A Surprising Reason We Don’t Farm As Sustainably As We Could

I recently posted a description of a highly sustainable form of row crop farming that combines high productivity with low environmental impact.  This is not just a theoretical vision but something which is actually being practiced on a significant commercial scale (e.g. non-tillage, cover cropping, controlled wheel traffic, variable rate fertilization…).  It is difficult to know exactly how much American farmland is being farmed this way because the only agency that tracked things like tillage practices (CTIC) lost funding for that activity during the Bush administration.  Knowledgeable observers that my business partners and I have interviewed estimate that something like 5-6% of our major crops are farmed with the full suite of sustainable practices. Still, to solve an issue like the Dead Zone in the Gulf, to sequester a great deal of carbon in soils, and to effectively “drought-proof” our land to deal with climate change, one would like to see a much higher percent of optimized farming practices.

Why Aren’t These Practices More Common?

A key reason that farmers don’t farm as sustainably as they could is that they rent most of the land they farm.  It doesn’t belong to them. The map above shows the prevalence of leased land for farming in the US. Much of the land in the most productive regions is rented.   This is simply an historical artifact.  Over the last century there has been a steady migration of the population away from farming to cities.  The families that once farmed still own the land, but they lease it to the few who have continued to farm.

It takes several years (4-6 typically) to realize the “pay-off” of improved soil quality that results from using the most sustainable practices.  In the process there is added cost and  risk.  It definitely requires a long-term view to make the transition.  Long-term commitment is simply incompatible with year-to-year leasing.  A grower cannot afford to take these risks if it is uncertain whether they will be the one to lease that field in the future.  In the past farmers often rented from someone they knew and therefore they had more confidence in the stability of their lease.  Increasingly, those personal relationships are lacking, and the landowner rents to whomever will pay the most on a year-to-year basis.

Long-Term Thinking is Needed From Both the Farmer and the Landowner

Ironically, it is in the long-term interest of the land owners to work with farmers to improve their particular property because they will ultimately be able to rent for a higher price in the future.  Cash rents (the amount charged to rent a given piece of land) are the most sensitive measure of the productivity of a given piece of land.  Farmers are well aware of which properties have the most potential, and they compete with one another to be able to rent the best mix of land.

How Can This Barrier Be Overcome?

Transitioning a given field to the sustainable ideal is a non-trivial exercise that takes both dedication and expertise in addition to technology and money. Realistically there are a sub-set of growers who would be the best candidates for the first few years.  If a way could be devised for those growers to participate in the up-side, there are many other growers who would be able to maintain that land quality while the “transition experts” moved on to other fields.

What is needed is a fundamental change in the structure of farm leases.  There is the need for an enlightened base of land owners who see both the economic and environmental benefits of such an arrangement.  I believe that there is the need for major environmental groups to partner with grower organizations to champion this cause with the broader public.  There may also be a role for the federal or state government in encouraging this change.

We could definitely expand the amount of highly sustainable farming in the US and we need to do so to meet growing demand for food and to do so in the best possible environmental scenario.  The barriers are not really technical or philosophical.  They are structural, educational and economic.

You are invited to comment here or on my website or by email at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Map of Leased Land from the USDA

