Dale Stevermer’s “Eighty-Acre Field” in south-central Minnesota is typically sown in soybeans or corn, but a wide swath of mature timber runs through the field like a giant, verdant Rorschach blot. Those woods are one of the reasons Stevermer’s grandparents purchased the farm in 1916. His grandmother loved the trees and the wildlife and the wildflowers that thrived there. “And she inspired my grandfather to buy this land because of those woods,” Stevermer says. They named the place Trails End Farm, and Stevermer has kept those woods intact, despite the fact that they make it harder, and more expensive, to farm one of the largest and most productive fields on his property.
Stevermer raises 2,000 head of finishing pigs each year and uses the swine manure to fertilize the corn and soybean fields that in turn feed his herd. At first glance, he would seem an unlikely partner for a Ducks Unlimited project. For starters, he’s not a duck hunter. And as a farmer, working with DU had never entered his mind. But these days mark a different time for agricultural producers, and a different and quite exciting new era for DU. Recognizing that much of the habitat that waterfowl depend on is located on private working lands and stewarded by farmers and ranchers, DU has embarked on a journey that is changing how the organization intersects with policy and advocacy for agriculture. This approach of sharing the road with farmers such as Stevermer is also opening up new possibilities for habitat conservation.
Last August, conservationists across the country were thrilled to see a new level of federal commitment to support innovative agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions on working lands. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) used Commodity Credit Corporation dollars to fund the new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, which provides grants for pilot projects that rely on climate-friendly practices to create additional market opportunities for US agricultural and forest products. DU recognized the tremendous potential of this new program for wetlands and waterfowl conservation and is now working to help participating farmers and ranchers implement these practices on the landscape.
All told, DU is part of three large grants awarded through the new initiative. The USA Rice−Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership—founded in 2013—received $80 million to reduce emissions on 300,000 acres of working rice lands. DU is also a partner on a $40 million grant awarded to Trust In Food, the sustainability division of Farm Journal, to help producers in North Dakota and South Dakota improve their climate resiliency while maintaining profitable farming operations.
And DU will partner on a $20 million grant to the National Pork Board to increase the sustainability of US pork products by advancing climate-smart agricultural practices in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota.
That’s the program giving Stevermer new sustainable ways of working his land. In the past, he fertilized his crops once a year with swine manure held in pits in the basement of the hog barns. But swine manure produces high volumes of greenhouse gasses. With funding from the Climate-Smart Commodities program, he’ll be able to fertilize twice a year and utilize new equipment that disturbs the soil less than before. He’ll also have greater access to precision application equipment that works with an extensive soil-testing regime. That will enable him to literally write a turn-by-turn prescription for manure spreading that is tailored to the different soil types that exist on the Eighty-Acre Field and others on the farm. Together, those new techniques will reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases, improve soil health, and reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, benefiting wetlands and water quality.
Where DU enters the picture is through its extensive experience working with producers “at the farm gate and the ranch gate,” explains Billy Gascoigne, DU’s director of agricultural and strategic partnerships. Coupled with DU’s science staff and long relationships with corporate partners working actively to reduce their carbon footprints, the pilot program will showcase to farmers across the region that climate-smart agricultural practices are also bottom-line-smart techniques. DU already had relationships with other project partners, such as the National Pork Board, Nestlé, Sustainable Environmental Consultants, Farm Credit Council, Millborn Seeds, and Farm Journal, which will help identify underserved producers on this landscape.
“This is not just feel-good stuff,” Gascoigne asserts. “We’re building a working lands program that deepens our relationships and provides a holistic array of conservation practices in the agricultural sphere. It’s indicative of DU growing our suite of services and turning to a more holistic approach of working with our partners.”
The largest grant by both dollar amount and affected acres will help the USA Rice−DU Rice Stewardship Partnership extend its reach and introduce producers to new ways of climate-friendly farming. Growing and harvesting rice has a significant climate footprint, as it produces high amounts of greenhouse gases and consumes large quantities of water. But rice is critical for both humans and wildlife. Every day, across the planet, an astonishing 20 percent of the global population’s caloric needs are met by rice. Winter-flooded rice is a stand-in for natural wetlands and supports more than 200 species of birds in the continent’s major flyways.
The practices included in the new rice partnership grants will address more than 90 percent of a rice grower’s greenhouse gas output and cut water use substantially—all without diminishing the value of rice lands for waterfowl and other wetland wildlife. “When you add the new funding to the fact that the rice industry is very supportive of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it turns this partnership into a real winner,” says Dr. Scott Manley, DU’s director of conservation programs in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
P.J. Haynie couldn’t agree more. A fifth-generation farmer from Reedville, Virginia, Haynie and his family grow row crops, including corn and soybeans, and two-thirds of their operation is committed to winter crops and double-crop soybeans. Haynie Farms grows rice and row crops on the family farm outside Reedville and on another 4,000 acres in Arkansas, where his family runs the only black-owned rice mill in the country. The Climate-Smart Commodities grant specifically targets rice growers willing to employ climate-friendly irrigation strategies to replace traditional rice agriculture.
Here’s how it will work: Rice traditionally is grown in fields that are flooded for months at a time. But keeping standing water in rice fields requires large volumes of water and creates large volumes of greenhouse gases. In fact, the global production of rice creates 12 percent of all methane gas each year.
Applying these climate-smart practices will change the game significantly for rice. Through a practice called alternate wetting and drying, or AWD, farmers will install row irrigation, and once the field gets saturated, they will cut the water off until levels subside. “As long as the soils stay wet,” Haynie says, “we can make a crop. Now we’re trying to show farmers how this can be done and incentivize and reward producers who change their farming practices.”
