By Drew Slattery

The State of Sustainability: 2020 Snapshot

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November 22, 2020

Research shows a farm base primed for action. Here are three ways changemakers can empower farmers to continue improving their conservation footprint in 2021. 

 Trust In Food collaborated with Field To Market to produce the ‘State of Sustainable Ag’ research report in 2020. Insights in the report are derived from a survey of American row crop producers from coast to coast. This year’s report features responses from more than 530 farmers representing all major cropping regions.

Our goal with each annual report is to provide stakeholders with meaningful insights into the realities farmers face in implementing conservation practices. Through our survey, we aim to understand how farmers understand, value, and implement regenerative principles across their operation – identifying the barriers they face in hopes of empowering organizations to help them circumvent these on their sustainability journeys.

The key takeaways from this year’s study revolve around economics and momentum.   

  • Farmers face resource and logistical limitations; if you want them to change production methods then make things easier for them, provide shortcuts, and reduce their burden.
    • 81% of farmers in our study said limited time/energy and/or labor support to make conservation-focused changes is a barrier for them to some degree.
    • 77% said they lack access to the funding capital/credit they would need to make the changes to some extent.

These are fixed, hard barriers that no matter how much a farmer may want to overcome, no matter how motivated they are – they logistically can’t. Every program that promotes conservation related behavior change should have a strategy for how it will empower farmers to navigate around these fixed barriers.

For example, only 15% of farmers in our study said they have received better market access or additional revenue opportunities because of conservation farming practices they implement. Addressing this and increasing revenue opportunities attached to conservation implementation would provide a pathway around the congestion of financial limitations for farmers.  

  • Farms are businesses first – any production change is a business decision. Enhancing farmers’ understanding of the business case for conservation is critical. 
    • 73% of farmers in our study say that proof is still missing (to varying degrees) that their operation will benefit economically from implementing conservation agriculture practices.

Implementing changes to production and management practices is expensive; farmers need to be sure there will be a return on their investment if they are going to foot the bill. Explaining the financial benefits to them clearly and in crisp, business-savvy ways is a critical step in making the case. In places where the economic case for farmers to change practices might not be as well documented, further research and dissemination is going to be needed to help justify decisions.

  • Prioritize activating farmers to start their regenerative journeys; the momentum will help keep them moving. 
    • 86% of farmers in our study responded that they had no plans to scale back the amount of conservation practices they are implementing in the next 3 years.

This forward momentum is critically important to organizations seeking to drive change. While every case is different, conservation efforts may do well to prioritize motivating action in one practice area and then moving on to the next, rather than focusing resources on practice maintenance (which may not be needed).

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