Farming’s Other Public Goods

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All this week, the Star Tribune has been running an excellent series of editorials on the relationship between farming, farm policy and water quality. One key point the editorials make is that in order to attain significant improvements in water quality, we don’t need to make the entire Minnesota River watershed into a pristine wilderness where no economic activity takes place. Just taking some of our most environmentally sensitive farmland and covering it with perennial plant systems like pasture grass and hay will provide huge ecological benefits. That’s an important message to get out as debate over the 2007 Farm Bill heats up here and in D.C.

The Multiple Benefits of Agriculture research project has used modeling studies in two Minnesota watersheds—the Chippewa River in the west and Wells Creek in the southeast—to show how converting a percentage of rowcropped land into perennial sysems such as pasture and restablishing some wetland habitat can provide a big environmental bang for the buck. For example, under one scenario involving more perennial plant cover and less row crops, sediment levels in Wells Creek and the Chippewa River dropped 84 percent and 49 percent respectively. Nitrogen levels in the water decreased by 74 percent in Wells Creek and 62 percent in the Chippewa, under this scenario. These environmental benefits occurred even as the number of dairy and beef cattle were increased in both watersheds, according to the study. And the profitability of farmers in the watersheds rose as the diversity of their farming systems increased.

The Multiple Benefits of Agriculture research results are based on modeling studies, but as the Star Tribune‘s editorial board argues, there are real farmers who are proving every day that actively farmed land can produce numerous public goods other than binfuls of corn. The Conservation Security Program (CSP), a grossly underfunded USDA initiative, is an example of how government policy can encourage working farms to provide public goods such as cleaner water. Two of the farmers the Star Tribune references are Dan and Cara Miller, who produce cattle on grass in southeast Minnesota. I’ve visited the Miller farm several times. It’s impressive how they’ve managed to balance profits and environmental sustainability. Dan is a Farm Business Management instructor and a former Extension educator. He’s got the financials to prove that stewardship farming can pay, and shows them off every summer at the Miller farm’s highly popular field day.

The Millers are a model for how farmers can balance economic and environmental sustainability. But transitioning out of systems that rely on one or two row crops isn’t easy. By taking key steps such as providing more funding for CSP, the 2007 Farm Bill could go a long ways toward helping farms become financially viable sources of multiple public benefits such as cleaner water and high quality wildlife habitat.

But first policymakers will need to change the mindset that sees agriculture as the source of one thing, and one thing only: cheap, raw commodities.

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