A Guide to Inform and Scale Investments in Healthy Agricultural Soils

New guide will help measure and grow the financial value of conservation practices on America’s farms.

December 14, 2020
Chandler Clay, (202) 572-3312, cclay@edf.org

(WASHINGTON, DC — Dec. 14, 2020) Policy and business leaders across the U.S. agricultural sector are laying out ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving water quality and building soil health, presenting a growing need to understand the financial value of on-farm conservation practices.

To close this information gap, Environmental Defense Fund published A practitioner’s guide to conducting budget analyses for conservation agriculture, developed in partnership with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, K·Coe Isom, Precision Conservation Management, Soil Health Partnership (an initiative of the National Corn Growers Association), American Farmland Trust, Field to Market and Datu Research.

The guide describes the importance of measuring the financial impacts of practices like conservation tillage, cover crops and nutrient management. It also includes a user-friendly checklist of best practices for researchers, academics, conservation nonprofits and other organizations interested in measuring the farm financial outcomes of these practices.

“As USDA, state agencies, food companies and private investors ramp up investments in sustainable agriculture, it is paramount to more widely and consistently measure and share the financial impacts that conservation practices have on the farm bottom line,” said Vincent Gauthier, a research analyst at EDF and lead author of the guide. “Our hope is that this guide can help farmers and their advisors evaluate the business case for conservation agriculture to inform profitable conservation solutions.”

Despite the economic and environmental benefits of conservation practices, adoption in the U.S. remains relatively low, with no-till being used on 26.3% of U.S. cropland and cover crops on only 3.9%.

“More than 70% of land in the lower 48 states is privately owned. Working with America’s farmers, ranchers and foresters to help them implement conservation practices on their lands can help them reduce costs and risk, increase yield resilience and diversify their income streams, and is critical for helping to protect our natural resources for the future,” said NRCS Acting Chief Kevin Norton. “Improving the economics of regenerative agriculture and sustainable supply chain initiatives can help scale innovative agricultural solutions, ultimately building a more resilient food system. We’re thrilled to see the research and innovation funded by the Conservation Innovation Grants program being put to work in this capacity.”

The guide is informed by a thorough review of 33 farm budget case studies and five multi-farm analyses that examined conservation adoption, in addition to input from leading experts on conservation agriculture and farm financial management.

“Working with EDF and the other partners on this report helped the Soil Health Partnership assess the management and economic data we are collecting from farmers in our network,” said Maria Bowman, lead scientist at Soil Health Partnership. “This guide focuses on the information that farmers and their financial partners need to make decisions about conservation practices, and the proven approaches practitioners can use to collect those data.”

“Farmers are businessmen and women who need to know the costs and benefits of anything they do, before they do it — especially in a capital-intensive business with tight margins,” said Laura Gentry, director of water quality science for Illinois Corn Growers Association. “Ultimately, this guide can help farmers and their business partners make well-informed decisions that support long-term profitability and resilience.”

For more information on this report, visit www.edf.org/measuring-conservation-profitability.

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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. With offices in the United States, China, Mexico, United Kingdom and Indonesia, EDF's 750 scientists, economists, attorneys -- and our allies -- work in 26 countries to turn our solutions into action. Connect with us on EDF Voices, Twitter and Facebook.