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Opinion: For climate-smart agriculture to work, it starts with collaboration and compromise

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The following is an opinion piece from Dr. Cliff Shelton, an economist at AgAmerica, a nationwide agricultural land lender. He graduated from Texas A&M University, where he was a graduate instructor specializing in natural resources & environmental economics, and macroeconomics.


Climate-smart agriculture is gaining momentum — and for good reason. These practices have sustainable benefits from an environmental perspective, but it’s becoming more evident that they also offer considerable economic benefits. With input prices putting stress on agricultural enterprises, there has never been a better time to shift to climate-smart production practices.

The USDA estimated a 62 percent increase in fertilizer and lime costs in 2021, with triple-digit increases for critical inputs like anhydrous ammonia. Fuel and feed costs were up 23 percent and 14 percent, respectively, last year and are expected to increase further in 2022. The higher input costs producers face today necessitates a broader discussion about climate-smart agriculture and how it can help farmers overcome these stresses in the long run. When implemented correctly, farming practices — such as cover crops and reduced tillage — have improved soil health, reduced fertilizer input costs, and increased yields, primarily through carbon sequestration. These improvements to productivity improve farm revenue and, depending on the cover crop species, may further supplement revenue streams through grazing and haying of the cover crop itself.

Though climate-smart practices have broad benefits, the data suggests that farmers are not adopting the practices quickly enough. According to the latest USDA ag census, only five percent of farmers were using cover crops in 2017, and an estimated 26 percent of U.S. cropland was classified as no-till. Knowing the benefits to farmers and the climate alike, why aren’t these practices more widely adopted?

I recently reviewed feedback from farmers and ranchers across the nation that shared their experiences with climate-smart or regenerative practices, and there were notable themes among these producers’ experiences. The most common roadblocks they faced when transitioning to these new practices were a lack of technical or educational resources and financial support. Lawmakers and industry leaders, such as representative coalitions, agribusinesses, and farmers alike, must work to alleviate these barriers for producers.

With fertilizer prices on the rise, now is one of the best times to adopt farming and ranching practices that naturally enhance soil nutrients and reduce input needs. But there seems to be a disconnect between lawmakers and industry leaders on accomplishing this. Rather than view conservation as retiring land from food production, our federal and state funding needs to focus on supporting farmers in restoring the farmland that we have so we can produce food in a more efficient, resilient, and sustainable way.

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As Farm Bill hearings kick off, these discussions will direct the course of ag funding for the next five years. The decline in rural population since 2010 has led to a loss in political representation, with only 35 of the 435 congressional districts for the House now considered rural. Inflation is creating a heavy focus on the Farm Bill’s nutrition title to reign in the impact of runaway food prices. But at the same time, it’s also competing with the conservation piece of the pie. Because there is a lack of rural representation in congressional districts, it is essential that industry leaders help align Congress’ perspective to the long- term health of the agricultural industry, given the direct relationship to nutrition in this country.

I won’t pretend to have a perfect solution to ensuring climate-smart agricultural practices become the mainstream approach to crop production, but here are some actions that I am confident will provide meaningful progress toward aligning environmental and economic goals:

First, conservation and incentive-based programs must remain a central focus in Farm Bill discussions, emphasizing land restoration over retirement. While retirement helps to improve marginal agricultural land over a long period, regenerative practices can help achieve this goal more quickly.

Second, greater rural representation is needed so those who farm have an influential voice in legislative change that could impact their ability to do their job. This is where industry leaders should step in to ensure Congress gives more significant consideration to how they can help farmers and ranchers in the Farm Bill proceedings to come.

Third, accessible technical assistance needs to go hand-in-hand with financial support to increase success rates and ensure that implementing new climate-smart practices makes economic sense for the farmer.

And fourth but not least, stakeholders in the discussion must be willing to collaborate, compromise, and consider different perspectives if we are to make any meaningful progress in creating a more resilient future for our farm communities.

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