Cookie cutter conservation only works in research journals…
Recently, my wife, Peggy shared a TIME® Magazine interview with me from the “Lab Girl.” In the interview, the Lab Girl said, “There are things that all scientists know are the reality in science, and the longer I am in this business it was driving me absolutely crazy not to say something. It’s not enough for me to be frustrated. It’s time to talk about it. I have learned that nothing gets readers so fired up as saying something everyone knows is true.” Well I agree, so here it goes…
- Yes, farmers need to do more conservation; no question.
- However, cookie cutter conservation is not going to help anyone.
Doing more and doing more of the right thing are two totally different things. And that is the challenge. I recently read an article where it was reported that every farmer in the watershed should be required to put in buffer strips along streams and rivers. Okay, but trained conservationists know that buffers are not all they are cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that buffers don’t have a place. But the environmental benefits, in most cases, are more limited than most people want to admit.
In the last couple of months, I have spent a lot of time reading articles and talking to experts about buffer strips. What I hear over and over, is that buffers are not providing the anticipated and expected environmental returns. To illustrate my point, a USDA employee recently told me they have focused on installing miles and miles of buffers in the Chesapeake Bay and have yet to see the results they were hoping for. Disappointing, I’m sure.
I heard the same disappointing story from people close to the Minnesota Buffer Strip Project. In case you haven’t kept up, Minnesota passed a law that establishes new perennial vegetation buffers, up to 50 feet, along rivers, streams, and ditches with the intention of filtering out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment (with one very important caveat that I will explain later). Leaving nothing to chance, I turned to several other top notch conservationists. They expressed concern about the efficacy of buffers along EVERY water body.
The looming concern of conservationists is, what if Minnesota farmers are forced to install miles and miles of buffers and we don’t see proportional improvement in water quality; what will be the result? I suggest one of two things could happen:
- The public will complain that agriculture needs to do more to clean up the water and their demand could be farming becomes more regulated.
- The State of Minnesota will be blamed for passing a law requiring farmers to set aside land worth millions in production, while knowing experts argued this cookie cutter approach would fail to meet expectations.
EXCEPT, the Minnesota law contains an important caveat, as I mentioned earlier. They got it right. Instead of passing a one size fits all program, the State lawmakers wrote legislation that provides for flexibility – not cookie cutter conservation at all. According to an online publication, instead of requiring a 50 foot wide filter strip, the law stipulates that “a combination of practices may be used to sufficiently meet water quality goals – and when that happens, a buffer may not be needed.”
So let’s get fired up by saying something every good conservationist knows is true. Yes, America’s farmers and ranchers do need to do more conservation, but cookie cutter conservation does not work. One size fits all does not work.
While I agree that few things in life are one-size-fits-all, I do believe that proof is in the numbers and that opinion and emotion tend to cloud the efficacy or non-efficacy of certain actions.
In the conservationists you spoke with, was there any statistical data shared regarding the soil saturation rate of N,P,K,S or variations of those compounds before and after the implementation of the buffers?
I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that the purpose for installing buffers is to collect nutrients from runoff water before it hits shared waterways of the state, and makes its happy way downstream to me. Is there any data that verifies the crop used in the buffer has a dense root network or structure that is suitable for collecting nutrients from runoff? We in agriculture know the root structure of legumes is farm more developed than a corn stalk or simple grass.
Additionally, what is the time frame for the buffer project? Are results (decreased point-source load) expected to show themselves in six months, one year, five years?
Just curious what data was used to support the notion that the buffers installed are ineffective or potentially wasting growers land. I am sure we can all appreciate that shared water is a shared concern, and since we all need it, we would want to protect it from nutrient overload.
In our lab, we use sap analysis, verifying the nutrient uptake of 21 macro and micronutrients, confirming what nutrients the plant is leaving behind in the soil. With this data, we can determine through comparative analysis with soil, lysimeter, solvita, and other assays, what an ideal nutrient profile for plant health looks like. These results are being used to in many cases, reduce nutrient applications, and restructure nutrient blends to include sufficient micro nutrients to aid in uptake and balance.
I think buffer strips along waterways is a logical, and practical step toward water conservation and reducing nutrient load in shared water, but if there is data to show otherwise, I would really be interested in seeing it.