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  1. The single-most grievous American sin is innocently acknowledged in this expose. Fact is: Corporations serve shareholders, and if they buy, rent or lease farmland they do it to make profit for shareholders,for no other reason, regardless!
    Once upon a time, in America, farmers took on ownership’s responsibilities, cared for the soil, the land, the water supplies. They spread manure, did composting, rotated crops, raised animals, all by Mother Nature’s strict rules. The land flourished under their hands.
    Barracuda corporatism however, has more than once, over-fertilized and burned good, fertile land, in a world short of food, ran wells, and even whole water-tables dry for a fast buck, stuffed animals in factory farms, and fed them the cheapest food available, good for the animal or not, wasted the fertilizing manure to the wind, even sickening nearby towns and cities with the fumes. The corporatists are simple following their mandated reason for existing: they serve the shareholder, not the land, not the country, not the people, not God, only and completely serving the shareholder and his quest for ROI (Return On Investment) The corporation is a non-person, a sociopath by the best studies, and is invented, defined, and set free by corrupt anti-America, pro-capitalist, corrupted courts to do horrendous damage to man and society!
    As China looms over America, winning the economic war against America, re-shaping international monetary policies in spite of America, building a huge, non oil-dependent social system, a seemingly more effective one than America’s foreign oil fueled economy, as China succeeds in out-pacing American manufacturers, industries and enterprises, America has but one stronghold left, Her farmland! Are American corporatists, capitalists cashing in on this too? Even God cannot save a nation this Hell-bent on self-destruction in the face of the rising Asian Empire.
    Seek the fall of the current Corporatist, Capitalist, mis-adventure! Look to a revival of the once great Democracy America once enjoyed. Look to the future as a bright preservation and husbandry of this fair land by the folks that live here, for their children, and their children’s children. Take offense at polluters, and those, corporate or otherwise, unwilling to practice sustainability, good agricultural practices, fair and honest exchanges with the land. Most of all, do not be tempted by fast profits at the expense of the future of your country!
    The Chinese hoards stand on the docks, ready to come, to take over, to show us how, to humanure, to compost, to bio-gas, to preserve the lakes, rivers, streams, to enjoy, in humble manner, our bounteous, fertile and abundant lands. Boat-loads have arrived, uninvited, only to be turned back, for example, by Canadian authorities, only in the last few weeks! Do not be fooled! Do not sell out! All that glitters is not gold! remember too, you cannot eat gold! Don’t trade America away for cheap trinkets, big-screen TV’s, digital toys! Even our fair climate, rich soil and good crops are worth more that that.
    We buy dope, trading good American money to foreign lands for it – fools! We sell ourselves out! It can be grown here at home! Make it legal, save our money, and start another All -American industry! We will do the dope anyway, why not make it a win-win , controllable, taxable, proposition? Strange logic to you? Try this out! Google, torrent, the documentary, “Who Stole The American car”. Study it well! Were the American people, the precariat, the patriots, that wanted to keep these superior cars allowed to do so? Who stopped them? Corporatists? Do they rule over us? Who gave them this power? Where did the super-batteries, the proven good ones go? Who did this? Is this strange logic? Is this happening to the the very soil we grow our food in? The very seeds, GMO’ed and patented, from which our foods spring? You are betting your own ass on this American, and it is so!

  2. IMHO, two important factors should be taken into account when talking about agriculture in general and sustainable agriculture in particular : technology and globalisation.

    Many good husbandry practices have been made obsolete by the mechanical and chemical innovations of the second half of the last century. Manure was the only source of nitrogen readily available to most farmers. Concentration of cattle was limited by the ability to manually apply manure to a nearby field. The depth of water wells was limited to a few meters and hence the amount of water available for irrigation. Crop rotation was necessary to preserve yields over the years. Horses were still widely in use in the 1950′ in Western Europe when my father-in-law started to run his milk farm (he was the first one to own a tractor in his village). Technology made it possible to overcome these limitations. It seems undisputable that it increased yields (whether those yields are sustainable is another debate) and probably brought a solution at a time when workforce started moving from the countryside to factories in the cities. Greed did the rest. Non-tillage and cover cropping may still be perceived by many farmers as dirty work (there is nothing as ‘clean’ as a freshly plowed field).

    Even for the smart and non-greedy farmers, globalisation didn’t leave them much choice. As many agricultural products compete with each other on international markets (wheat, soybean, corn, beef, milk, apples and pears), farmers from all over the globe are put in competition with each other. And the competition is made mostly on one criterion : price. Hence, in order to remain competitive, most farmers have no other choice than try and achieve the highest yields possible in the short-term, regardless of the sustainability of their practices. Don’t you find it astonishing that farmers with completely different soils, climates, environmental and social constraints in Brazil, France and the U.S. are paid the same amount of money for each ton of wheat they produce ?

    There may be another way of achieving a faster pay-off but it requires an even more drastic change. We (farmers and buyers) must stop considering that a ton of wheat is simply a ton of wheat, that an apple is simply an apple. Farmers must grow and sell wheat that has been grown in a sustainable manner. Buyers must be ready to buy an apple that has been grown in a sustainable way. And this sustainability does not only apply to the soil but also to the GDP of the country and the structure of its society.

  3. Marc,
    Agricultural technology is what has made it possible for 99% of the population in developed nations to work off the farm. No serious person can believe that we will significantly reverse that trend. Small farms are the fastest growing segment of farming, but their total production is negligible.

    Wheat has been a globally traded commodity at least since Roman times and wheat is definitely not just wheat. Almost more than any other grain it is grown for highly specific quality characteristics so different types are needed for bread, crackers, pasta, Asian noodles, flatbread… That is why it is so challenging to increase its yield. The breeders also have to make sure the quality traits come along with any advance on disease resistance, drought resistance etc.

  4. Great post, Steve.

    Unsurprisingly, I think very similar issues are behind the reasons for why we don’t see more sustainable buildings in American cities. In places like New York, where the financial barriers to entry for development are so high to restrict the prospect to a very small population of investors, the amount of new buildings that go up as energy and environmentally conscious is still small. One of the main reasons is that developers are building to sell, not building to own.

