Dr. Fred Luckey, chairman of Field To Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Keystone, CO, perhaps said it best when summing up the many challenges confronting agriculture in the race to feed nine billion people by 2050. “We have to find another way. Like Dr. Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, ‘Life just … finds another way.’ We, as an industry, have to find another way.”
It’s doubtful that actor Jeff Goldblum ever envisioned one of his most famous lines being applied to the world of production agriculture, but it fits.
Finding another way to advance conservation efforts in agriculture was precisely the purpose of a recent star-studded panel discussion during the Conservation Technology Information Center’s (CTIC) 30th Anniversary Celebration on the Monsanto campus in Creve Coeur, MO.
Here are some takeaways from that discussion:
“The Biological Revolution” — Soil Health
Assembled panel members reached a hearty consensus that soil health — evaluating what’s underneath the ground as opposed to above it — is going to continue to be an area of increased innovation in the coming years. “I think that understanding soil biology and how to make that work for us rather than against us will be the thing that can most help us move forward in terms of productivity,” said Dan DeSutter, owner, DeSutter Farms, Attica, IN.
“We’re still in a degradation trend with soil; we need to manage our soils better,” said Dr. Jerry Hatfield, director USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Ames, IA. “Over the next few years, we as an industry need to focus on building the soil’s greatest resource: organic matter.”
Added Jim Moseley, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture (2001-05): “North American growers are some of the best, most informed and productive growers in the world. We talk about air and water quality all the time, but we rarely talk about soil quality, which leads to improved air and water quality. We need to set a national goal on soil quality and stick to it.”
DeSutter, who comes from an education and early career in finance, has been an early adopter of the use of cover crops (as well as other related practices) to rebuild the soil’s active biology. “On my farm, we started looking at microbes as the ‘livestock’ of the soil,” explained DeSutter after several panel members asked him to discuss his operation. “Which in turn forced us to ensure that we’re providing a good atmosphere for those microbes. Like any living thing, they need oxygen — active biological systems need to breathe, so we want to have something growing all the time. The sun is a free resource (for building soil quality) and we (as an industry) waste it nine months out of the year when nothing is growing in that ground.”
Elephants In The Room
Dr. Hatfield had an interesting concept that he believed could prove useful in making growers think more critically about soil health. “When you look at that upper foot of soil on your farm, just think of it as the equivalent of having two African elephants on your farm,” he advised. “If you all of a sudden had two monstrous elephants to take care of, I guarantee you’d wake up every single morning thinking ‘How am I going to feed these things?’. That’s the way you’ve got to approach your soil. You’ve got to manage it just like you would any other biological system — every single day.”
Moseley added that he would like to see the industry shift to looking at soil “not from physics or chemistry standpoint, as we have traditionally done, but from a biological standpoint. There are a lot of undiscovered secrets in our soil that we need to figure out so the biology can do the work for us.”
Added DeSutter: “Advancing soil health is just a function of educating growers. For example, why is Iowa farmland worth so much more than Indiana farmland right now? It’s the organic matter. Maybe what we need to do is come up with a way to reward organic matter compliance, rather than soil management compliance.”
According to Moseley, one possible method for increasing awareness of soil health is to tie the actual value of the land to its soil health, a practice which is already gaining ground in Iowa. “There’s land in Iowa with low organic material averaging 100 bushel per acre going for $5,000 per acre, and there’s land with high organic content averaging 230 bushels per acre, and that’s going for around $16,000 per acre,” he said.
“As a farmer, which one would you want?”
Like the concept of increased soil health awareness, it was pretty much unanimous that panel members felt a need exists for rewarding the growers who implement serious conservation policies within their operations.
“A lot of the time, for the smaller grower it really comes down to motivation,” said Moseley when asked why he felt a need to incentivize conservation. “And how do you go about changing behavior? You offer a reward, or incentive.”
Under the plan offered by the panel, that reward would be crop insurance eligibility tied directly to conservation compliance.
“Crop insurance drives a lot of economic decisions on the farms,” explained Moseley.
