Nature, our most valuable asset

More than 14,000 farms make up over 20 percent of the land in the Delaware River basin. Since what we do on the land impacts the health of our rivers and streams, agriculture presents a huge opportunity to conserve clean water in the region. Water running off farm fields can contain bacteria, pesticides, fertilizers, and sediment that pollute streams, posing public health risks, killing aquatic life, and increasing drinking water treatment costs. Conservation practices on farms can prevent much of this pollution, but they cost money. A new partnership between the Rodale Institute and Stroud Water Research Center is focusing on a suite of farming practices that are good for clean water and also good for business.


Stroud Preserve, in Chester County, PA, is the site of new cutting-edge research to reduce pollution caused by agriculture runoff and improve the health of our waterways. The site is owned and managed by Natural Lands. Photo by Nicholas Rohr.

 

In the book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams wrote about the value of nature through the lens of business and investing: “Concepts such as maximize returns, invest in your assets, manage your risks, diversify, and promote innovation are the common parlance of business and banking. These are rarely applied to nature, but they should be.” In fact, these concepts are also the common parlance of regenerative organic farming, in which production systems are designed to regenerate natural resources like soil and water, rather than depleting or degrading them.

Farms are interesting places to think about applying business principles to conservation because, more than many other businesses, their work is so closely tied to the land. The soil is where water is infiltrated, nutrients are retained, and carbon is stored. It is also a crucial business asset for a farm.  Healthy soils increase returns, manage risks, benefit from diversification, and improve resiliency. Promoting innovation in soil health can improve farm profits as well as environmental benefits.

Organic farming in particular presents a compelling case study of how market forces hold potential to drive environmental benefit. Farmers use practices that benefit the environment because their customers want it and pay for it. With year after year of double-digit growth, organic is now the fastest-growing sector of the food market, achieving over $43 billion in U.S. retail sales in 2015. Much of that food is produced in Pennsylvania, which ranked 2nd in the nation for organic sales in 2016. Depending on tillage and other practices, organic farms in theory have healthier soils that retain more nutrients and infiltrate more water, reducing polluted agricultural runoff. It’s the story of a growing industry that leverages environmental benefit as a product feature and monetizes it.

The William Penn Foundation’s Watershed Protection Program seeks to maximize the benefits of conservation for clean water, and conservation on farms is a major element of the work we fund to improve our streams. The Foundation recently approved a grant of nearly $6 million to support a long-term research collaboration between the Rodale Institute and Stroud Water Research Center, two world-class research organizations located right here in the Delaware River watershed. These two partners are each leading experts in their own right. Rodale’s 38-year Farming Systems Trial is the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic vs. conventional farming in North America. Stroud, a National Science Foundation-designated site for Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology, is renowned for its seminal research on the importance of forested stream buffers in mitigating agricultural runoff. Combining their expertise, this new partnership will elevate a research focus on the relationships between soil health, stream health, and business health, illuminating new ways to scale up conservation.

We recently sat down with Jeff Moyer, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, and Bern Sweeney, Distinguished Research Scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center, to learn about their work.

 

As leading experts in different facets of the agriculture industry, through this grant Stroud and Rodale will work together to advance our understanding of the relationships between soil health and stream health. How do you view the state of the science currently and how will your research advance it?

Jeff: We can never have too much scientific data and back end support for the many decisions farmers and consumers must make on a daily basis. From long-term systems trials at Rodale Institute and other locations across the country we already have interesting results on how changing farming practices can make dynamic changes to the soil, and that those changes can impact interactions with water. Now we want to expand our work to definitively address the important impacts farm practices will have on the water resources we all need and enjoy. By expanding from detailed plot research to field scale trials at Natural Lands’ Stroud Preserve, we will be able to identify specific practices and define the extent of the impact soil changes will have on surface and ground water.

