Report Highlights Opportunities in Collaborative Agricultural Landscape Management

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

When the South Florida Water Management District announced new standards to reduce nutrient loading and increase water retention on the lands draining into Lake Okeechobee, one of the most important regions in the world for water and wildlife, Northern Everglades cattle ranchers knew they needed strategies to meet those environmental targets while maintaining the profitability of their beef operations. Rather than pursing time-consuming and resource-intensive litigation, they helped lead efforts to work with other landowners, state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, foundations, and scientists to develop a payments for environmental services system that has succeeded in reducing nutrient runoff and increasing water retention, protecting ecologically sensitive areas, and maintaining ranch productivity.

The Northern Everglades ranchers and landowners and producers like them across the country are increasingly collaborating with diverse coalitions of stakeholders to increase the health of agricultural landscapes. AGree’s newest report, Collaborative Management of Agricultural Landscapes: Achieving Measurable Conservation Improvements, is based on a March 21, 2013 workshop hosted by AGree in Washington, DC. It features more than 15 case studies in innovative, collaborative landscape management. The report explores both the opportunities and challenges of implementing similar programs on a greater scale across the United States. Featured case studies demonstrate that local leadership and relationships built on trust, data collection to measure progress and encourage participation, and economic benefits for land stewardship are features of the most effective programs.

Local Leadership and Relationships Built on Trust

Workshop speakers emphasized that local leadership and relationships built on trust are key features of successful collaborative agricultural landscape management, though an external regulatory driver such as the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act may spur action. The Little Snake River Conservation District in Wyoming, for instance, has completed a variety of watershed restoration projects to remove streams from the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waterways and improve wildlife habitat. Over decades, local leaders have worked to build partnerships and mutual understanding among farmers and ranchers, recreation and conservation interests, and government officials in order to achieve landscape goals. These personal connections and engagement, facilitated by Conservation District staff and funds, have cultivated participation, ownership, and investment in watershed stewardship among local producers.

Measurable Progress

Because data collection on varied agricultural landscapes can be expensive and time-consuming, workshop speakers explained, landowners and other stakeholders face limited evidence for how management affects the broader landscape and whether conservation programs are achieving their objectives efficiently. Developing improved scientific and technical infrastructure for measuring and monitoring soil health, nutrient flows, and other qualities of agricultural landscapes can help spur improved conservation and profitability. The Adapt Network, for example, is working with landowners and leveraging the resources of land grant universities to measure and optimize fertilizer use. The Network gathers farm-specific data and compares results across other operations in a region, providing farmers with the data to make better-informed management decisions. Many participants have saved money and enhanced water quality by learning that they could achieve similar yields by applying an average of 25 fewer pounds of fertilizer per acre. Similar gains could likely be made on a larger scale if data collection and analyses were more widely available.

Economics that Work for Producers

A critical feature of successful collaborative management of agricultural landscapes is ensuring that conservation efforts allow producers and landowners to maintain productivity and profits. In the Northern Everglades, direct payments for improved environmental outcomes encouraged rancher participation in the initiative. For Gary Price, owner of 77 Ranch, a commercial cow-calf operation outside of Dallas, the economic benefits of land stewardship came in a different form. A participant in the Water As A Crop™ program, Price worked with the Sand County Foundation, NRCS, and other groups to show the relationships between conservation practices, such as using native grasses for pasture and building water retention structures, and improved water quality and biodiversity. When the 2011 drought hit Texas, Price’s efforts paid off—while most of his neighbors had to cull their cattle, 77 Ranch’s sustainability efforts made herd reductions unnecessary. The experience of 77 Ranch and other Water As A Crop™ with greater ranch resilience, and the data that demonstrates the relationships between conservation and long-term productivity, may encourage others to pursue similar efforts.

Collaborative Management of Agricultural Landscapes: Achieving Measurable Conservation Improvements is an important compilation on progress to date engaging diverse interests to implement workable landscape-scale solutions to environmental challenges that maintain and improve agricultural productivity. AGree will draw on the report’s conclusions as it continues to pursue the development and implementation of policy goals that improve productivity, provide ecosystem services, and return profits to producers by building healthy soils, managing nutrients wisely, improving water quality and quantity, and supporting biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems.

Mark Jacobs is a Senior Mediator and Program Manager at the Meridian Institute/AGree.