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Old concern, new funding: Trying to expand money for conservation

U.S. farmers and ranchers have for decades looked to the federal government and the U.S. farm bill to help them fund conservation efforts. Now, there's growing interest in tapping state government and private-sector money to augment federal funds.

"Think beyond the farm bill and what we can do without that funding," John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust, said.

Piotti spoke Nov. 1 in Washington during a workshop titled "A New Paradigm for Conservation Work?" Organized by the Farm Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides nonpartisan policy and forums related to agriculture, the event was open to journalists and others online.

Other speakers were Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Agricultural Policy Program at the University of Illinois; Josette Lewis, associate vice president of Ecosystems/Sustainable Agriculture, Environmental Defense Fund; and Laura Peterson, head of federal government relations for Syngenta.

The speakers stressed they don't want less federal funding for conservation. But given pressure on the federal budget, identifying and developing alternative funding sources makes sense, they said.

New sources of funding hold particular promise if they're tied to "outcomes," Coppess said.

For example, the state of California has kicked in money for a program that encourages farms in the state to reduce greenhouse gas emission.

Risk, infrastructure

Efforts to develop new funding sources must take into account the risks that farmers face, speakers said.

"This is an incredibly risky business. So much is out of your control," Peterson said.

Multiple years of investment in conservation practices often are needed before farmers see an economic return. That's a growing concern as more farmland is rented instead of owned, Lewis said.

"As more of our farmland is leased by farmers, it's harder to justify making those upfront investments when you might not be the one farming that land in the future," she said.

State cost-sharing programs on cover crops are a great example of encouraging farmers to invest upfront, Lewis said.

Private-sector investment in ag conservation efforts is growing, she said.

"But to attract more private capital, it's really critical to build the evidence base that there's a return on investment," Lewis said. "There's enormous opportunity to show there's increased value in land from improvements in soil health associated with conservation practices."

Peterson said Syngenta has an important role in ag conservation.

"At the end of the day, society expects that leading companies like ours will step up to the plate and be involved in sustainable agriculture. We can be smart about that," she said.

Piotti said treating farms as "critical infrastructure" — something normally associated with things such as "bridges, highways and sewage treatment plants" — can create new and different funding for conservation.

"The definition of the word 'infrastructure' is fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city or area," Piotti said. "That fits perfectly with agriculture. What's more fundamental than the land on which our food is grown and that supports a series of businesses that's a trillion dollars in our annual domestic product?"