Combining precision ag and conservation for a sustainable, diverse farming landscape

by Courtney Llewellyn

In the Northeast and throughout the Mid-Atlantic, quality farmland is becoming rarer with each passing year. What’s not lost to human development may be dedicated instead to conservation efforts – but how do farmers know what’s worth keeping arable and what’s worth setting aside for nature?

That was the topic discussed during “Finding the ‘Sweet Spot’: Combining Precision Agriculture and Conservation to Build a Sustainable and Diverse Farming Landscape” at the 2022 Commodity Classic. Dr. Mark McConnell, assistant professor of upland birds at Mississippi State University, noted that agricultural landscapes often expand into marginal ground (land on the edges of forests, wetlands or human infrastructure), and that’s problematic because crop yields there are proven to be drastically lower. Farming marginal lands also takes away habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Fortunately, there are opportunities for producers to use these areas in the best way possible. “There are dozens of Farm Bill conservation programs to build conservation into a working landscape,” McConnell said. For example, for a low, wet area, consider wetland conservation; pollinator protection is a good fit for any low-yield spot about a half-acre in size.

Of course, there are economic concerns about taking acreage out of production, but McConnell pointed out that precision agriculture technology lets farmers quantify spatially where they’re making money and where they’re losing money. The whole idea is to “farm the best, conserve the rest.”

Additionally, farmers do get paid to enroll in government-sponsored conservation programs. Conservation payments usually go to landowners. Conservation Stewardship Program payments (via the NRCS) will go to those actually leasing and working the land.

Combining precision ag and conservation for a sustainable, diverse farming landscape

Dr. Mark McConnell and Rachel Bush both promoted the concept of conservation for wildlife habitat – but not at the expense of quality farmland. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

He promoted the concept of economically targeted conservation – only enrolling in conservation programs when they increase income. To do that, though, farmers first need to identify their areas of concern, then match them with a conservation practice. “It could mean an increase in revenue by taking land out of production,” McConnell said. “It’s about targeted conservation – finding that sweet spot.” And that sweet spot is where conservation and economic opportunities overlap.

Rachel Bush, conservation program manager with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, nonprofit organizations dedicated to conserving wildlife habitat for these birds, noted that they can’t deliver their mission without partnering with farms and ranches across the nation. So far, over 20 million acres have been impacted through these partnerships.

“It’s not just about pheasant or quail habitat; it’s about how it can benefit your farm,” Bush added.

A strong income is obviously a benefit for a farm, but McConnell said, “We need to get farmers to farm for profit, not just yield.” It doesn’t always have to be about trying to eke a few more bushels out of those marginal grounds, though. Not all land needs to be conserved. McConnell said if it’s losing money, consider just leaving it alone.

If a farmer is interested using precision ag technology to find that sweet spot between production and conservation, the first step is reaching out to the FSA. McConnell also suggested talk with conservation associations, other farmers in the programs and local Extension agents.

See what the sorghum Checkoff is doing through its conservation efforts at sorghumcheckoff.com/sustainability/conservation-partners.

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