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The promise of sustainable agriculture: A report from a townie

What will it take to support sustainable agriculture in the United States? A new generation, for starters.

The recent Sustainable Agriculture Summit last month in Indianapolis was billed as a forum to collectively create a roadmap for U.S. agriculture to meet the challenge of the 21st century. The goal: produce more with less while staying economically profitable and preserving finite natural resources in a changing climate.

That’s no small task, and I was interested to learn more about how this can be achieved.

But before we get to that, a confession: While I was raised in a rural part of upstate New York, I didn’t grow up on a farm. I was a townie. I worked at a dairy while many of my friends worked their family farms, but I didn’t qualify for a Future Farmers of America jacket, much as I would have liked one.

I saw that farming can be a tough way of life. My impression talking to farmers at the summit is that many feel misunderstood, as most Americans don’t really know where their food comes from or what it takes to get there. At GreenBiz 20, I’ll be moderating the half-day Supply Chain Transparency Summit that will focus on strategies adopted across the agricultural and food supply chain and how they might be applied to other industries.

I went to Indianapolis to hear about the challenges facing the American food system and how they’re being addressed.

The overriding sustainability initiative for most farmers today is economic viability. During a live podcast hosted by Field Work’s Mitchell Hora with guests from Hellman’s, Unilever and an Iowa farm, the discussion addressed the need for the right incentives to drive change at a farm level. Much of the climate change discussion around farming is focused on soil health but farmers aren’t getting paid to improve soil health, they’re rewarded for increasing yield. This may seem like too much of a short-term focus but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than half of U.S. cropland is leased annually, making it difficult for operators to make long-term investments such as planting cover crops.

The overriding sustainability initiative for most farmers today is economic viability.
Some consumer product companies have experimented with incentives to entice farmers to improve soil health such as a 10-cent-per-bushel premium. Unfortunately, these types of yield-based incentives don’t provide enough economic reward to drive change. As one speaker noted, changing to an approach such as no-till farming requires an investment in equipment that cannot be offset by per-bushel incentives.

This is causing consumer brands to explore legislative strategies such as advocating for tax breaks for landowners that offer long-term leases. Financial institutions and seed suppliers are evaluating shared-cost strategies that could support better farm economics. (We’ll be exploring a number of approaches to supply chain incentives during our February summit.)

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The other big topic discussed on the main stage as well as in breakouts is a need for more farm-level data. While farming has become more tech-intensive thanks to autonomous tractors and precision irrigation, scientists only have scratched the surface of understanding the soil biome.

A number of public-private partnerships are starting to address the need for a better understanding of what it means to improve soil health. The 2014 federal Farm Bill created the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit that provides grants that are matched by corporations and foundations to study issues such as soil health and water management. These often represent opportunities for NGOs such as EDF and The Nature Conservancy to provide their expertise and support.

This year’s Sustainable Agriculture Summit’s primary focus was certainly on economic and environmental sustainability. And a lot of the focus was on how technology can make agriculture more sustainable.

One in three farmers in the United States is 65 or older, and scores of small farms across the country close each year because their aging proprietors don’t have successors.
But there’s a social component to sustainable agriculture that needs to be addressed as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average. A more significant issue may be that one in three farmers in the United States is 65 or older, and scores of small farms across the country close each year because their aging proprietors don’t have successors. According to the USDA, there are 57,900 job openings annually for college graduates with expertise in food and agriculture and only 35,400 new U.S. graduates with relevant degrees.

The future may lie in a greater diversity of those choosing a career in farming. Organizations representing LGBTQ farmers (Cultivating Change), minorities in agriculture (MANRRS) and young farmers (National Young Farmers Coalition) are seeking to bring more young people into agriculture. As one young farmer said, "It’s not about how to get kids back to the farm. We really need others to get to the farm."

Perhaps the draw of technology and sustainability will bring more townies to the fields.

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