Guest Commentary

How data produces economic and environmental benefit for America’s farms

Moira Mcdonald leads the Walton Family Foundation’s Mississippi River conservation program.
Moira Mcdonald leads the Walton Family Foundation’s Mississippi River conservation program.

Farmers understand the need to be good environmental stewards. Clean water and healthy soils are essential to making a living and sustaining families and communities across generations.

But while conservation practices can improve the profitability and long-term sustainability of their operations, farmers are sometimes reluctant to adopt them out of concern about increased risk and expense that can accompany change.

One key to overcoming that hesitation is data.

Some producers contend they don’t have enough information to prove that innovative practices are a good investment. But every day more and more tools are available to help farmers understand the implication of different parts of their farming operations. Data is all around us, and there is value in it all — especially for agriculture.

While some may see a jargon-filled spreadsheet or just a bunch of various colors on a field map, we see ways to maximize farm efficiency and increase sustainability.

The obvious benefit of data is that it helps farmers make better management decisions about the economic and environmental impact of their operation. The amount of knowledge per acre in production, and amount of knowledge about each acre, are significant drivers in the amount of profit per acre.

When large numbers of farmers began making the transition to no-till farming, for example, one driving force was the benefits they saw in data about reduced soil erosion, reduced time and money spent on tillage and increased crop resilience.

Today, other practices like cover crops show similar promise for broad conservation benefits. Some on-farm research — using sound scientific and statistical principles — is already demonstrating value for improving soil health and water quality. Yet farmers need to understand much more about the agronomic and economic implications before they take on the management challenge of a practice like cover crops. By quantifying the impacts of cover crops on subsequent crop yields, we are confident more farmers will embrace them.

The good news is that new tools are making it easier to capture and analyze data — and should make all of these hurdles easier to overcome.

For example, farmers can use satellite imagery to identify management zones within a field and predict yield variability. These management zones allow farmers to modify seeding rates based on the productivity of the land, which lowers seed costs on acres that are less productive. Similarly, these zones can be used for soil sampling to quantify soil fertility levels in differing areas of the field, which allows farmers to fertilize based off specific soil conditions and fertility levels. In total this system lets farmers focus inputs on the areas that need them and to avoid over-application on areas that don’t.

In addition to collecting new data to improve farming practices and outcomes, we must also do better with data we already have to help farmers reduce risk, build soil health and improve water quality through conservation.

Yield data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture about fields currently planting cover crops can help farmers decide when, and under what conditions, they fit in other parts of their operation. And integrating data on crop rotations, cover crops and other practices with data on yields may identity ways farmers can improve profitability while increasing biodiversity. Back in Washington, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and John Thune of South Dakota have introduced the Ag Data Act of 2018, which proposes a path for the USDA to use data it is already collecting to help farmers capitalize on the risk-reducing effects of conservation practices.

The agricultural economy right now is at a crossroads. Depressed prices, increased costs and rising debt levels are creating economic angst. The average age of farmers continues to increase while the next generation faces big economic obstacles to entering agriculture. There is constant pressure to intensify our farming system, but only if we can do so in a sustainable way for our natural resources.

These challenges are significant. Farmers are acutely aware of the need to reduce nutrient runoff from nitrogen and phosphorous into waterways. And they’re anxious to do their part, both for the sake of the environment, but also to reduce the amount they spend on expensive inputs.

This is one of many reasons why data collection, data processing and the utilization of data for improved decision making will increasingly become a core competency for all farmers.

In the coming decade, there will be a record percentage of farms transitioning to the next generation. Along with building upon wisdom from the previous generation, this transition represents a great opportunity for change and innovation, not only in improved productivity, but also in environmental stewardship.

Data and technology can help show us the way.

Moira Mcdonald leads the Walton Family Foundation’s Mississippi River conservation program. She co-authored this with Justin Knopf, who serves in leadership roles in various farm organizations and is a fifth generation Kansas farmer, and Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for sustainable agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund.