OACD's blog is for OACD staff, board, and members to communicate and share information within and outside of the organization. Check back regularly for guest posts, important upcoming event details, and information about conservation and how it works towards a better Oklahoma!
|Posted by Jana on January 26, 2013 at 7:10 PM|
by Clay Pope, OACD Executive Director
We need a brown revolution. (I’ll pause for a moment and let everyone finish with their jokes about bowel movements)
Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Most of us are familiar with the green revolution—the great explosion of agriculture production that happened between the 1940’s and 1970’s, due largely to the work of Norman Borlaug and other researchers who developed high-yield, hybrid seeds and helped expand irrigation infrastructure, chemical fertilizer use and mechanical agriculture throughout the developing world.
The time has come for another great leap in agriculture—and in some sense a change in attitude when it comes to agriculture production. Now is the time for a revolution that involves not bringing new inputs into the field but in taking care of what has always been there. It’s a revolution that would focus not so much on the seed we put in the ground but on how we treat the ground itself—it’s time we focus on soil health. It’s time for the brown revolution.
Now, in the effort of full disclosure, I didn’t come up with the term brown revolution. The term has been bandied about by groups such as the Howard Buffett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation since at least 2011. The term was probably coined at Cornell University and has most recently been the cover story for the magazine Corn and Soybean digest. What it means is simply that the time has come to start thinking about how the health of our soil effects production—it also means that we start thinking more about how the health of our soil effects the environment. The really cool thing is that if we do take better care of the soil, you find an intersection between increasing food production AND protecting the environment. Increasing our agriculture production to feed a world of nine billion by mid-century and protecting our soil, water, air and wildlife habitats are not mutually exclusive concepts. They can go hand in hand.
According to the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) untilled soil has up to $2,600 worth of free crop nutrients available per acre in the top 6 inches of soil. For each 1% improvement you make in soil organic matter in crop land you achieve up to $750 per acre of free nutrients for your crops. That means if you no-till, strip till or do some form of vertical minimum tillage you can increase the amount of nutrients available for whatever your planting—that’s free fertilizer. In addition, for every 1% increase in organic matter, the soils water holding capacity increases by 3.2 times. In Oklahoma, research has shown that when you switch to no-till, it’s the equivalent of roughly a 3 inch rain due to the reduction of moisture lost by evaporation when you till ground and the increase permeability of your soil. If you don’t believe this, go out into rural Oklahoma during this drought—look at no-till wheat vs. conventional tilled fields. Neither field will look great, but the no-till wheat in most cases is holding on a lot better than wheat that was planted using conventional tilling.
No matter how you farm, you need nutrients and water to make a crop grow. Clearly focusing on the health of the soil over the long term greatly increases your ability to produce a crop and in many cases, over time increase yields. In addition, by reducing tillage and focusing on soil health, you use less fuel per acre—as much as 3 to 5 gallons of fuel per acre according to research from Oklahoma State University.
By going no-till or using minimum till you decrease soil erosion—a huge benefit in and of itself, but you also decrease the amount of run-off into our surface water. Turbidity and sedimentation are the number one water quality challenge we have. In addition, most nutrients and bacteria that get into our water do so by being tied to soil particles that run-off of crop and pasture land. If we can control soil erosion we can greatly increase water quality and reduce non-point source pollution.
Through reduced tillage you also increase the amount of organic carbon “sequestered” into the soil—plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen—this carbon dioxide then is largely returned to the soil in the form of organic matter. Remember that research has shown that if you increase organic matter you increase nutrients available for crops and increase water holding capacity? By going no-till you can also sequester around half a ton of carbon dioxide per acre per year while you help overall production. That’s carbon dioxide that is taken out of the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gasses (you also are reducing greenhouse gasses by reducing fuel use as well) while helping maintain and in many cases increase production long term. Since we have lost anywhere from 60% to 80% of organic matter out of our soils in the United States since initial plow-up that’s a lot of carbon we can suck out of the atmosphere while improving the health of the soil.
By increasing organic matter you help with food production while improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and helping to address climate change. You also increase your ability to adapt to wild weather swings like droughts, heavy rain events and late freezes—all things we will have to deal with more and more in the future. A final added benefit is the help you also provide wildlife habitat by improving the quality of streams and lakes and by providing cover and food for wildlife on untilled fields.