You make a good point. I absolutely agree, that in most cases, buffers have beneficial effects. My point is that there certainly could be better, more efficient ways to achieve the same environmental results.
A few months ago, I worked with Dr. Michael G. Dosskey, Research Ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service. He was instrumental in developing the model named AgBufferBuilder . Using AgBufferBuilder, Dr. Dosseky modeled the sediment trapping efficiency of 6 constant-width buffers. Then he determined how much land would be required to achieve the same results if he strategically placed the vegetation. In other words he was comparing a cookie cutter constant-width buffer to precision buffer. He found he could achieve the same results, using a variable width buffer, that on the average, would only require 37% of the area occupied by the constant-width design. His conclusion was that, using his model, he could design a buffer that would take substantially less land out of production and achieve the same level of effectiveness. This of course was highly variable among different fields depending on the degree of concentrated runoff.
Additionally, filter strips remove sediment at the last second before the water hits the water body. Certainly, if a farmer chooses, there are more cost effective ways to keep the sediment higher on the landscape. For instance there is no-till, grassed waterways, cover crops, etc. And, this is the best place for the soil to be; on the upland where it belongs.
I think many farmers would find that sometimes there are cheaper methods, rather than taking land out of production. At least in Iowa it is not uncommon for land to sell for $8,000 to $10,000/acre. If you are required to have 3 or 4 acres in buffers, that will buy a lot of conservation.
The question is not whether buffers have value. The question really is, “is it the best known practice for the given situation”?
Great comments and I will take it a step farther. The biggest problem with buffers or even the majority of the conservation practices used by NRCS and other agencies is that they treat SYMPTOMS and not root causes of the resource concern we are trying to address. As, many people have heard Ray The Soil Guy say they are diapers. We don’t need diapers we need a fundamental change in the way we agriculture is performed on the land. We can produce all the food we need while protecting and even regenerating our soil if we focus on the basic soil health principals.
Doug, I understand that an important step for many farmers/ranchers is stopping soil erosion from ever happening. Personally, I am all in favor of that. However, I think making everyone adhere to soil health principles is using the same cookie cutter answer. All things being equal, if a farmer prefers buffer strips over no-till, or no-till over buffer strips, it is their option. The public has a right to clean water. With the assistance of a trained conservationist, if necessary, the farmer should make the decision on what conservation practices to apply. As conservationists, we have a myriad if options. We need to work with landowners to find the right solution for them.
Tom, buffers are not the sole answer by any means, but no farmer should be allowed to farm to the very edge of any stream. Buffers can effectively remove sediment and other pollutants from runoff, but buffers alone will never be the sole answer. Throughout the National Conservation Buffer Initiative at USDA, we preached and preached that buffers must be a part of a comprehensive conservation system on any and all farms. If you do nothing to restrain runoff and soil loss on the upland, a buffer will soon lose its functionality. That’s why effective use of the conservation compliance policy is such an important element of a sound soil and water conservation strategy.
Max, it is always good to hear from you. I absolutely agree that buffers should be seen as one component of a conservation system and not the sole answer. When they serve as a setback and a final filtering system, that is when they are most effective.
I am not certain of the restrictions placed on buffer strips along the tributaries to the Chesapeake but if the buffer strip crop is not harvested then it becomes a source of DRP and less effective as a filter than a harvested buffer would be.
We do need to change our ways but boy is it ever difficult to break through long held notions and deeply ingrained beliefs.
I can out yield row corn 24/7/365 with solid stand corn but when I bring that idea up…. you talk about an elephant in a room.
If we switched to solid seeded corn we could grow more corn using fewer inputs and lower capital costs with resulting significant improvements in soil health, reduced water runoff , reduced N20 emissions and reduced C02 emissions.
In a solid stand scenario it is entirely practical to plant companion crops with corn in water courses and along field edges bordering ditches, streams, etc. The equipment and knowledge exists to day for this to be profitable and environmental responsible at the same time.
Every time I bring this idea up for discussion I get the – “Well gosh you know I am not sure. We better study that idea”.
I no longer agree or disagree I go with “just try and prove me wrong.”
We need profitable solutions because we can not solve or save anything at a financial loss.
Great points and good discussion.
PS – this is not an idea supported by corporate… they still think and act within the box. 🙂