Recently I have had conversations with representatives from two grain merchandisers. Both representatives indicated that grocers have been changing their sustainability focus from climate change to water quality, reasoning that improvements in water quality were more obvious to the consumer and easier to report. I agree. The ability to track and report agricultural improvements to water quality is far easier to track than climate change.
But maybe there is even a better reason that a company should focus on water quality. If the farmer is one of the primary customers, then focusing on water quality makes far more sense. I do not know of any farmer who is facing regulatory threats, or even public pressure, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But all farmers are under the microscope for their impacts on water quality.
Two Causes: Water Quality or Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
Environmental issues are complicated. Personally, if I had to prioritize water quality or climate change, I would say they are equally critical. But I hear differing opinions from farmers. Farmers are confused about environmental issues and often turn to their agricultural agents for solutions. They need help and I can understand why. Conservation practices that work for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are largely ineffective for improving water quality…and vice versa.
Farmers are feeling pressure to improve water quality, whether they are part of the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie Watershed, the Mississippi River (hypoxia in the gulf), or even the drainage area supplying water to the Des Moines, Iowa drinking water facility. Just pick your state and name your watershed, and you will hear the same concerns. Farmers still rely on their ag retailer to help meet their conservation objectives. If you ask them, most farmers are interested in improving water quality. We need to help them understand that certain BMPs are far more effective than others for improving water quality.
If grocers and their customers both hope to improve water quality, then it’s up to grocers to help promote the most cost-effective solutions. Learn what is effective and what isn’t. I guarantee you will be surprised.
Revised and reposted 9/27/18.
Reduced tillage improves water quality and reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) with reduced fuel usage.
Appropriate fertilizer N form, rate, timing and placement reduces nitrate contamination of water and emissions of nitrous oxide. Same for manure N.
Rotations with sod legumes like alfalfa reduce nitrate leaching and reduce the need for natural gas-based fertilizer N.
I’m not seeing a trade-off between improved water quality and reduced GGEs
Les, thank you for your comment. I should have been more clear. I agree there are practices that accomplish both aspects; climate change and water quality. However most conservation practices are really good at one thing and not very effective at the other. Ponds are really good at trapping sediment from moving downstream and they also have a significant impact on improving hydrology, but they do little for climate change. The 4Rs definitly impact climate change but have less affect on water quality. It is hard to serve two masters.
Nicely done Tom
I think that your statement that water quality projects are largely ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions is true for the spot practices that are remedial and corrective of acute problems that may happen on a part of a producer’s field. However, if we are to look and promote larger systemic improvements, water quality and green house gas reductions and many other ecosystem services can all be linked. If we work with farmers, and others, in improving the health of their soil (such as moving the percentage of organic matter up 1% across a farmer’s operational acres), we can see a holistic improvement that may also see a long-term improvement to the farmers profit-loss statement. In many of your others posts, you have looked at the idea of putting conservation into the larger overall farmer’s system. While I think we will always need to do the spot emergency corrective activities, we should also be mindful that these are only spot fixes and if we really want to make significant change to a variety of conservation challenges, we need to shift our focus to a more holistic and systemic management regimen. Thanks for your good work!!!
Jason, thanks for your comment. I agree we need to think of things holistically but we do have limited resources, technical and financial. How do we best harness those resources to accomplish our most pressing issues?
Good article and good comments above. A key point: water quality improvements by a farmer or group of farmers can be seen locally, and quickly. But changes made locally for climate change, by themselves, have no visible effects.
Continuous no-till with cover crops and using 4R practices across a watershed would have an impact on both. The Western Lake Erie algae problem would be helped with 4R because almost half of the fields in the watershed (primarily the Maumee River) need ZERO phosphorus added. Where P is needed, injecting it is a major improvement.
Randall, you make a good point about the 4Rs in the Western Lake Erie Basin. I definitely stand corrected. That is one place where the 4Rs holds significant promise for water quality. The results obtained from the 4Rs for water quality is undeniable. I also agree that no-till with cover crops can have positive results on both water quality and climate change. However, for me it is unrealistic to think we can ignore all other practices in pursuit of the combination of these two practices. And as we open the toolbox to look at the tools we have, are we going to choose tools that primarily effect water quality or primarily effect climate change.
Shifting to a water quality focus would be fine with me if it would result in more actual improvement. So far in Iowa, being “under the microscope” hasn’t made that much difference on the ground.
The gully photo in this email message was very eloquent. I wish I could have responded with something like “Wow, that’s awful and I’m grateful I haven’t seen that before in Iowa.” Instead, my immediate thought was “Yup, looks familiar.”
Thank you so much for asking the follow-up. I’ve done a fair bit of thinking on this and have a slew of potential ideas and I’ll share a couple (or more) of them. Our current system is similar to the paramedic system in which a landowner has a serious or catastrophic problem and comes in looking for a repair to the site specific problem. There is definite value in that but I think we also need to broaden the focus and look more at the system in which farming and agriculture take place.
First, I think we need to spend more talking to farmers and understanding their interests and perspectives on conservation opportunities and barriers. I think that we often fail to see farming as taking place in a larger social, historical, and economic environment and just focus on the geo-biological aspects of farming. If we had a better understanding of what farmers hoped to get out of their lands, we would be better able to have an informed conversation and look at the farmer as a conservation steward who has really good ideas and may have the solutions to our larger watershed and regional challenges. We can work to empower them to find solutions rather than overwhelming them with our techno-conservation speak.