Switching over to the new systems will take time, and there could be minimal yield losses as farmers fine-tune the approach. But that’s where the grant funds come into play. They can help farmers make up for any yield differentials and help support producers who make the change.
The rice partnership also seeks to be proactive in reaching minority farmers. Haynie serves as chairman of the National Black Growers Council, an influential association that advocates for and educates black row-crop farmers on agricultural efficiency, productivity, and sustainability. He points to the fact that 34 percent of the grant funds will be spent in historically underserved communities. “This is a community of producers that has not been at the table when new agricultural initiatives come out,” he says. “We hope to implement some of these new practices in 2023, so we are trying to reach out across our networks to identify the historically underserved communities that could benefit from such a targeted program.”
Navigating the Digital Revolution
The remaining grant puts the crosshairs on a critical landscape for wetlands and waterfowl—the Prairie Pothole Region. As part of the $40 million grant to Trust In Food, the sustain-
ability division of Farm Journal, DU will help producers in North Dakota and South Dakota improve their climate resiliency while maintaining profitable farming operations. In an increasingly complex and global marketplace, helping producers navigate the changing digital landscape—from on-farm data management and technological advances in equipment to marketing and sales—will help them stay in business. Like the approach of the other grants, the Climate-Smart Connected Ag Project expands on the theme of keeping agricultural producers on the landscape and keeping their fields, forests, and wetlands working for wildlife.
Taken individually, the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program meets farmers on their own lands, on their own terms, to help connect them to an ambitious attempt to positively impact every corner of the globe. But it wouldn’t work without an emphasis on agricultural improvement, with the measurable benefits of reduced greenhouse gasses and water use.
Which is what brought Minnesota’s Stevermer to the table in the first place: an emphasis on real-world application, bottom-line protection, and groundbreaking partnerships. That and the opportunity to hang on to his beloved Eighty-Acre Field. “These programs are going to reach new producers because they are not government programs,” Stevermer figures. “Partnerships with the Pork Board, DU, Nestlé, and others are pretty new, and while we’re using government dollars and following a lot of their rules, there’s enough that’s unique about these programs to really appeal to producers.”
It’s an intriguing way to work. DU is leveraging its 86-year-old reputation to develop new, diverse partnerships based on a track record of on-the-ground project delivery. “We set out to be a go-to solution provider for our friends in agriculture,” says Ed Penny, director of public policy for DU’s Southern Region. “Now, this once-in-a-generation opportunity presents itself, and we have $140 million in conservation partnerships aimed at helping farmers become more sustainable, both economically and environmentally.”
Climate, global markets, and farm technology will change, but not the foundational role agriculture will play in a future marked by abundant waterfowl and healthy ecosystems. “In order to have wetlands in the future,” Penny says, “we have to have a healthy farm economy and a healthy rural America.”
Shaping the Next Farm Bill
This legislation remains a cornerstone of wetlands and wildlife conservation on private lands
Renewed every five years, the Farm Bill has traditionally been the backbone of conservation funding on private agricultural lands in the United States. The current Farm Bill expires in September 2023, and the next one will steer federal agriculture programs until at least 2028. The various programs funded by the Farm Bill provide billions of dollars for efforts to encourage environmental stewardship of farmlands, enhance working lands, and support land-retirement and easement programs. The consequences of Farm Bill programs can be enormous, and the rules and regulations can change from one bill to the next.
“We’re not expecting a big influx of new dollars into the conservation programs of the Farm Bill,” says Julia Peebles, DU’s Washington, DC-based agriculture and sustainability manager, “but we’re working toward tweaks and process changes that will help both producers and DU’s mission.”
Following are DU’s top priorities for strengthening the conservation value of the next Farm Bill.
Maintain Wetland Protections
The policy of “conservation compliance” has helped provide an effective safety net for America’s farmers, the general public, and key wetlands and waterfowl habitats. The 2014 Farm Bill recoupled conservation compliance to crop insurance, and DU will continue to work with insurance, commodity, and conservation groups to generate bipartisan support for this important policy in the next Farm Bill.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
DU is pushing for a modernization of CRP, which has been around since the 1985 Farm Bill. The program pays farmers to implement conservation-friendly practices on a portion of their acreage. While CRP remains important across agricultural landscapes, funding for the program has remained relatively flat despite rising inflation, and caps on how many acres can be enrolled in the program have been whittled down. DU supports revamping the program to make it more desirable for producers and will push for more dollars going toward the soil types that are impactful for wetlands.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)
Established in the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP encourages partnerships with producers to increase the restoration and sustainable use of soil, water, wildlife, and other natural resources at a regional level. DU will continue to support RCPP and work with producers to harness innovation in conservation and demonstrate the value that voluntary private lands conservation provides for wildlife and society.
Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program
In the wake of a natural disaster, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is able to purchase easements in affected floodplains and hold the easements while damaged structures are repaired. While the current rules of the EWP Program allow reshaping and protecting eroded stream banks and establishing cover on critically eroding lands, enabling the NRCS to enhance, maintain, and create wetlands on lands damaged by natural disasters could boost habitat acres and the ecosystem services they provide.
DU supports voluntary, incentive-based working lands programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. These programs improve working lands across the country, including wetlands and other key waterfowl habitats, while also benefiting farmers, ranchers, and landowners.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
DU is emphasizing the need for managing easements under this voluntary program, underscoring the ongoing effort and monitoring required to ensure that the habitat and ecological values targeted by easements are being continually met. Particularly in the case of Wetland Reserve Easements, adding flexibility for ranchers to utilize grazing acreage would make the program more appealing to producers while maintaining its value for waterfowl and other wildlife.