Adopt conservation measures and harvest a return-on-investment
From every indication, farming as a conservation solution will only accelerate. Now is a smart time to explore how stewardship can actually pay off . The good news is various pilot projects are underway that could help farmers preserve resources and generate profit.
Pay for Performance
One of those is by the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESM), which includes members such as Cargill, General Mills and The Nature Conservancy. The organization is developing protocols to measure environmental change on farms and pay for performance.
Rather than create a single payment model — farmers adopt a practice, positive environmental outcomes are measured and a check is distributed — ESM has developed rules that could support several
avenues to pay farmers.
“We’re trying to harmonize a national system to ensure we can track and measure change and monetize it,” says Debbie Reed, ESM executive director.
A multitiered strategy that supports farmers as they adopt conservation practices is what’s needed, according to John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust.
“Ultimately, we have to compensate farmers for more than growing food,” Piotti notes. “We have to compensate them for the environmental services they provide.”
The challenge of measuring and funding resource stewardship isn’t new. Reed has worked in the carbon markets arena for three decades. Historically, she says, it’s been difficult to pin down the environmental effects of agriculture because it is largely a nonpoint source industry.
But this time, she says, it’s different. More data points are available and public demand for transparency is driving action at scale.
Another change shifting the conversation is the growing interest from lenders and investors in understanding how land stewardship creates business resilience, adds Maggie Monast, senior manager on Environmental Defense Fund’s ag sustainability team. Previously, many believed farmers and federal cost-share dollars should be responsible for advancing conservation ag.
“We’ve seen the great expansion of interest from the ag supply chain that is driven by consumer interest, as well as expansion and interest in ag tech and ag chemical companies trying to understand their role in sustainability and conservation,” Monast notes. “The emerging frontier is in the financial institutions.”
In turn, lenders informed about the value of conservation agriculture could consider better rates on operating loans to farmers and might be more apt to fund conservation practices or products.