An Urban's Rural View

Wanted: 'Uncommon Collaborations' Between Farmers and Environmentalists

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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A new administration with a strong commitment to the environment would seem to face two groups of skeptics. One group, which includes many environmentalists, worries the Biden team won't do enough to address a changing climate, dwindling biodiversity and blighted air and water. The other, which includes many farmers, fears it will do too much.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made a bow toward the second group the other day. "We will begin with farmer outreach asking for input on how to best create new market opportunities to sequester carbon," he said. "We want to establish a system designed by farmers, for farmers. We can also invest in new technologies to convert ag waste into a variety of products and continue collecting and reusing methane from livestock operations."(https://www.rrfn.com/…)

"A system designed by farmers, for farmers" is a rhetorical flourish worth a hyperbole check. If the walk is as good as the talk, if farmers really get to design the system, their worst fears would be assuaged. But will that happen? When the details are hashed out and tradeoffs need to be made, will farmers' preferences prevail? It's not just the Missouri farmers you hear crying, "Show me."

And remember, there's another group of skeptics out there, some of whom will be pushing the administration in a different direction.

Some, but not all. For the times they are a-changing. Like the agriculture secretary, an increasing number of environmental groups say they want to work with farmers to solve problems, not against them. Indeed, some of those groups are already starting to.

To cite just a few examples, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited are among the 22 founding members of a new group called the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, joining farm organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the National Corn Growers Association and USA Rice. (https://agclimatealliance.com/…) The National Audubon Society is encouraging ranchers to adopt bird-friendly grazing practices and promoting their beef with certifications. (https://www.audubon.org/…) The National Wildlife Federation holds outreach events with farmers on topics like cover crops and conservation tillage. (https://blog.nwf.org/…)

Farmers, ranchers and foresters need to have "uncommon collaborations" with governments, academia, the private sector and civil society, declares a recent vision paper from Solutions from the Land. (https://solutionsfromtheland.org/…) SfL is, in a way, an example of this kind of collaboration.

It is co-chaired by A.G. Kawamura, a southern California farmer, and Thomas Lovejoy, a professor at George Mason University who has been called "the godfather of biodiversity." Its list of directors and advisors includes farmers, academics and representatives of international agencies, foundations and environmental groups.

As its name suggests, Solutions from the Land believes farmers, ranchers and foresters can be part of the solution to the world's nutrition, economic and environmental problems. According to SfL's vision paper, "A 21st century agriculture and forestry system produces far more than food, energy and fiber. It also filters and stores water; captures carbon; enhances wildlife and biodiversity; generates local wealth; and more broadly, improves quality of life."

To get to this 21st century system and realize these benefits will require an "agricultural renaissance," and SfL has a vision for how to bring that renaissance about. The SfL model calls for "a shared focus on outcomes, not prescriptive mandates that tell farmers how to farm." The solutions must be tailored to specific landscapes; a one-size-fits-all approach won't work. They'll have to use "all the tools in the toolbox."

And they'll have to be profitable for farmers. If they aren't, governments will have to provide financial incentives. "Redirect government agricultural production subsidies to payments for ecosystem services," SfL urges.

In SfL's ideal world, those who work the land will play an important role in shaping new policies, projects and regulations: "Without the full engagement of farmers, foresters and their partners, our capacity to transform the systems of agriculture for the future will be compromised."

That sounds a bit like "a system designed by farmers, for farmers," doesn't it? Add it all up, and what we have here are farmers, environmental groups and government all talking about working together on environmental problems. If ever there was an opportunity for farmers to participate in "uncommon collaborations" and help design the future, surely it's now.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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