AGree Coalition 2019 Retrospective

3 January 2020
Deborah Atwood

Advancing the Profitability, Productivity, and Sustainability of American Agriculture

Over the past year, AGree has had many accomplishments advocating for federal policy improvements to bridge the gap between the adoption of on-farm conservation practices and improving profitability for farmers and ranchers. Although we know conservation practices contribute important benefits to soil health and farm resiliency – with implications for improved crop yields and reduced agricultural risk – our federal agriculture policies, the federal crop insurance program, and many banking institutions have yet to recognize these important linkages. Our work on cover crop policy, crop insurance, agriculture data access, and banking and finance is advancing the agricultural sector’s understanding of these linkages and movement towards a more resilient, profitable, and sustainable American agricultural system.

We Rebranded!

In September 2019, AGree rebranded its Conservation and Crop Insurance Taskforce as the AGree Economic and Environmental Risk Coalition, reflecting the initiative’s broadening scope beyond crops and insurance to also include agriculture data efforts, banking and finance, and integrated crop-livestock systems. In conjunction, we launched our new website to better describe and promote this important work.

Advancing 2018 Farm Bill Successes

During 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, AGree successfully lobbied for language directing USDA to “generate a report identifying available Departmental data sets on conservation practices and the effect of such practices on farm and ranch profitability, including effects relating to crop yields and soil health.” In June 2019, the AGree Coalition convened a diverse group of land grant university researchers, USDA data managers, and AGree Coalition members to think through the challenges and opportunities in implementing this language. Meeting participants identified key USDA datasets, explored challenges to facilitating this access, and identified protocols, procedures, and systems USDA could pursue to enable access to data sets by university researchers. The Coalition has been working cooperatively with USDA to produce a report in a timely manner that meets the requirements set forth in the farm bill.

Agriculture Data Pilot

In order to help USDA develop secure data-sharing protocols in connection with its agricultural data report, AGree developed a pilot project proposal to analyze USDA data from six states—Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and South Dakota—in conjunction with other datasets, to assess whether the implementation of cover cropping and no-till practices affected the number of prevent plant acres in 2019. In addition to the study’s findings about the relationship between no-till, cover cropping, and farm outcomes, this pilot will provide a model for future data sharing to answer the profitability, productivity, and environmental sustainability questions of American agricultural producers.

Throughout the fall of 2019, AGree assembled a pilot project advisory team that met with USDA leadership to build support for the implementation of this pilot project. In 2020, we will continue our work to operationalize this pilot project as part of a broader Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) strategic data initiative, finalize our research and advisory team, and establish a legal mechanism for cooperation (e.g., a Memorandum of Understanding or cooperative agreement), with the intent to begin the analysis in March 2020.

Banking and Finance

In 2019, the AGree Coalition began laying the groundwork to help lenders and investors demonstrate the economic benefits of adopting conservation practices.

We are working with data experts, economists, finance experts, and other technical partners to develop a scalable banking and finance framework to help lenders and investors convert the environmental and economic benefits of conservation practices into relevant metrics such as reduced cash flow risk, improvements in efficiency or asset value, or price premiums. To make the framework actionable, the AGree Coalition will support a pilot project to apply the framework to a financial product for farmers and landowners who want to invest in conservation practices that increase profitability, enhance property values, and reduce producers’ long-term risk.

Cover Crops

Cover crops improve soil health, capture carbon, prevent erosion, and help farmers deal with extreme weather, such as the incredibly wet spring of 2019 across much of the Corn Belt. This summer, the AGree Coalition sent a letter signed by eight U.S. Senators to USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey urging the update of cover crop termination guidelines to provide farmers greater flexibility and certainty to harvest, graze, and terminate cover crops and maintain eligibility for federal crop insurance on their primary cash crop. We are pleased that USDA released these new guidelines in June 2019, which will help remove roadblocks to cover crop acceptance and improve conservation outcomes.

In Fall 2019, we conducted a landscape assessment of existing cover crop resources provided by the federal government, state governments, NGOs, and private companies in order to assist policymakers, farmers, and cover crop advocacy groups understand the full scope of available cover crop programs and incentives. We found that across the United States, varying programs and policies are available to assist farmers, nongovernmental organizations, schools, and soil and water conservation districts in promoting the education and adoption of cover cropping.

In early December, AGree hosted a briefing, Cover Crops: A Soil Health and Climate Solution, supported by the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus to discuss how farm profitability, soil fertility, and climate resiliency can be improved over time with the use of cover crops. This briefing helped communicate the linkages between agriculture, conservation practices, and climate resiliency to key staffers and policymakers.

Looking Forward

In 2020, we look forward to continued work bringing together agricultural producers, conservation experts, academics, and policymakers to explore how the implementation of conservation practices can improve agricultural profitability, reduce risk, and provide environmental benefits. We have much to look forward to: implementing our agriculture data research pilot; advancing our work in banking and finance; and continuing to provide research and education promoting the adoption of cover cropping. We will continue doing what we do best—working collaboratively on practical solutions, informed by research, to create systems that support our vital food producers—and protect the land that makes their work possible.