With political pressure mounting against government subsidized crop insurance and a new Farm Bill pending adoption by the House of Representatives come the next legislative session, there’s a very real possibility this notion is implemented sooner rather than later.
By now you’d have to have been living underneath a rather large rock to have avoided the whole “feeding nine billion people by 2050” message as it pertains to agriculture. As pretty much everyone involved already knows, there’s going to have to be a significant uptick in production, whilst maintaining and further enhancing conservation efforts, if a worldwide food crisis is to be averted.
Bruce Knight, a former NRCS chief (2002-06), third-generation farmer and nationally recognized expert on agricultural conservation policy, sees the continued movement away from what he dubbed “idle lands conservation” to working lands conservation as key to ensuring U.S. farm production continues its tradition of production dominance.
“We’ve buried the old soil bank program and we’re in the process of revamping the Conservation Reserves Program (CRP), so there’s a recognition that we need to have working lands conservation,” said Knight. “This really is a seismic change in the climate of the industry. Going forward, we’re going to be talking more and more about sustainable intensification.
“This is going to revolutionize agriculture,” he continued. “We’re going to need to increase production on the very best soils, figure out how to maybe eke out a little bit more on some of the marginal grounds and how to preserve the most fragile, and do that in a way that maximizes efficiency when you’re talking nutrients, fertilizers and herbicides placement.”
One possible problem Knight and others foresee is the likelihood of increased government intervention in the near future.
“My primary goal is for politics not to get in the way with this,” said Knight. “Take the sustainability efforts right now. We’ve got conversations going on between retailers and growers about how to figure this out, and quite frankly all they (government) can do is get in the way. There are exciting, robust times ahead for us if we are allowed to manage conservation within the industry.”
Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Ames, IA, feels that figuring out how to harness, process and deploy the multitudes of data that advances in precision ag technology have brought with them will be key over the next few years.
“When you look at where we’ve come in terms of technology in the last five years, you talk about GPS — we can now control machinery to the centimeter level,” said Hatfield. “We can map fields at a half-centimeter in terms of height.
“We have all of these different pieces of technology,” he continued. “But I’m not sure we’ve made a very good, whole system out of it yet. In the next five years, we’ve got to take all that data and figure out how to combine it into a system that stresses continuous improvement. How do we really put it together so that what we learn from this season helps us for next season?”
Moseley, in his former capacity as deputy secretary of USDA, was the primary lead on post-9/11 security issues in the food and agriculture sector and worked on development issues with a focus on global agriculture.
It was during a trip to Australia that Moseley discovered the concept of Landcare Australia and began realizing that it was going to take more than a few stewardship public relations campaigns for the American public to realize the importance of conservation.
“With their grassroots Landcare Australia concept, the Aussies have placed environmental conservation at the center of society,” said Moseley. “It’s not just about farming or industry — 85% of the population is engaged in Landcare in one way or another on a daily basis. We’ve got to find a similar way to elevate the conversation on conservation here in the U.S.”
Sophisticated Sensor Technology
Another area that will continue to grow is the sensor technology segment of the industry, according to the panel.
“I see the sensor technology that is coming as revolutionizing another phase of what we do in agriculture, and I don’t think we’ve come close to the full potential, in terms of at the nano level, of what we can do with sensors,” said Moseley. “As we consider the macro issues, like watershed monitoring, and the ability of the technology to actually do sensing for us, in terms of what’s happening downstream in the Gulf of Mexico or the Chesapeake Bay, for example, and then move all the way back up the watershed to the micro level, ultimately we’re not going to know where the real problems are coming from in our watersheds until we implement this technology.”
Moseley also foresaw innovative new sensors as a possible future segment of revenue growth for ag retailers. “With automated sensors, you’re not sending out employees to pull samples and run tests in a very cost prohibited way, so you can focus your manpower in other areas,” he said.
Field to Market’s Luckey agrees. “I, like Jim, do very much embrace the coming advancements in remote sensing technologies,” he said. “This (sustainability) is a multi-national, global issue that’s not just confined to North America, and we’re going to have to be able to gather data in areas that are not traditionally accessible in order to solve it.”