By Tim Gieseke, Founder and President, Ag Resource Strategies, LLC, USA
As the Ecosystem Services Partnership conference draws to a close and we gear up for World Water Week beginning on Monday, our guest author today is bridging the topics of resilience and water resources management. Tim Gieseke brings us a “Landscape of the Week” from Minnesota to discuss how a new model of accounting for multiple benefits from agricultural landscapes in the United States, including meeting high water quality standards, can boost resilience both economically and ecologically.
A Minnesota, USA watershed project is bringing resiliency to the landscape by using a fundamentally different approach to natural resource management.
Since the 1930’s the USDA has relied on a “conservation delivery system” (CDS) that provides technical and financial support to implement on-farm conservation practices. Essentially, the CDS uses congressional allocations and a federal-state-local partnership to determine which practices should be installed on which farms. With two million US farms, it is a complex and cumbersome winnowing process to assess farms and target funds.
Unlike this traditional model, the Sunrise Watershed project uses an index-based Farm Environmental Asset Portfolio to account for off-farm environmental impacts to meet state water quality goals. The portfolio consists of USDA and university-developed indices such as water quality, soil condition, habitat, and others related to nutrients and then scaled from 0-100.
This is a key divergence from the traditional USDA CDS, which valued the costs and processes of implementing conservation practices rather than the quality of outcomes. The traditional approach was sufficient when farmers only wanted to address on-farm resource issues, but it is not sufficient today as government, NGOs and corporations are more interested in off-farm environmental impacts.
This divergence is described as disruptive conservation, a term borrowed from The Innovator’s Dilemma, where disruptive innovation is described as a market force that occurs due to the introduction of a new process, technology, and/or product that appeals to a new customer base enabling them to approach an issue with a different set of values and strategies.
In the Sunrise case, the new product is the farm portfolio and the new customer is the state of Minnesota. This illustrates the potential of disruptive conservation; where the farmers were once the [conservation practice] customer of the USDA CDS, now the government, NGOs and corporations can become the farmers’ [environmental asset] customers.
In disruptive innovation, a realignment of activities and relationships among the stakeholders occurs causing some corporations to flourish and others to fail. But due to the comprehensive nature of landscape management, the CDS stakeholders remain viable components.
In the Sunrise project, local agronomists assess farms and develop portfolios. This realignment decouples the on-farm assessment process from government programs, causing the CDS to shift from a program-driven to a more resource-driven process; a recommendation of National Association of State Conservation Agencies in a 2007 report Evaluation of the Nation’s Conservation Delivery System.
The strategy of using agricultural professionals also complements the findings of a 2013 survey sponsored by the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Agricultural Retailers Association, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the American Society of Agronomy, and the Fertilizer Institute. The survey found few relationships between agricultural retailers and conservation district staff, but the need for them to interact was great, as the skills of the groups are complementary and there is a common interest in environmental improvement.
Working relationships between farmers, agronomists and other conservationists occur organically in the Sunrise project. If a farm portfolio shows low scores in habitat, petroleum management, manure storage, and nutrient-water quality, the farmer might engage with Pheasants Forever, the local cooperative, the conservation district, and the agronomist, respectively.
When combined, these portfolios create landscape intelligence – a higher level of data generated by aggregating acre-based index scores for a particular area. For the state of Minnesota, the landscape intelligence is defined by the watershed and the water quality index. Presumably if corporate and NGO sustainability efforts mature, they too will need landscape intelligence on which to base their sustainability claims. No other conservation system has the capacity to generate this new set of valuable data.
And finally, disruptive conservation is not disruptive to farmers, their advisers, and local government staff. These frontline conservationists in the Sunrise project intuitively understand the adaptive management process. The complementary production and natural resource asset portfolios provide farmers with a common process to develop resiliency in their business and the landscape. It will provide them the means to adapt to society’s evolving environmental demands in a manner similar to how they adapt to market demands – with the freedom to achieve these outcomes in a manner that best suits them.
Where else could lessons from this experience be applied? Do you know of other landscapes in which models have met similar success in achieving multiple benefits?