Last week witnessed the launch of a visionary report: Solutions from the Land: Developing a New Vision for U.S. Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation. The report was the product of three years of dialogue among agriculture, conservation and forestry sector leaders, sponsored by Farm Foundation, NFP, The Nature Conservancy, (TNC), the United Nations Foundation and Conservation International.
The vision called for in the report is ambitious and inspirational: “In 2050, U.S. farmers, ranchers and foresters manage land to produce the food, fiber and energy needed to support a growing population and economy, while simultaneously protecting and improving biodiversity and the health of the environment.”
The report outlines a path forward to realize that vision through policy, market and institutional reforms that lead to implementing landscape-scale solutions and partnerships, rewarding landowners for stewardship of ecosystem services, energizing and coordinating research, and transforming and modernizing information networks. Moving forward under the sponsorship of Farm Foundation and TNC, Solutions from the Land (SFL) will facilitate a national dialogue with producers, practitioners and other partners who are seeking ways to produce more food, feed, fiber and fuel in an increasingly sustainable manner.
One of the examples of successful projects identified in the report is the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), a landscape scale partnership effort led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This project is designed to help farmers avoid, trap and control nutrients to improve water quality in targeted subwatersheds in the basin, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, while maintaining or increasing agricultural productivity. Over the last four years, the MRBI has paid more than $320 million to farmers in 50 of the top nitrogen and phosphorous contributing subwatersheds in the 10 main-stem Mississippi River states, as well as Ohio and Indiana, to implement voluntary conservation practices that reduce agricultural run-off.
One of the greatest innovations of MRBI is that it targets Farm Bill resources to priority watersheds. NRCS’s traditional non-targeted approach has sometimes been criticized as “random acts of conservation, scattered across the landscape.” Over the last four years, NRCS has increasingly focused Farm Bill program funding to priority watersheds and landscapes where it can have the greatest impact. MRBI is one of the best examples of this new approach. TNC is partnering with NRCS to begin to target the highest priority acres within priority watersheds and landscapes to make Farm Bill programs even more effective.
Another innovation for MRBI is that it measures for conservation effectiveness. Admittedly this is still a work in progress, but NRCS should be given credit for using the Environmental Quality Improvement Program to fund edge of field monitoring. NRCS is taking steps to expand MRBI to take a more system-wide approach that includes in-stream and watershed-level monitoring which will make it even more effective.
Perhaps most importantly, MRBI provides voluntary incentives in the form of payments for easements and practices that provide ecological services, including improved water quality. The SFL report noted that we “need much better ways of handling diverse agendas than the current approach of regulation and litigation” which, unfortunately, an increasing number of organizations seem to favor when it comes to water quality and agricultural run-off in the Mississippi River Basin and elsewhere. I believe that we need to give the current approach of voluntary incentives a chance before regulation and litigation are considered. Indeed, targeting resources and measuring for conservation effectiveness is our best hope at demonstrating environmental outcomes at the landscape and watershed scale. It is probably also farmers’ best hope for staving off future increased regulation.
NRCS and the thought leaders behind the SFL report should be applauded for their efforts to advance innovative “solutions from the land.” These solutions, like the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, are needed to help address the difficult resource issues we face today—issues that are likely to become even more complex and challenging tomorrow.