An Urban's Rural View

Solutions for Both Agriculture and the Environment

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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When a project calling itself Solutions from the Land issues a report, you'd expect it to emphasize solutions -- the project's just-issued report doesn't disappoint. Unsurprisingly, "Developing a New Vision for United States Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation" is chock full of "solutions" -- examples of owners and managers of farm and forestland doing good things to protect the environment.

What might surprise people unfamiliar with the project is the report's overall approach. It's about abundance, not scarcity; about bringing people with conflicting visions together, not confrontation; about increasing the land's productivity and not just its purity; about replacing the "litigate and regulate" model of environmental protection with economic incentives.

Indeed, one of the questions the report grapples with is how to ensure that farmers, ranchers and foresters are compensated for the ecosystem services the land provides.

Government has a role to play in the report's view, but the key actors are land owners and managers. The generation and sharing of information among them is central.

The report is the result of a three-year dialogue that included environmentalists and landowner interests. The founding sponsors of Solutions from the Land were the Farm Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the United Nations Foundation. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Farm Foundation Roundtable.)

The report (…) was unveiled March 6 at a two-hour Farm Foundation Forum in Washington. For anyone interested in agriculture's future it is well worth reading. The forum was worth attending, as well, and as often happens at such events, the conversation at times took unpredictable turns.

There were, for example, interesting references to the increasing role of digital technology in agriculture. A.G. Kawamura, a southern California farmer and the project's co-chair, mentioned that over the last year he has learned how to raise asparagus online. No one in his area was growing the vegetable so he couldn't consult another real-world farmer but the virtual world of the Internet overflowed with good advice.

Larkin Martin, one of the panelists responding to the report, described how precision agriculture, along with genetically-engineered seeds, had enabled her Alabama farm to reduce fertilizer and pesticide usage. She also said one of her goals while in Washington was to buy new phones for her employees so they could use all the great new agricultural apps. As she put it, "Data management on farms is about to explode."

Another panelist, Cassie Phillips, vice president of sustainable forests and products at Weyerhaeuser, offered an example of how landowners can be rewarded for good environmental deeds. With help from the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited the company is creating wetlands on some of its less productive land. It's getting paid for doing so by selling "mitigation credits" to others who are dredging or filling wetlands. "A legal framework exists," she said, "to create a market for wetland protection."

As panelist Pat O'Toole, a Wyoming cattle and sheep rancher said, "There are things happening all across the country that are magical."



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