All this points to one simple fact—by being mindful of the health of our soils, by utilizing no-till and other farming practices that increase organic matter, by reducing or eliminating tillage so the microbes and organic matter in the soil can work as nature intended, we will be better able to feed and clothe an increase world population while helping to address climate change, improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, reducing fuel use and helping improve wildlife habitats.
Protecting the environment and production agriculture are not mutually exclusive. All it takes is a little revolutionary thinking—brown revolutionary thinking.
|Posted by Jana on January 4, 2013 at 11:15 AM|
by Clay Pope
Executive Director, Oklahoma Assn. of Conservation Districts
Well, it’s 2013 and we don’t have a farm bill.
These last few days it’s been entertaining to watch the back and forth among the ag community as to whether or not we have lost our clout in Washington D.C. Personally, I think the action on the farm bill pretty much answers that question.
I also find this discussion interesting in light of the response Sec. of Agriculture Vilsack received to his comments about Agriculture losing its credibility and clout right after the November election. For the most part, he took a savage beating for saying that when it comes to ag policy we in the industry often fail to see the forest for the trees. While I don’t agree with everything he said, I do think he made one statement that we should all take to heart. WE NEED TO HAVE AN ADULT CONVERSATION ABOUT AGRICULTURE POLICY AND THE FUTURE OF RURAL AMERICA.
(To be honest, this concern covers more than the farm bill. I’m also concerned about issues like the failure of postal reform will eventually mean to rural free mail delivery and the status of small town post offices and what the budget fights in D.C. will mean to extension, research and our land grant schools, but I may be the only person who relies heavily on the mail and the extension service—I’m not 100% in the computer age yet and I’m pretty sure the folks who live in areas without high speed internet access are in the same place—and they won’t get there if the Rural Utility Service gets gutted, but that’s another topic for another day)
Bottom line is that we need to start thinking out of the box on rural policy. We need to find new allies to help us pull our issues through the process. We will always find folks interested in hot button wedge issues that make for good headlines—that easy stuff. What’s hard is getting folks to really do the gritty work of grinding out complicated programs and then do the heavy lifting to get them through the legislative process. That’s a lot more difficult than raising cane on an emotional topic, but it what’s got to be done if we are going to have the tools necessary to feed and clothe the world. It also will take a lot of folks pulling for any policy we push to get the wagon over the hill.
Below is an editorial I wrote in 2010 concerning farm policy and the possibility of moving in a new direction to get us more allies. I’m not saying it’s the perfect option—I’m not even saying it’s the right option, but just imagine if we had many of the folks who today fight us on ag policy actually supporting us, or at least staying neutral. Imagine if we had cities and towns coming out strongly in favor of ag policy because it was one of the best and cheapest ways to keep their drinking water supplies clean and reduce their treatment costs (remember, in Oklahoma, we have taken nearly 30 streams off the EPA impaired list using voluntary conservation—check out the help the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program or CREP, along with other conservation efforts, gave New York City in reducing water treatment costs). Imagine if the wildlife and hunting community got strongly behind ag policy because it was the best investment you could make to help wildlife.
Again, I’m not saying this will happen. I’m just saying we need to think outside the box and look long term. Also, while you read this editorial, consider that a direct green box payment is just that—a direct payment you can take to the bank just like current direct payments—the difference is that it’s based on your farming methods and not your base acres.
Anyway—I offer this up again to at least get some discussion going. Remember, I’m not saying this is the perfect idea, but let’s at least start thinking about what we are going to do in the current environment if we are going to have any ag policy at all.
Is it time to look at stewardship payments as a means of supporting agriculture?
The discussion on the next Farm Bill has begun. We’ve all heard that tight federal budgets, World Trade Organization (WTO) challenges, and public perception of farm supports will all weigh on what kind of agriculture program, if any, the U.S. will have. It seems that some kind of change in the current system is inevitable.
What will this change look like? Will we see only minor tinkering with the current farm program or a wholesale re-write of the system of support payments that agriculture has come to depend on? Will the political pressure continue to mount (as it has for several years now) to eventually do away with farm payments all together? Is there a way to continue providing help to agriculture that might have more support with our urban neighbors while avoiding challenges by the WTO? Is there a formula we could devise to accomplish these goals?
