Climate Change

Published on September 8th, 2010 | by Steve Savage

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Do Non-Farmers Have A Key Role In Sustainable Agriculture?

Indeed!  Some people who will never farm could have a pivotal role in advancing the sustainability of farming.  I’m not talking about urban farming or consumer choices (“Sustainable”, “Organic”, “local”…).  I’m talking about land ownership and rental contracts.

Some Background:

In spite of what you hear, “family farms” are still the overwhelming way that US agriculture happens.  Many of these farms are large, but I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with farmers who tend 5-15,000 acres, and their “office” is typically the kitchen table or an old desk in the corner of the barn.  These are still definitely “family farms” and they still dominate the hundreds of millions of acres of “row crops” (wheat, barley, corn, soy, sunflower…) that make up 90+ percent of US farmland.

The Importance of Rented Land for Farms

That said, these growers don’t typically own all or even most of the land they farm.  Almost 40% of all US cropland is rented and the percentage is much higher in the most productive areas like the “Corn Belt,” the Red River Valley, and irrigated land. (see map)

Over the last 100 years there has been a steady movement of people from farming to other careers and usually to urban centers.  We now have less than 1% of our population directly involved in farming.  Still, much of our farmland is owned by the descendents of the people who were once our farmers.  The remaining farmers rent that land.  There is nothing intrinsically bad about this.  It is an efficient market , and ‘cash rents” are the best measure of the agricultural value of a piece of land. For a farmer to expand by buying land is risky because of the ups and downs of commodity and energy-related prices.  Renting is the most flexible alternative and the only one for a young farmer that didn’t inherit land.

How This Connects to Sustainability

It comes down to the same owner/renter dynamic we see in other markets.  Everyone understands that if you rent a house or apartment, you don’t make long-term investments in the property that you don’t expect to be able to enjoy.  Similarly, you can be an extremely “responsible renter” of agricultural land, but to pursue the very most sustainable form of farming just does not make economic sense on rented land.  Here is why.

Building Soils – the Key to Sustainability

Truly sustainable farming is all about a long-term investment in the quality of soil.  It’s about building soils that won’t erode with rain and wind.  It’s about building soils that are very good at capturing rainfall and storing it in a way that will be available to the crop.  Sustainable farming is about “feeding” the diverse living community that lives in a healthy soil and making sure that it can “breath” by avoiding the “compression” that can come from use of heavy equipment. This is a kind of farming that incorporates some of the best soil-care orientation of “Organic,” but which achieves that without some of the negative constraints of that philosophically-based system.

When a field is cared for this way for several years, it becomes more productive overall.  It is also less affected by drought – giving good yields in years when other fields fail.  Fields managed this way are also excellent from an environmental perspective.  They generate little or no sediment, nutrient or pesticide residue that moves into surface water.  These fields are far less of an issue for ground water contamination.  These farm operations use less energy, and their soils generate less greenhouse gas emissions.  These fields are even sites for net carbon sequestration.

What Keeps Us From Farming This Way?

The problem is that it takes at least a 4-6 year investment of expertise and money to transition a field to this sustainable status.  Along the way there are very real financial risks.  It’s a wise long-term investment if you own the land, but if you rent it, it just doesn’t make good business sense to farm it that way.

I’m not saying that farmers don’t employ sustainable farming methods – just that the continuous application of the full suite of best practices is not that common because of this rental situation.  Also, this transition isn’t easy and many farmers tried it and became discouraged before all the best tools were available to make it work.

The City-Dweller’s Role?

So this brings us back to the “city dwellers” who own farm land (or really anyone else who owns this extremely valuable resource).  If someone would farm the owner’s property in the best way possible, the owner’s asset could become more valuable over time (more crop production potential = higher rent potential).  Fortunately, that economic self-interest coincides with a farm that is better for humanity (more food), and also far better for the planet.  Unfortunately, that happy, “sustainable” combination is all too rarely achieved.

The non-farmer owner is unlikely to know anything about the practical details of this kind of farming (no-till methods, cover cropping, precision variable rate fertilization, advanced genetics, controlled wheel traffic with sophisticated RTK global positioning technology…).  These owners certainly can’t tell the renter how to farm, but they could adopt a new model of farmland leasing with sharing of risk and long-term upsides.  There are groups working on the design of such leases. There needs to be a way to make it work economically for the farmers that are good at transitioning lands to super-sustainable status.

Why It Matters

We are going to need a lot more food over the next few decades until global populations level off.  We need to find ways to produce that food that are also better for the planet.  Over the last 50 years, a cooperative public/private research effort coupled with grower innovation has created the know-how and tools to make that happen.  I’m not saying it is easy, but it is possible.   The people who don’t farm but who own farmland have an important roll to play in making this happen.  They need to team up with the most innovative farmers to make a wise investment in their own asset, and in the future for all of us.

Do you own farmland?  Do you know someone who does?  I’d be very interested to hear from you either by comment here or at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



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