Sustainability is dominating the headlines these days. The topic has been important to the national mainstream discussion surrounding agriculture for the better part of the last decade, but it hasn’t been the central part of almost every conversation like it is today.
In a world where the carbon footprint of a flight is displayed on the screen for prospective travelers to see before they book, this isn’t surprising. Furthermore, given that agriculture is the only industry that sequesters carbon as a normal part of business operations, it isn’t surprising that everyone is looking to farmers to lead in this space.
I agree with their sentiment. Farmers are the original environmentalists and should be compensated for the good work they’re doing to protect or air, soil, water and wildlife. However, I urge everyone to consider the entire picture when thinking about how farmers should be compensated for this work. These farmers are protecting air, soil, water and wildlife — not just one of these. Accordingly, sustainability means something to different to every farmer and in every area. In fact, sustainability might mean something different in one part of the county than it does in another. Or in one part of a field than it does in another.
Sustainability might be about sequestering carbon for a farmer with flat land. But it might be about protecting water from runoff in a sensitive watershed where the land rolls. Further, mitigating emissions associated with this runoff might even mean a larger carbon footprint reduction than sequestering carbon. Or it may not! The point is, every area is different, and any farming practice that reduces the environmental footprint of agriculture means a more sustainable food, fuel and fiber system overall.
USDA recently opened a comment period asking for input on climate-smart agriculture. The questions the agency posed included what climate-smart agriculture is (I know many farmers wonder about this when they see the term) and how to make agriculture climate-smart. We submitted comments along with 393 others, and a key message of ours was that any sustainability practices incentivized must be customized based on regional needs. We also emphasized that farmers should be rewarded for implementing practices, and working to improve rather than performing to a certain level in every year. Sure, the market needs to see improvement over time. However, droughts happen. Hailstorms happen. Floods happen. Any program must take these facts into account.
Reward early adopters
Finally, we stressed the need to reward early adopters rather than punishing them. Nationally, 74% of sorghum farmers have adopted no-till or conservation tillage, and this fact makes them the leaders in this area. Policies, programs and other mechanisms that don’t recognize such leadership necessarily punish those farmers who’ve been doing the right thing — some of them for decades uninterrupted. USDA is aware of these issues, so I’m confident that the realities affecting farmers in the sorghum belt will be reflected in climate-smart agricultural policy. Regardless, know that the National Sorghum Producers organization continues to work to ensure the best outcomes for sorghum farmers.
I want to end by saying that regardless of a farmer’s views on climate change, there’s a place for him or her in the sustainability discussion. Many would agree farmers are the original environmentalists, and that taking care of the environment so it’ll take care of us is at the heart of what we do in American agriculture. Dialogue with consumers to respectfully hear their needs, and then conveying our beliefs will be key in a fruitful outcome of this discussion.
Duff is executive vice president for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @sorghumduff.