Tag Archives: conservation

Why Celebrate World Soil Day on December 5th?

FAOWorldSoilDayAs a soil scientist I’m excited about an international day to celebrate the importance of soil.   American Farmland Trust focuses on soil everyday: saving the best soils from poorly planned development, providing access to these soils for the next generation of farmers, and promoting sound farming practices on the soils so they can provide nature’s benefits.

Soils as a natural resource

For too long soils have been the Rodney Dangerfield of natural resources, treated like a second hand resource by environmentalists and conservationists alike. Seems like water, air, and wildlife got all the great press, regulatory protection, love and respect. What about the soil’s ability to provide food? Help create the flavor of a great wine or Juicy peach? To store water and protect against flooding? Continue reading

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Farm Policy Roundup – October 17, 2014

AFT Supports Vision for Cover Crops and Soil Health

iStock_000016498995SmallAmerican Farmland Trust has joined a diverse coalition of agriculture and conservation groups in delivering ”A Common Vision Statement on Cover Crops and Soil Health” to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to urge further work on cover crops and soil health across relevant department agencies and major program areas.

“Cover crops and soil health have been capturing the attention and involvement of farmers and organizations all across the U.S.,” stated the groups. “These practices represent a systems-based approach to enhancing crop production and profitability, protection of soil and water resources, and land stewardship.”
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Women Landowners are Committed Conservationists

Jen-Philipiak-Hay-Ride-blogAt the end of July on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, American Farmland Trust (AFT) convened a small group of women farm owners to share experiences with each other, expand their knowledge of conservation, and learn about innovative practices being tested by the University of Maryland.

With record numbers of women taking over ownership of farms across the country, AFT hosts these women’s learning circles in the Mid-West and now in the Mid-Atlantic. “Women landowners are committed conservationists,” said Jim Baird, the Mid-Atlantic regional director for AFT. “We want to provide a comfortable place where women, many of whom are new landowners, can come together to ask questions about conservation, and how they can get assistance.”
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Farm Policy Roundup—August 8, 2014

U.S. Department of Agriculture Announces RCPP Projects for Full Proposals

rcppblogThe U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that 230 projects will be invited to submit full proposals for program funding under the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). American Farmland Trust is leading or supporting 5 projects in multiple states which are eligible for a full proposal.
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Guest Contributor: Partnerships Power Conservation Efforts

When USDA launched the Regional Conservation Partnership Program several months ago, we talked about our hope that this new way of doing business would build coalitions of unlikely partners and bring new money and resources for conservation projects to the table.

The overwhelmingly positive response to this new approach has far exceeded our initial expectations. Over the past several months, nearly 5,000 partners have come together to submit nearly 600 pre-proposals to USDA. All told, these coalitions of partners requested more than six times the $394 million in funding available from USDA for the first round of conservation projects, in addition to bringing their own, matching resources to the table.
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Farm Policy Roundup—August 1, 2014

Congress Enters Recess without Finishing Appropriations, Tax Extenders

Cabbage fieldCongress begins a month-long recess today, leaving many issues to address when legislators return in September. Legislation left unfinished includes fiscal year 2015 agriculture appropriations and permanent extension of the enhanced conservation easement deduction which expired last year. American Farmland Trust worked with our allies to advance these priorities. Together, both pieces of legislation are essential for continued protection of our nation’s working farm and ranch land.
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Farm Policy Roundup –July 18, 2014

House Passes Permanent Enhanced Conservation Deduction

iStock_000000142578MediumThe U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4719, a tax package to encourage charitable giving. Included in the bill were provisions of H.R. 2807, the Conservation Easement Incentive Act. Originally sponsored by Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), H.R. 2807 would make permanent an enhanced conservation easement deduction for landowners donating conservation easements. The Conservation Easement Incentive Act had broad bi-partisan support in the House with 222 co-sponsors and the larger charitable tax package passed in the House by a vote of 277 to 130. Companion legislation to H.R. 2807, S. 526, is currently pending in the U.S. Senate where the next vote will occur in order for the enhanced deduction to become permanent.