I would submit that it could be possible to do all this if we had a system based on how we farm, not on what we farm. For that reason I think it’s time to start talking more about stewardship payments.
Now don’t get me wrong, I support the current system of farm supports. While it’s true that I work for the Conservation Districts of Oklahoma, I also farm and ranch with my father and brother. A lot of my income comes from the farm and ALL of their money does. I understand the need for (and receive) direct payments. In the past, we’ve used the loan program, received counter cyclical payments and we’re signed up for the ACRE program. I know firsthand the importance of farm payments and what they mean to producers.
That said, like almost everyone else in agriculture, I’ve heard city folks make cracks about farmers living off the government. I read in the papers about how taxpayers are paying “rich farmers,” wasting precious dollars and increasing the federal debt. I hear about the challenges that have been filed against U.S. farm programs in the WTO and how farm payments put world trade talks in jeopardy.
How do we answer this? I would contend that our best hope for countering these challenges might involve switching at least partially to a payment system tied directly to the stewardship ag producers undertake on their land.
Consider this-you’re talking to someone that’s unemployed or who has recently taken a pay cut. They live in a city with unemployment rates hovering around 13% and you tell them that their tax dollars should go to pay farmers because prices are low or because they have historic crop base on their land. How do you think that person will react? You can talk all day about affordable food and fiber, but in the end, this person is going to tell you that no one was there to help him when he lost his job and his health insurance doubled. No one was there to refund the money he lost when his 401k dissolved and no one was there to cover the lost value of his home. Why should he pay to support you?
Then consider if at least part of our payments were based on stewardship—you could tell this person that instead of paying farmers when prices are low, you are paying them to keep their water clean (and keeping their water rates lower since they now don’t have to pay as much for water treatment), to improve wildlife habitat and to sequester carbon dioxide to help address climate change. He still may complain, but it’s easier to make the case that as a taxpayer he’s getting more direct benefit from a farm payment tied to protecting the environment than it currently is to sell him on the benefits of the present system.
In addition, by switching to stewardship payments, we also potentially strengthen our hand with the WTO. If a payment system could be crafted in a way that falls under the WTO “green box” category, it wouldn’t be subject to the current funding caps that much of our farm programs are affected by, thus reducing the ability of countries like Brazil to challenge us internationally. We also might find new allies for farm programs among some in the environmental community or at the very least they would be harder pressed to attack a farm program that paid farmers for their stewardship.
Could this work? The devil is clearly in the details, but I would contend the seeds for this kind of program already exist in initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the requirement for conservation compliance on highly erodible land in the current farm bill. After all, is the idea of stewardship payments really such a big leap when you consider that you already have to be in compliance with your farms conservation plan to receive farm payments on highly erodible ground? Why not just make the next step and pay producers for how they comply with that plan instead of using it as a tool to determine if they can get commodity payments? CSP already partially pays producers for their existing stewardship; why not evolve this program into a true environmental payment system? Keep in mind, I’m not talking about going organic or farming like we did in the 1920’s to get these payments—I’m talking about being paid for the type of stewardship happening on farms throughout the country today; soil conservation work, water quality and quantity protection work, wildlife habitat work, all being done on what we in agriculture would consider normal, modern farms.
The bottom line is that our current system of farm support is probably not politically sustainable long term, either because of taxpayer pressure, trade pressure or both. We need to look at options if we’re going to have a farm program in the future and while it might not be a perfect answer, I think we should at least talk about stewardship payments as part of that debate.
|Posted by Jana on December 31, 2012 at 2:10 PM|
By Clay Pope, Executive Director, Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts
The signs are there. We’ve been told for some time now to ignore the warnings of doom but the evidence continues to point toward an oncoming cataclysm that will forever change things.
No, I’m not talking about the Mayan Calendar. By the time you read this December 21 will have passed and the world will still be spinning. What I’m talking about is the Federal Farm Bill and the potential impact the failure to pass this legislation will have on Rural America.
For most Americans, this debate about Farm policy has been an afterthought centered on subsidizing “big Ag” and food stamps. What they don’t realize is that while food assistance is the largest part of the Bill, and while the act’s first title deals with farm supports, the Farm Bill itself is much more.
