Markets needed to support on-farm conservation efforts

Lively chatter filled the hotel conference room, with many people commenting on how good it was to be back together. For the first time in almost two years, Environmental Initiative was hosting an in-person event. 

Attendees ventured to St. Cloud, Minn. last Thursday for the Headwaters Agriculture Sustainability Partnership’s (HASP) Profit Through Conservation forum to discuss ways to financially support farmers implementing conservation practices. A key barrier to adopting these practices – which can improve water quality, soil health, and sequester carbon in the ground – is a clear economic incentive for farmers. 

Steve Schlangen, a Stearns County, Minn. dairy farmer enrolled in the HASP Return on Investment project, has a long history of implementing conservation practices on his farm, including cover crops, vegetative buffer strips, water-and-sediment control basins, and reduced or no tillage. He said it’s important to find a way to incentivize farmers to implement these practices. 

“To me, it’s all about treating farmers fair, making sure they get compensated,” he said during a forum panel. 

One way to do this is through ecosystem service markets, which pay farmers for the water quality and climate change benefits that come from adopting conservation practices. Companies purchasing carbon credits to offset their emissions is an example of this type of market. Through these credits, companies can pay farmers to store more carbon dioxide in the ground and keep it there, helping offset carbon emissions emitted by the company. 

Farmers may do this by reducing or not tilling fields between crop cycles and planting cover crops between rotations of cash crops. These efforts help the soil hold water and prevent erosion, keeping more carbon dioxide in the soil and preventing it from being released into the air.   

Leif Fixen, North America agriculture strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy, said ecosystem service markets are a relatively new concept and are being driven by regulatory and emerging consumer forces. More people want to know where their food comes from and if it was produced in a sustainable way. 

The common theme was that markets are needed to make these sustainable changes. 

“Market-driven solutions are going to encourage more producers to pursue these practices,” said Troy Daniell, director of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Minnesota. 

HASP has been analyzing the relationship between on-farm conservation and row crop and integrated dairy operations finances through its Return on Investment (ROI) project. Ten farmers are currently enrolled in the project, which tracks the economic and environmental impact of conservation practices. 

Results from the first year of the study show that soil erosion in participating farms was lower than the benchmark. It also found that soil carbon, or matter in the soil, was increasing when tillage was reduced, and cover crops were added. 

Studying the financial and yield outcomes and reporting the findings can show other farmers that these efforts are worth implementing and encourage the growth of ecosystem service markets. 

“We can’t expect people to adopt these practices without some positive financial outcomes,” said Drew Kessler, HASP chair and project manager and principal for Houston Engineering. 

There is still a long way to go with developing markets to compensate farmers for incorporating these practices, but the forum showed that interest is there, and a broad team of people are working to find solutions. 

The forum was made possible by The Nature Conservancy and USDA NRCS in Minnesota.