Second, if we look at the network in which farmers operate, I think we underplay the role of certified crop advisers. These women and men work with the farmers on a more regular basis than do as conservation professionals and are more likely to be listened to by the farmer. What can we do to create an incentive structure to connect the crop adviser to the conservation professional? How about offering them a financial reward for bringing farmers into the conservation office? For example, a first time new referral and the adviser gets a $100 referral bonus. If the farmer installs a best management practice, the adviser gets 5-10% of the cost of the practice installed. I know this concept needs some more refinement but it could provide just the financial incentive to see that crop advisers are including conservation in their recommendations.
Third, understand the ownership pattern of the landscape. Who is owning the crop acres and do they know what is happening on their land? I think that more and more land is being rented by either senior farmers who just got out of the business or more distant family members who inherited the land and like a regular rent check. What do these people want from the land? How many of them view themselves as conservationists but don’t really know what that means? Could we help them to be better advocates for the management of land they own but do not operate?
Fourth, find, groom, and promote conservation evangelicals. As you say, there is only so much we can do with our financial and technical resources. However, if we can find regional or state based producers who have fully embraced the conservation message and support them in spreading the word through their local communities, we can have the choir spreading the conservation gospel to people within their community. The right producer who can speak well and from the heart regarding conservation would probably do more than a dozen field days ever could.
Fifth and final, big picture idea that I am not advocating but using as a larger systems consideration. Take farmers at their word for being business people who are involved in the industrial production of agriculture. If someone is involved in the industrial production of agriculture, we tax the land at an industrial tax rate. However, if a farmer is a conservation farmer who is mindfully managing their farms for multiple benefits, including some larger community benefits, their land would then be taxed at an agricultural rate. I know this idea is way out in left field (and leftist field as well) but we need to remind farmers that language and actions do have consequences. If you as a farmer are a business man, you need to help me explain to any other business why their non-agricultural yet business land uses are so regulated while the agricultural community is relatively less regulated.
I am sure there are more ideas that could be developed within the right social environment but I think there are ways that we can ask the billion dollar big picture question and make our dollars and go further instead of focusing solely on driving the conservation ambulance.
Jason, I really appreciate your analogy of the conservation ambulance and comparison to a paramedic system. I think as conservationists we do way too much of that. I will try and address your 4 points with a few comments.
1) I do understand the need to talk with farmers. Farmers will always be the key to better water quality. We cannot succeed without their willingness to adapt and change. I support your idea of gathering more feedback from farmers. Who do you propose do this? I can’t think of an industry that has more grass roots support than farming. Representing farmers are organizations like Farm Bureau, Corn Growers, Soybean Growers, Cotton Growers, Dairy organizations, etc. Do you propose it be these groups that lead the charge to engage farmers in defining new solutions? I don’t think government can effectively shepherd this process.
2) I also agree with your desire to engage more ag retailers. I have blogged many times about the value of engaging these trusted advisors. However, I have been disappointed by the lack of engagement from ag retailers. I do agree with you we should consider incentivizing good behavior. Instead of getting paid a percentage of the investment how about a pay for performance incentive. How about incentivizing the reduction of sediment delivery or the reduction of nitrogen kept out of our water system? This idea of an incentive program should be considered, but we must incentivize the behavior we desire. I poorly designed program will produce very negative results.
3) As CEO with Agren, I spent significant time encouraging absentee landowners to become better stewards. This has become a hot topic with many groups. I do not know of any projects that I would consider successful. This remains a very difficult nut to crack. Because of the very low investment in conservation by absentee landowners maybe states should consider a special tax on cash rented land. that goes directly towards reducing soil and water conservation The money could be used to install more conservation.
4) Again, I would encourage you to review the research on finding, grooming, and promoting conservation evangelicals. Although you will find some very successful projects that have used this approach, I know of many projects that attempted to do this with limited success.
5) I disagree with your premise that industrial farmers are not conservation farmers? As for “larger community benefits” who defines these? Do these benefits include water quality, climate change, reduced downstream flooding, pollinators, more timber acres, more prairie acres, more apex predators, pheasant habitat, more water fowl, better working conditions for employees, less mechanization, more technology, production efficiency, etc?
Food for thought related to choice between only climate change or water quality. What is global climate change? The correct answer is that it is mass extinction. We already find ourselves in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, not seen for (65) million years. It might be time to look a little more holistically. Recently, there is some efforts related to trying to save the Monarch butterfly, even bees, other pollinators, and various other insects along with other species. Shouldn’t this be part of the discussion on making decisions on the ground, not just with weather and water?
Roger Ross Gipple
Many speak often of water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, etc. as being BIG problems in Iowa. Suggest a few equally BIG solutions, however, and most will resist. Does anyone seriously believe that we can continue to grow 24 million acres of corn and soybeans, or carry the current inventory of domestic animals (on farms and in homes) as we journey forward? What about the consequences of people/product mobility and our insatiable appetite for more and more stuff which can never make us happy? What about global military activities? Could we stop dancing around these issues and admit to the critically serious need for a major cultural transcendence and a meaningful re-wilding of our tragically altered landscape?
Roger, you make a lot of good points. Your first fact of 24 million acres of corn and soybeans should make us all stop and consider if we can tweek the current trajectory of agriculture to attain good water quality or if we need to fundamentally change how we grow foods and feeds.