Farmers: Help Us, Don’t Blame Us When it Comes to Sustainable Farming

Andrew Adamski looks through tomatoes on his family’s farm. Image: Danny Damiani/USA Today Network-Wisconsin

Land use and agriculture have recently gained attention as a means to store more carbon in the ground and help fight climate change. However, in the United States, while federal programs do exist to help farmers better manage their soil (most notably the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)) there are too many farmers wanting this assistance and not enough resources to go around. While many farmers are willing to better their land-use practices, a trade war with China along with devastating floods this past spring have already left them with few resources to invest in new technology. Amber Radatz, co-director of the Wisconsin farmer-led research program Discovery Farms, which aims to help farmers improve water quality and emissions recently told the Appleton Post Crescent that:

Just saying, ‘As a whole, none of you are doing enough,’ can be really frustrating. When the economics of the situation are also played into it … how do you want me to do more when I’m struggling to survive, as is?”

No Financial Incentives: Farmers told the Post Crescent that the market doesn’t reward them for more sustainable farming practices, rather they’re only incentivized to increase yield. Hence, investing in new vertical tilling machinery and planting cover crops isn’t making their crops more valuable compared to the next farm over that isn’t investing in these practices.

  • Not every farmer can afford $55,000 in new tillage equipment — and certainly not with the added risk that it may not work as expected.
  • And though some consumers are seeking out sustainably sourced items like pastured pork and free-range chicken, the broader marketplace generally doesn’t reward environmental stewardship
  • Farmers need help making these investments and some market assurance that they will actually see a return.

Why This Matters: Farmers are saying they need more incentives to green their practices including, surprisingly, more regulation. Some in the farming community want the use of cover crops to be a requirement in order to level the playing field among farmers–Midwestern states have already been testing voluntary vs. mandatory conservation practices and have seen success. At #ClimateForum2020 several of the presidential candidates expressed that they are willing to support expanded funding for sustainable farming, which is good as farmers can’t do this on their own yet better land use can go a long way in reducing atmospheric carbon.

Go Deeper: As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, some struggling farmers are turning their flood-damaged land into solar farms to help make ends meet.

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