From rural development, to research, to conservation, the Farm Bill deals with more than farm payments and food stamps. Programs to help rural communities with infrastructure, dollars for continued research into agriculture production and efforts to protect natural resources like soil, water, and air will all be at risk if the U.S. House of Representatives continues its current path of inaction on this bill. What’s even more troubling is that it’s not a partisan issue.
Starting last year, the leadership of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, including Oklahoma’s own Frank Lucas, started working on a Bill that helped Rural America while reducing anywhere from $25 to $35 billion in Federal spending. One version passed the Senate on a bi-partisan vote while another cleared the House Agriculture Committee with support from both Republicans and Democrats. Then, for some reason, the leadership of the House decided to spike this bill—even though indications showed most House members supporting action on the measure. Now Speaker Boehner has said he even opposes including this bill as part of any compromise fiscal cliff legislation, even though federal reductions will be needed to balance the budget and the agriculture has agreed to cut itself significantly.
In the meantime, the drought continues. The Conservation provisions of this bill are desperately needed if we’re going to continue to hold back the ravages of soil erosion. We’ve yet to see dust storms like those in the 1930’s largely because of the work done by farmers and ranchers using Farm Bill conservation programs. We’ve seen smaller storms however, including those in Northern Oklahoma and Lubbock Texas that resulted in closed interstates and highway fatalities. If this drought continues and if we fail to reauthorize these programs, this will only get worse.
The bottom line is that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have offered up legislation that supports Rural America while reducing the size of government. Who else has done this? Not health and human services, not transportation, not defense, not education—just agriculture. We’re willing to do our part to save money while keeping Rural America running. Unfortunately, some in Congress can’t take yes for an answer. So while the calendar turns and we face an uncertain new year, we’re left asking Congress, will you take us over the cliff or will you do what’s right and pass the Farm Bill?
|Posted by Sarah Pope on November 18, 2012 at 4:55 PM|
This is the first post in our series about OACD's microgrant program recipients. These funds were given to individual districts to fund new, innovative, and promising projects that help bring additional attention, funding, and awareness to the district. This week's blog is written by the Cimarron County Conservation District and describes the Farmer's Market that they organized, promoted, and implemented during the summer of 2012.
This project is one that OACD's board and staff is especially proud of and excited about. This type of project not only raises awareness about local conservation districts to a broader audience but it makes districts an even more important part of their community. The concept of District hosted Farmer's Markets provides a service in many areas where access to fresh, local produce might not exist and it also helps to strengthen local economies by providing a marketplace for individuals to sell their goods. If you are a district employee, director, or member and are interested starting a similar project, please contact Iris at the Cimarron County District office for more information.
The Cimarron County Conservation District First Annual Farmers Market- by Iris Imler
The Cimarron County Conservation District First Annual Farmers Market, although small in its introductory year, was a success for the vendors who participated. Helpful information was received from Main Street Guymon in how to develop and manage the Market. At the beginning, the District planned for a limited number of days but due to its success, additional Market days were added near to the end of the season at the customers' and vendors’ requests. This was helpful for the vendors since their production was coming to a peak. At the start, more buyers than produce caused early sell outs which encouraged vendors to bring in more and a larger variety of produce and wares.
The success has encouraged additional vendors to participate next year. Changes will be made to their gardens to allow for additional produce for the Farmers Market and will bring them more profit.
The District received a generous donation from the Cimarron County Chamber of Commerce and the High Plains Bank and with the addition of the OACD Micro-Grant market bags, sandwich board advertisement signs and extended advertising in the five state areas were done. We look forward to next year! Below are some pictures from the Market:
Taste testing salsa, jelly, jams and checking out the produce.
Waiting in line to purchase vegetables, homemade bread, Cinnamon Rolls, etc.
Sandwich Style Board advertising signs placed and courthouse, intersections and location.
Reusable Market bag provided for vendors/buyers use.
|Posted by Clay Pope on September 4, 2012 at 4:35 PM|
This last week a large swath of Oklahoma received an inch or better of rain. This means the droughts over, right?
