by Troy Bishopp
LATHAM, NY – The 12th Annual Winter Green-Up Grazing Conference stirred the minds of farmers with talk of expanding Northeast ruminant meat production, learning marketing skills and seeing the opportunities of solar array grass maintenance with “sheep-mowers.” But perhaps the most thought-provoking big idea came from Vermonter Abe Collins, who presented a compelling plan to hire farmers as watershed contractors, along with producing food.
Collins, grazier and cofounder of Landstream Inc., has been called a visionary in his approach to thinking critically on how capturing water on the land with deep topsoil ultimately makes Northeast communities more resilient against climate change. “Recent rainstorms really add up for our local communities, costing in the millions of dollars’ worth of damage per storm,” Collins said. “We must do things differently and that includes growing organic matter-enriched soils covered by plants, stopping erosion and not building costly infrastructure fixes that are failing.”
Collins reflected on historical data and his conservation mentors to make the case for his natural capital and ecosystem services platform. “Aldo Leopold’s 1934 paper, ‘Conservation Economics,’ forecasts that conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest,” he said. “I’m suggesting we follow American economist Herman Daly when he suggests, ‘Instead of maximizing returns to and investing in man-made capital, we must now maximize returns to and invest in natural capital.’
“The last 87 years of conservation gets us to base camp but we now need to climb Mount Everest and farmers can be the answer,” emphasized Collins. “Farmers know how to grow topsoil and we can now measure it and quantify real results on soil-saving practices with technical advances and data systems.”
To further his case, he cited compelling data that farmers’ regenerative ecosystem services value to society dwarfs that of food production. He also explained his research on the high demand, large market that needs rural watershed contractors to provide water retention, groundwater recharge, flood mitigation, stream purity, plant-available water, soil carbon, soil fertility and wildlife habitat. “Our most viable option is for farmers, AKA watershed contractors, to chart their own course, create quantified value, wealth and security and lead from the land,” said Collins. “We need to lead this from the ground up as a ‘for-profit’ company model, not a not-for-profit, top down mentality.”
“The size and urgency of the job will be the largest energy and natural infrastructure project in our history,” he continued. To fund this big opportunity, he likened the approach to the successful (but obscure) Bank of North Dakota model. The bank is a state-owned, state-run financial institution and is the only government-owned general service bank in the country. Its origins in 1919 formed a kind of rural credit union system for agriculture. Today, in partnership with a majority of North Dakota’s financial institutions, its mission is to promote the development of agriculture, commerce and industry in the state. It had a record year in 2018, posting $159 million in net earnings. Vermont has been considering a state-run bank. The proposal under consideration, Senate Bill 204, would turn an existing agency, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, into a public bank that would accept deposits and issue loans for in-state projects.
His discussion led farmers through the history of money creation, financing and the new idea of paying for natural capital services templates. “The Global Status and Trends of Payments for Ecosystem Services” by James Salzman, Genevieve Bennett, Nathaniel Carroll, Allie Goldstein and Michael Jenkins shows “a considerable increase in Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). Programs that exchange value for land management practices intended to provide or ensure ecosystem services have over 550 active programs around the globe and an estimated $36 – 42 billion in annual transactions.”
Collins and a coalition of farmers, watershed alliances and supporters have formed a working group which “envisions a system in which farmers are hired to use their ingenuity and know-how in caring for the land to rebuild Vermont’s natural capital.” This has produced a “Proposal to Explore How to Value Agriculture Ecosystem Services in Vermont” pilot project. The purpose is “to develop a system which monitors, evaluates and monetizes Ecosystem Services (ES) provided by agriculture and delivers both environmental and food security to the Vermont community well into the future. Our natural and agricultural ecosystem in Vermont will be able to quickly and significantly benefit from a system that provides payments to the farmers for measurable improvements in ecosystem services.”
In an ongoing grant, “Increasing ecosystem services and climate change resilience in dominant agroecosystems of the Northeast,” UVM Farming & Climate Change Coordinator Joshua Faulkner and researcher Alissa White have been learning more about the concept of paying farmers not just for the food, fiber or fuel they produce, but also for the ways their practices have ecological benefits for the ecosystems they’re part of.
Farmers’ perspectives of a (PES) program include adequate financial incentives that incorporate investment costs, abatement costs and enrollment time to ensure farmer participation; a state-sponsored PES as an opportunity to enhance data-based, holistic perspectives on ecosystem services; highlighting farmers as stewards, innovators and partners in solving ecological problems; a program framed around ecosystem services to support the financial viability of farmers who are already invested in environmental outcomes and benefits to society; and the need for regionally or site-specific information about environmental outcomes from their farm management, using that information to inform decisions. Farmers also expressed concerns that a program be designed to support working farms and keep lands in ag production.
Collins knows there are skeptics and much work to be done on this important concept as he visits with farmers around the Northeast. “I’m ahead of my skis and I hit a lot of snowbanks,” quipped Collins. “The mission of investing in a deep-soil future stewarded by a farmer-driven, reality-based, ecological economic development framework is too important to ignore for our future generations.”