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Conservation Commerce

March 4, 2009

In the last couple decades, our nation’s agricultural resource management objectives went from fixing the erosion problem in the back 40 to addressing Gulf and bay hypoxia issues in the lower 48. It is that—a drastic scaling up of our objectives—that has left our nation, our government conservation professionals, our social organizations, our agronomic professionals, and our farmers struggling to find the path that leads us all toward grand solutions.

Harvesting corn stover

Harvesting corn stover

The 70-year old conservation delivery system, led by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and followed by state and local agencies, has served its purpose and its constituents quite well for the majority of its history.  But the 21st Century has demonstrated that our agricultural resource management needs may have transcended the human, financial, technical and policy resources of the existing conservation delivery system. Conservation Commerce is one name for a potential system using incremental measurements or indices of resource management farm by farm or field by field.  

Traditionally, the farmer has been viewed as the conservation customer, in that they go to the conservation office and request a grassed waterway or some other practice to implement on their farm. Costs are identified, contractors hired, waterway installed—end of business deal. Conservation Commerce, on the other hand, views the farmer as the conservation supplier, in that they conduct resource management activities on their farm, determine the outcomes, and essentially market a conservation commodity similar to the other products they produce. 

Every successful market must have buyers and sellers, supply and demand and other components to make transactions fair and practical. Fortunately, the components of Conservation Commerce also exist as a means to value the management activities of farmers—those actions that are prone to improve our soil, water, and habitat resources. A quick example: a soil-conditioning index calculates in a field-specific manner the potential erosion rates and carbon sequestration trends that may occur under specific cropping systems. These rates and trends can then have a numerical index placed upon them set in incremental values. 

Is it exact? Of course not. Neither is the Consumer Price Index, the Heat Index, or the Wind Chill Factor index. Indices are designed to provide a measurement system to the immeasurable. Non-point source pollution and wildlife habitat are not measurable by traditional means, and trying to measure them has probably been the biggest obstacle for real progress in our nation’s conservation delivery system.

Permanent riparian buffer

Permanent riparian buffer

As in all commerce, you get what you pay for. In today’s conservation delivery system we get some practices on the land in some places. We do get resource outcomes, but we have not been able to define them exactly or at various levels of scale. By using management indices on a field, the impact on the soil, water, habitat and air resources can be defined for that one field. This information can then be aggregated to the watershed, basin, and national level. We can learn what the soil conditioning index is on the back 40 and in the Mississippi Basin that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. What we need to buy are outcomes.  And in the agriculture non-point source pollution world, you get conservation outcomes by changing the management of the lands you farm. By using an index-based resource management process, particular management activities on site-specific fields can produce outcomes than can be compared and valued.

Initially, or in perpetuity, government agencies can be the conservation customer much as they are now in the other farm commodities. But watershed districts, counties, states, hunting clubs, bird watchers, water regulators and the numerous other entities that claim a stake in the value of our nation’s land, air, and waters could also decide at what level they monetarily value conservation outcomes.

It may sound improbable, but the indices, the resource assessment template, the resource assessors and the agriculture and conservation professionals that understand these numerical outcomes already exist. I say, let us use them. Managing our production and natural resources is a process more daily, more detailed, more on-site, and more encompassing than federal farm policy and programs might have us believe.

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