American Farmland Trust continues to support the enhanced deduction as Congress considers “tax extenders” legislation. AFT is also pursuing broader tax reform, specifically changes to the estate tax that would benefit farmland conservation.
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Taking a Risk on the Farm Proves Economically Rewarding, Environmentally Beneficial

Three years before the Maryland Department of Agriculture revised nutrient management regulations a BMP Challenge crop adviser, Don Moore (AET Agricultural Consulting) took the initiative and partnered with American Farmland Trust and Agflex Inc. to work with seven farmers to inject or incorporate manure into the soil.  Manure injection or incorporation increases fertilizer efficiency, thus reducing potential nutrient loss from the field three ways.  When the manure is below, rather than on top of the soil, nitrogen rich ammonia gas can’t escape to the air making more of it available to the plant by as much as 20%. Secondly, the fertilizer is now located several inches closer to the plant roots. Finally, it is far less susceptible to being washed away in heavy spring rains. The potential is for this practice to allow the farmer to reduce the total amount of total fertilizer inputs mainly the chemical type put on mid-season, thus be, saving money and improving water quality.

Since manure incorporation with vertical tillage equipment such as an Aerway or Turbotill is a relatively new practice, the BMP Challenge comparisons were setup to determine whether incorporation would affect yields. In 2012, participants applied the same number of nitrogen credits across the entire field.  However, they reduced the amount of commercial fertilizer at sidedress on the manure incorporation acres.  The incorporation increased the nitrogen credit to offset the commercial fertilizer reduction. By the third year, the part of the field where manure was applied to the surface at the recommended rate was compared to the rest of the field that used incorporation and a reduced application rate based less ammonia escaping to the air.

Across the three years, incorporation showed an average increase in net returns by $6.00 per acre and a nitrogen reduction of 7 pounds.  Over-all the farmers saved more than 8,400 pounds of nitrogen applications. Five of seven participating farmers in the BMP Challenge demonstrations were interviewed last fall regarding their participation. Three have purchased new equipment. One is seriously considering it and the fifth has expanded use of vertical tillage to all his crop acres. According to Moore, “Throughout the entire BMP Challenge process, farmers demonstrated their willingness and eagerness to learn.  They want to learn about and adopt new technologies if they make good economic sense.  They are not willing to risk yield to experiment.  This is where the yield guarantee was important to them.  In this world of high commodity prices, and inputs that are equally as high, growers are hesitant to entertain additional risk.  No one is interested in over-application of nutrients.

Maryland state law now requires farmers to inject or incorporate manure and other organic nutrient sources into the soil within 48 hours of application.  The past three years of work on the Eastern Shore has provided important information to farmers and agricultural advisors as well. The BMP Challenge will be working with an expanded number of growers this year to transition from surface application to manure incorporation.

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Hot Fun in the Summer Time: Ear Leaf Tissue Testing

It was July, almost August. And was HOT. I was burrowing my way through six foot tall corn in 100 degree temperatures! Last month I told you about testing the soil to get a read on how much nitrogen (think plant food) there is next to the corn plants to help them grow. We did that BEFORE the farmer gave the corn any additional fertilizer which made it a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Tests (PSNT).

As a crop advisor for the BMP Challenge, I revisited the fields at the end of July to take Ear Leaf Tissue Samples. The plant’s silk coming from the top of the ears is still yellow but just about to turn brown meaning it’s our last chance to check up on the health of the plants prior to harvest. Walking the length of the field (about two football fields with 6-foot corn means I hadn’t seen daylight for 30 minutes!) and I periodically pulled off a leaf, the one that grows at the base of the ear of corn, to collect samples for testing.  Being in the field also gave me a chance to examine the crop for signs of stress, such as withered leaves from drought, yellowed leaves due to low nitrogen and insects.

These samples taken in BMP Challenge enrolled fields come from two areas: first from the “check strip,” where the farmer had applied nitrogen at a rate of his or her own choosing, and then from the remainder of the field where the nitrogen rate was determined by the PSNT results.  The samples of ear leaves help backup the PSNT results, showing that the portion of the field that had received a reduced amount of fertilizer would still have adequate nitrogen to make it through harvest.  But maybe even more important, the ear leaf test provides another data point, another topic to discuss when we sit down as a group with the participating farmers after the harvest. As a crop advisor, I work to provide BMP Challenge enrolled farmers with all the information to ponder, discussing their observations and the test results against their yields to evaluate the use of best management practices on their field.