    While constructing buildings to own as a long term investment is much more common in Europe, here it is customary to build a project with the intent of completely liquidating all assets involved as quickly as possible. In some cases, the developer is already cashed out of the building before it is completely finished as prospective owners are allowed to purchase apartments before the building is complete.

    The downside is that it leaves developers with very little impetus to assess their construction with a long term mindset. Why think of 30, 50 or even 100 years down the down when they are going to be cashed out in 2? At present, the only way we have to combat this at present is a more informed consumer base that places value on greener space. In the future, building codes will hopefully require more sustainable standards of construction to counter the short term of investment from their preliminary owners.

  5. T. Caine,
    I agree. Sustainability is fundamentally about taking a long-term view and frequently the economics of a business don’t support that. For the apartment thing imagine if you could get the future renters/buyers together ahead of time to essentially contract with a builder to build in such a way that their long-term heating/cooling etc would be cheaper.

  6. It is so true Steve…since leasing is not really an option, we look for land to purchase and we are confronted with non-agricultural pricing even though we are looking eight travel hours from Seattle. The land owners are trying to cash out and become millionaires thinking that the land is worth more to those who would develop it into ranchettes and hobby farms. The trouble is that it takes arable land out of the economy and puts into the vacation home category. Many orchards have disappeared for this reason alone… Irresponsible.. yes, understandable.. sort of. And if the water rights lapse it becomes permanently useless…. Oh yeah… that would be the San Joaquin Valley….

  7. I have the impression that one cannot only look at this issue from a technical point-of-view.

    Let me give you an example. In Europe between 2008 and 2009, the price of milk has been divided by at least 50% in most countries. The farmers who had invested in 2008 based on the prices that year found themselves in a very difficult situation the year after. Many of them are no longer covering their costs. One cannot decently ask to those farmers to think about sustainability.

    If you want farmers to farm sustainably :
    – the use of technology has to be assessed and regulated based on its impact on soils, food and society
    – the prices of agricultural products cannot vary heavily from one year to the other the way they do at the moment and they have to include the cost of sustainability (something they don’t at the moment IMO)

    The advantage of small farms is that they have the chance to market their products themselves (something that big farms technically cannot do). This gives them the possibility to include the cost of sustainability either by increasing the selling price or by saving on the margins otherwise taken by intermediaries. Quid erat demonstrandum 😉

  8. Marc,
    Indeed some small farms that are near population centers can use “direct marketing” to increase their profitability. In general; however, many surveys show that the adoption of important sustainable practices (non-tillage, variable rate fertilization, controlled wheel traffic…) are actually higher with larger farm size. A great many of our small to medium farms are tended by people who also work part to full time off the farm. They don’t always have the time to focus on sustainability.
    You are right about the economics. Since we don’t “monetize the externalities” of farming, farmers have to make certain economic decisions to stay in business. Renting land is part of that – it reduces financial risk for the ups and downs of commodity prices. That is why I think it is critical to get the land owners educated, because it is actually in their long-term financial interest for farmers to build soil quality.

  9. Deborah,
    Thanks. I’m hoping to get this issue on the “radar.” I will bring it up on a panel in D.C. in June and at an Ag2.0 investment conference in Toronto in the fall.

  10. More and more large farmers are and have been for some time adopting technologies that allow us to increase yields all while using less fuel, equipment, pesticides, herbicides, and all other inputs, even seed. We are looking at a new planter in the near future and will be basing some future purchase decisions on the size of the planter in order to allow those implements to follow in the same wheel tracks limiting soil compaction. “Big Ag” can be sustainable. Cover crops is something I may start doing soon, and this year we are going to no-till more acres than in the past.

  11. Do you see an opportunity for USDA farm bill programs be tailored in the 2013 farm bill to target transitional programs for lease holders/operators to adopt more carbon sensitive farming methods? by carbon sensitive I mean what is good for the soil by zero or micro tillage practices, more perennial crops, more woody crops and more high c- residue crops as crops or cover or companion/relay crops!

    • Bart,
      It is hard to know. If commodity prices stay high (and this spring’s planting delays will keep them there) and if the Federal deficit stays high, there will be tremendous pressure to eliminate or scale-back farm subsidies which could be tied to sustainable practices. I still think that the key is to alter the majority of purely annual cash rents that dominate to something where the farmer and the land owner share in the increased value of the land based on several years of good practices that build soil quality. Without that I don’t see the farm bill being a major part of the solution

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