • Agricultural groups should encourage local producers to spearhead cooperative conservation projects in their communities. Agencies should provide training and professional development opportunities to give representatives and technical staff the skills needed to facilitate these projects. • Cooperative conservation requires time, experimentation, and adaptive management to get off the ground. To encourage producers to engage in these initiatives, agencies should provide actively engaged producers with regulatory certainty through safe harbor agreements. • We need stronger public funding for agricultural research that supports productivity and environmental goals simultaneously. Efforts like cooperative conservation can inspire applicable research and provide a ready audience for its implementation. • Government funding related to natural resource management should be shifted to support producer-led cooperative conservation projects. The newly formed Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which funds landscape-scale efforts, is a good step in this direction. • Feeding the world while conserving natural resources must be a global effort. International development initiatives should empower producers to increase their yields sustainably. Cross-cultural exchange of successful conservation and productivity strategies, including cooperative conservation, can benefit the global community. These recommendations will guide AGree’s advocacy for policy change and action. Our efforts will help advance on-the-ground projects that refine the cooperative conservation model and test the model in areas where farmers and ranchers face unique challenges. The lessons learned from these efforts will shape our advocacy for longer-term policy action to build the model across the U.S. We have already seen cooperative conservation work in communities across the country and around the world. I’ve seen it succeed in my own area. Having tried the top-down approach for 30 years in U.S. farm policy, our goal is to invest in a different approach, and then hold it up to government and private sector leaders as a shining example of what works, finally making it a reality on a broader scale. With that accomplished, we can ensure healthy landscapes and food security for generations to come. Jim Moseley is Co-chair of AGree, former Deputy Secretary of the USDA, and owner of a farm focused on grain and vegetable production; www.foodandagpolicy.org. Top photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA-ARS. Bottom photo courtesy of AGree.
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