The PSNT and Ear Leaf tests just provide a snapshot of the nutrients available to the plants on the day the samples are taken. They give the farmer one more piece of the complex puzzle that is nitrogen fertilizer management.  Much research has been done over the last several decades to determine the amount of each nutrient that is necessary to support growth. Mother Nature is unpredictable and soil types differ from farm to farm, so each farmer must have their management strategies. At the same time, it is impossible for any single test or guideline to consistently provide the “right” answer about how much fertilizer a farmer should apply.  The main reason I was out in the summer heat, melting and collecting the ear leaf samples was to give each farmer one more measurement of their crop’s progress in order to evaluate the recommendations that we made to them after the PSNT.

When people my age leave Virginia Tech with an ag degree and look at today’s economy, they know they will have to be innovative in order to remain profitable if they want to farm  The “slippery fish” of nitrogen that I work with as a crop advisor requires extra attention; it’s risky and being wrong is expensive. AFT’s BMP Challenge program is providing access to tools and knowledge to help farmers better manage their fertilizer usage. By offering insurance, AFT is encouraging producers to try new practices on their fields—like the one I walked through that hot July day—and not lose sleep at night worrying about yield loss. Using fertilizer more efficiently meets the double bottom line that farmers want: to improve the water in the stream while getting the most corn at the least cost.



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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Setting the Course for Improved Water Quality: Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana Sign Groundbreaking Agreement to Protect Water and Support Farmers

Nestled on the north bank of the Ohio River, Cincinnati is a stone’s throw from the bluegrass of Kentucky and Indiana’s horizon of corn and soybean. This month, the city served as the perfect backdrop for representatives from all three states to sign a historic agreement that will set the tone for the future of water quality across the region.

Ohio River

The groundbreaking agreement launches interstate water quality pilot trades in the Ohio River Basin, a program aimed to reduce the release of excess nutrients running off of farm fields into the network of waterways leading into the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River. The project, led by Electric Power Research Institute with assistance from American Farmland Trust, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, Hunton & Williams LLP, Kieser & Associates, LLC, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, marks the first time three states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

What is Water Quality Trading?

The goal of water quality trading is to improve the health of water sources, in this case the Ohio River and its tributaries, by reducing the excess nutrients leaving cities, factories and farms. It is an innovative market-based approach to reduce the release of excess nutrients from non-point sources – such as farm fields – into waterways. Water quality trading is:

  • Completely voluntary;
  • A source of revenue for farmers who can make further reductions in nutrients through planned conservation practices; and
  • A cost-effective alternative for regulated utilities, wastewater treatment plants and industries to meet environmental regulations by buying nutrient reduction credits from farmers.
A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

By offering a financial incentive for farmers in the Ohio River Basin to implement conservation practices while at the same time improving water quality and saving money, water quality trading is a win-win for all involved. (Though geared toward similar AFT work in the Chesapeake Bay, our video “Nutrient Trading in Maryland” helps to highlight the pilot program now being established in the Ohio River Basin.)

A Voice for Farmers. A Vision for the Future

American Farmland Trust’s role in the project is to ensure that the water quality trading program is developed in a way that allows for full participation of farmers. Not only will these practices improve the health of the entire river basin, but they will help keep farmers on the land and actively farming by adding a new source of income to their operations – the sale of nutrient reduction credit to utility companies, wastewater treatment plants and other regulated point sources.

The plan will serve as the basis for the three states to implement pilot trades beginning in 2012 through 2015. Although some states have adopted trading policies or rules to govern trading within their jurisdictions, this is the first time that several states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

After three years of hard work, we’re just getting started. We plan to have the first pilot trades in place before the end of 2012 with the remainder implemented in 2013-2014. The water quality pilot trades will take place in up to 16 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, and are expected to engage at least three power plants and up to 30 farms implementing conservation practices on up to 20,000 acres. Reduction of nutrients running from farm fields into waterways is expected to total approximately 45,000 pounds of nitrogen and 15,000 pounds of phosphorus annually.

At full-scale, the project could include up to eight states in the Ohio River Basin and would potentially create credit markets for 46 power plants, thousands of wastewater facilities and other industries, and approximately 230,000 farmers. There is much work left ahead in order to get there, but with the signatures transcribed on a balmy August day in Cincinnati, we have taken a critical giant leap in the right direction.


About the Author: Ann Sorensen, Ph.D. is Director of Research at American Farmland Trust. She currently sits on the EPA’s Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee.

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