The recent rains that blessed our state, while a welcome change, didn’t break the grip the drought has on Oklahoma. We need to remember that the last two years have created conditions in our state that will take months of moisture to undo. Even then, much of the damage caused by this drought will take time to heal. On top of this, some long range forecasts lean to the conclusion that like the droughts of the 1930’s and 1950’s, we may be looking at another year or two of dry weather on the horizon, regardless of periodic showers.
All this simply means is that while we can’t control the weather, we can take steps to be prepared if the more pessimistic forecasts are correct. Home owners and landscapers should strongly consider conserving water, controlling erosion and reducing fertilizer run-off when caring for lawns and gardens. Agriculture producers should think before they plow—practicing good conservation to limit soil loss, nutrient and bacteria run-off in creeks and streams and taking steps to reduce overall water usage and moisture loss. Invasive species like the Eastern Red Cedar should be attacked with full vigor. Policy makers at the state and federal levels should examine what can be done to repair damage caused by the drought and look at what steps could be taken to prepare for the worse if indeed this drought continues. This includes the exploring and enacting of drought and fire prevention initiatives on the state level and the passage of a comprehensive Farm Bill in Washington D.C.
The threat of an extended drought is real. We have two choices before us; we can hope for the best or we can prepare for the worst. You can’t predict with 100% certainty that this drought will continue into next year. You also can’t say when for sure when it will end. The Bible says in Proverbs 27 verse 12 “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty” (NIV). Now is the time to take steps to be ready if indeed we are in an extended dry cycle. It’s true that the drought could break tomorrow—but while we pray for rain, we need to take steps to be ready for a longer drought.
|Posted by Sarah Pope on August 29, 2012 at 3:15 PM|
|Posted by Sarah Pope on August 23, 2012 at 11:00 AM|
by Sarah Pope
Its easy to forget things. We forget where our car keys are, we forget what we ate last night for dinner, we can't remember our sister-in-law's birthday. Our lives are full of details, "to-do's", lists, and schedules. So its understandable that historical events, no matter how significant, can begin to fade over time in our minds. I remember September 11th, 2001, where I was when I found out what had happened on that tragic day, but as far as the specific details that we heard over the following months and years, that starts to get fuzzy.
So what happens when an event so significant and devastating was only a few pages in your history book as a freshman in high school? Once the test is over, those details flee quicker than mice in the barn. There is a reason that history repeats itself and it usually involves a lot of forgetting and a little lack of good information.
Now if you live in Oklahoma, chances are you know about the Dust Bowl. If you're the average person that finished an Oklahoma history class, you know a few details; the skies were black, the winds blew relentlessly, people got deathly ill and many of them died. But the most important part of the story, the part that can save us from doing the same thing to ourselves again, isn't really what you remember. The pictures are what stick in your mind, the "what happened" past of the history. But knowing the "how" is more important than the "what", and that's the part that most of those text books didn't dig into.
Well not to worry, Ken Burns is here to save the day!
The world renowned and respected documentary filmmaker took up this story and the result is something that could very well change the future, just by telling the whole story about our past. The film (or the bits and pieces that I've been lucky enough to see) does an amazing job of drawing you in with the engaging "characters" who lived through and survived the Dust Bowl. And then Mr. Burns does what we really needed him to do-he explained the "how" and did it in a way that helps us remember.
Because of this film, a whole new generation will be introduced to this historical event with a level of detail that isn't found in textbooks. OACD is especially excited about his because the Dust Bowl is the event that lead to the birth of Conservation Districts. Out of this tragedy came a great service and over the past 75 years, this service has grown and evolved to become what we know of as the Conservation Partnership. And just by Ken Burns telling this story, our story as conservationists will be told to millions and that, in turn, can change conservation's future. With this beautifully made film, we hope more people will understand where we started, why we're still here, and why its so important to continue this work for years to come. OACD hopes that those who see the film will seek out more information and see that they're all part of and effected by conservation, even those in the city. We welcome this reminder of our past so we can build an even stronger future.
Over the coming months, OACD, in partnership with OETA, NRCS, and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. will be hosting events across the state to introduce this film to Oklahomans. Whether by attending one of these events or tuning in to watch the premiere on your local PBS station on November 18th and 19th, OACD welcomes you to join us in our mission of conserving our land and water. Most of all look forward to having more Oklahomans knowing the "how" and becoming part of the ongoing solution so this particular part of history never repeats itself.