Reflections on Sharing AGree’s Working Landscapes Recommendations with the Senate Agriculture Committee

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Over a year ago, I sat down with my fellow producers, AGree Co-Chair Jim Moseley and Advisory Committee Member Fred Yoder, to develop a proposal to help answer a critical question for the future of food and agriculture: how could we align the long-term productivity and profitability of our operations with environmental outcomes- soil health, water quality and quantity, and wildlife habitat? We agreed our approach should be farmer- and rancher-led, watershed-based, and supported by a broad range of partners in the public and private sector.

The result of our discussions together, and conversations with many others- researchers, business leaders, environmental groups, past government officials- involved in the AGree process, was a simple concept: Working Lands Conservation Partnerships (WLCPs), which Jim, Fred, and I describe in our AGree Point of View paper, Cooperative Conservation: A Producer-Led Approach to Achieving Healthy Agricultural Landscapes. Our ideas strongly shaped AGree’s recently released consensus recommendations, Working Landscapes: Achieving Productivity, Profitability, and Environmental Outcomes.

On December 3, I had the opportunity to share both my experience engaging in conservation on my farm in Minnesota and our WLCP concept and AGree recommendations with the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry during a hearing on “Farmers and Fresh Water: Voluntary Conservation to Protect our Land and Waters.”

In addition to submitting the two papers above to the Congressional Record, I delivered the following oral testimony:

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you a farmer’s perspective on how stewardship of working landscapes can help improve water quality.

I am Kristin Weeks Duncanson, owner and partner of Duncanson Growers, a 5th generation family farm in southern Minnesota where we grow corn, soybeans, and vegetables and raise hogs. I have been engaged in farming and agricultural policy for 28 years. I currently serve as an Advisor to AGree. I previously served as Chair of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, President of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, and director of the American Soybean Growers Association.

For many of us in the agriculture community, a deep and abiding stewardship of our own land runs in our veins. It is a tradition passed through the generations that we are very proud of.

Farmers and landowners working together to manage our water resources also goes back many generations. In Minnesota, we have a ditch system. Our challenge with water is usually too much, not too little. Though for many years we focused entirely on making sure that we had infrastructure to move excess water off of our land, we have learned in more recent years that we need to make sure that we do that in a way that does not lead to erosion of streambanks or filling up the streams with eroded soils and excess nutrients.

My farming community lies in both the Blue Earth and Le Seuer watersheds, which flow into the Minnesota River and on to the Mississippi River about 80 miles away. We’ve worked together on Blue Earth County Ditch 57. A few years ago, we designed a two-tiered ditch system with a holding pond and planted with native grasses that gets the water off of our fields but slows the water down and absorbs the nutrients it carries with it. This helps improve water quality downstream.

The process for the new Ditch 57 was neither quick nor easy. It took several years of negotiating with the owners and getting a design, funding and approvals. But the outcomes we achieved were increased productivity for the working lands and a decrease in flooded areas in both the farm fields and many of the houses in the nearby town.

We and many of our neighbors have also learned to use cover crops to help build the health of our soils – which are the foundation of our productivity and profitability. Cover crops also help keep both sediment and nutrients out of the water. By retaining nutrients in the soil, we use less fertilizer, which also contributes to our bottom line.

We are learning more and more that we need to do conservation differently if we are to be sure that we are doing what is needed to improve water quality while we maintain and improve our productivity and profitability over the long term. And forward-looking producers and landowners are ready to provide leadership.

  • We need to focus on water quality outcomes at the watershed level, not just as individual operators.
  • Producers, with technical support from universities, agencies, or the private sector, need to measure baselines regarding both agricultural practices and environmental outcomes at multiple scales and measure change over time.
  • Producers need to work together to identify what a basic standard of stewardship should look like in their watershed – what performance standards or practices should be expected of producers regardless of cost share being available.
  • We need to focus cost share and public dollars on the structural practices needed to achieve outcomes, and to put them where we can achieve the most cost-effective impact.

Government too needs to do things differently.

  • Prioritize resources to where the natural resource problems are found. Invest in collecting baseline data and monitoring change over time at multiple scales.
  • Provide regulatory certainty to those producers who voluntarily demonstrate continuous improvement to achieve water quality goals.
  • Share data more freely among agencies within USDA, other agencies, universities, and the private sector so that we can better understand the relationships between conservation practices, yield resilience, and environmental outcomes in specific agronomic circumstances. Of course we must ensure that proprietary data remains private and that data voluntarily shared cannot be used for regulatory action.

As a member of the Advisory Committee of AGree, an effort that brings together a variety of producers with companies along the food and ag supply chain, environmental organizations, and public health and international development experts, I have worked with other producers to develop an approach we believe can successfully engage farmers and ranchers in achieving improved outcomes in working landscapes. What we are calling Working Lands Conservation Partnerships would be producer-led, watershed-scale, cooperative efforts to enhance both long-term productivity and improve environmental outcomes in a manner that could be recognized both by the public and public agencies as well as the supply chain. This approach is summarized in the infographic included in my written testimony.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill is an excellent example of a federal program that is well-aligned with our Working Lands Conservation Partnership approach. Allocating resources to specific areas of natural resource concern to undertake watershed scale projects that involve multiple partners and that leverage non-federal dollars makes sense. AGree recommends, and I strongly support, shifting up to half of agricultural conservation dollars toward programs like RCPP that utilize partnership-driven approaches to achieve outcomes at a watershed scale. This does not require trimming current programs. It means implementing them in a different way to support watershed-scale cooperative conservation projects. The limited resources available should be focused in a manner in which they can be leveraged to have the greatest impact. Through cooperative conservation, communities can identify together where and how conservation investments can achieve the greatest impact and leverage additional state and private funds.

Through the AGree process, we also have set some specific targets and timetables for natural resource stewardship that we believe represent the scope and pace of change that is needed. For example, AGree is calling for reducing by 30 percent over the next 10 years the number of rivers, lakes and streams currently designated as impaired primarily because of legacy and current nutrient, pesticide, and sediment runoff from agricultural operations. I am also including AGree’s recommendations on working landscapes with my written testimony.

There are a growing number of us in the agricultural community who are eager to provide leadership to efforts to achieve such goals.

It was rewarding to see AGree’s ideas shared with a broad audience of federal policymakers and other thought leaders and stakeholders in attendance. Moving forward, I will be engaging with AGree to establish a WLCP project on the ground in my home state, and my AGree colleagues in Indiana and Wyoming are also working to build the partnerships needed to make cooperative conservation a reality across the country. We invite you to join us. For more information about AGree’s Working Landscapes Initiative, please visit www.workinglandscapesinitiative.org.

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