Like any business owner or operator, farmers take careful consideration when making any changes to their operations. A change that may seem relatively simple to an outsider could require new equipment, more labor or a different response to heavy rain or drought. In the end the change may turn out to be a great success, but that is often difficult to be sure of at the outset.
This balance of change, risk and opportunity cannot be overlooked when asking farmers to address environmental challenges in the Chesapeake Bay. Agriculture may be the leading source of nutrient run-off there, but it has also been the second largest contributor to the progress in cleaning up the bay. We have been working with farmers in the region to help advance this progress through our BMP Challenge, a risk management program that American Farmland Trust is implementing across the nation to encourage farmers to make conservation happen on-the-ground. (For more on the BMP Challenge, read my recent story about visiting a farm in Virginia.)
A recent study in Pennsylvania focused on how to address risk when the business of agriculture intersects with the need to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. . Here is what we found:
Risk Is Real
The National Academy of Sciences acknowledges the dilemma that farmers face in deciding how much fertilizer to use:
“Since (they) must make nitrogen applications without being able to predict weather and crop yields, the potential for being wrong is always present and will always occur in some years.”
Our data shows that reducing fertilizer on crops can result in decreased yields 40 percent of the time even with well-tested practices. Over time, these practices should pay off, but farmers cite fear of lost income as a major consideration when deciding whether or not to implement new conservation practices.
An Effective Way to Manage Risk
The BMP Challenge provides three helpful supports to farmers willing to take a chance:
1) Technical assistance from a certified agricultural consultant to help plan and implement the change
2) A comparison of the standard and the new practice on the farmer’s field so he or she can get experience using it and see the results
3) An income guarantee so that if a loss in profit is experienced, the farmer receives the difference
The Result: Widespread Adoption of New Practices
In Pennsylvania, we found that BMP Challenge participants report high satisfaction with the program, and 85 percent say that they have continued to use the practice or a modified form of it on their farm.
These results are an important step in addressing the risk that farmers face when adopting conservation practices. We believe that the BMP Challenge is an important new tool for farmers—helping them manage part of the risk they face in trying to be good stewards of the environment and successful small businesses at the same time.
Over the coming months, we will continue exploring how these results will impact the Chesapeake Bay and impaired water bodies across the country. Can we scale up our demonstrations to broader availability? Are there other ways to address “conservation risk,” such as emerging income opportunities like water quality trading that can help mitigate the financial risk of adopting water quality practices?
About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en