Bern: From the water side of this project, there are few published quantitative data regarding how some agricultural practices impact water quality. These impacts could include the ability of soil to infiltrate and retain rain water for crop usage, or the effect of certain farming practices on the quality of water flowing from the crop field as surface runoff or as subsurface flow toward underground aquifers. Our project will fill this void by measuring the quantity and quality of water inputs and outputs associated with four agricultural methods. The methods will span from conventional tillage farming with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to no-till regenerative organic. We will also evaluate farm productivity and financial balance sheets. The project will provide farmers with hard facts (both environmental and financial) upon which they can base their present and future choices of preferred farming practice. We propose that those facts will show that farming practices that increase soil health conserve both water (quantity and quality) and farm productivity and thus lead to more sustainable and more profitable farms.

 

Beyond the nationally significant research you plan to undertake, a major component of this project is about educating consumers, farmers, and farm service providers on what you know already and what you learn from the new research. Why is that work so important and how do you plan to go about it?

Jeff: Research without outreach cannot have the necessary impact we want and desire. In order to make lasting changes within the extended farm community, we need sound scientific data coupled with a dynamic education, training, and outreach program. Like any business, farmers need customers. We will have an outward facing communications effort that targets the general public to inspire them to support changes in farm practices by changing their food purchasing decisions. We will also have a farmer-facing communications component that targets regional farmers and growers, giving them the information and tools they need to move from the current farming practices to those that are more water friendly.

Bern: Everyone knows that farmers who grow food for which there is no market go extinct. If we want to help farmers move along the gradient from conventional to organic farming, then we need to grow the market for more nutritious, healthy, and environmentally friendly food. This does not necessarily require additional data. It does require packaging those data in very different ways. For example, cover cropping can reduce the need for synthetic pesticides. These data incentivize farmers to undertake the practice because it reduces costs and increases profits. The same data can incentivize consumers because the food is more pure and nutritious and has potentially less side effects regarding consumer health. Credible scientific information can and should provide the basis for messaging to both the producers and the consumers, and the communication needs to be direct.

 

What kinds of barriers, financial and otherwise, do you witness preventing more farmers from using practices that benefit our water?  

Jeff: This is a serious question that could take hundreds of pages of text to address. We have in place a complex set of systems geared toward supporting a “status quo” production system within our farm community. These systems include government policy, banking and insurance industries, social norms, peer pressure and others. This project is envisioned as one step in expanding our work to address the many facets of barrier reduction. Rodale Institute has already taken steps to organize organic farmers on a national stage to impact policy decisions through the creation of the Organic Farmers Association. We expect to use information generated through the work of this project to address financial barriers to transitioning from conventional production strategies to organic and water friendly practices.

Bern: Farmers, like most individuals, often don’t like change. Conventional farming is straightforward and simple. It is almost like following a recipe in a cook book. Things get more complex as one moves along the gradient from conventional to regenerative organic. The degree of strategic planning increases along this gradient. This can be confusing and frustrating for some and exciting and invigorating for others. This is one barrier. Another is that plows and disks will become obsolete and new, specialized, and expensive equipment will be needed for the transition to non-conventional farming practices (e.g., inter-planters for planting cover crops among cash crops, roller crimpers for avoiding pesticide burn down). Financing and incentives will be needed to overcome this added expense.

 

What most excites you about this new partnership?

Jeff: Like all industries, agriculture is dynamic and subject to change as the future unfolds. There hasn’t been a time in recent history where this change is being driven by consumer demand and a real change in farm management as our aging farmer population hands over the management decisions to a younger generation. This new generation of management has different expectations and outcomes in mind, and will be responding to shifts in consumer purchasing decisions. To remain viable, change will be inevitable.  What excites all the individuals involved in this project is the possibility to be a catalyst for real change. Change that improves our soil health, changes that improve the quality of our water resources, and changes that can impact our own personal health.

Bern: The project connects food and water in a way that is novel. I’m excited about the increasing recognition that conservation of land and water are not independent, mutually exclusive disciplines. And the opportunity to demonstrate that farming can be a solution rather than a cause of the current water crisis at a local, national, and global scale.

 

VIDEO PRESENTATION: Below is a recording of a 45-minute presentation by Rodale and Stroud with more details about the project.