It has been a busy month of conferences and presentations in the world of sustainable agriculture. Last week, I had the privilege to present – in person! – at the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers meeting. In October, I was with the Ag Retailers Association talking with their members about what Farm Journal is hearing from producers about carbon markets. Both organizations’ members are trusted advisers to farmers, ranchers and growers, helping operations make critical decisions on a day-to-day basis. As such, they have substantial influence on the many decisions – large and small – that a producer makes each year. Sustainable agriculture advocates have long sought to engage these advisers as forces to help accelerate and scale new programs and practices.
So how can we ensure that trusted advisers such as farm managers, ag retailers, and rural appraisers have the information about sustainable ag that they need, in order to evaluate it and include it in their advice? Here are a few of my big take-aways from those conversations.
- Advising is as much about managing and mitigating risk as it is about enhancing profitability.
There is good reason that farmers are cautious about making change, and that caution necessarily extends to their advising system, too. A new product, service, or practice that can enhance profitability by a few dollars an acre but carries real or perceived risk with it is rarely going to be attractive. Risk comes in all forms – rising input costs, increasingly varied weather, machinery failure or labor shortages. Additionally, there are hidden costs to change that need to be managed, like the mental energy of mapping all the possible resulting implications from a change in a complex process. This means that changes need to be shown to be de-risked before they’re going to be incorporated into an adviser’s toolkit on a broad scale.
- Regenerative agriculture needs to be translated so that it can be actionable.
The very attributes that make regenerative agriculture attractive to sustainability professionals – that it works at both an ecosystem and human systems level – make it difficult for advisers to ascertain how to integrate into their work. There is a lot of shared learning yet to be done with and among advisers on the principles, and different flavors, of regenerative agriculture. That learning will require an investment of time and energy. If we can streamline the constant ‘re-invention’ – sustainable ag, regenerative ag, climate-smart ag –it will help minimize confusion. It will also help alleviate concerns that the goal posts are constantly shifting. Most of all, the more that we can socialize and share actual in-operation experiences, the more practical and tangible we can help regenerative agricultural principles feel.
- Carbon has the potential to distract and confuse.
I’m as excited as anyone about the rapid growth in carbon markets that we’re seeing. Indeed, at Trust In Food™ we’re both tracking and supporting these efforts. But the current frothy levels of attention on payments for stored soil carbon can result in carbon tunnel vision, where we ignore the multiple pathways and benefits of improving the environmental performance of farm and ranch operations. This is particularly true because we know that most producers are, as of now, still sitting on the fence on carbon.
Now more than ever, trusted advisers have an important role to play in facilitating on-the-ground change, acre by acre. The broader sustainable agriculture community has an important role to play in ensuring that we’re helping break down barriers and identifying opportunities for these advisers to grow their businesses and their impact through supporting producers in making change, an acre and an operation at a time.
Image courtesy of NRCS via Flickr