The writer is a retired professor with the department of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, writing for the Nebraska Elder Climate Legacy Initiative, founded by Nebraska natural resources specialists.
It is time for Nebraska and neighboring states to embrace a new vision and direction for agriculture!
It has been a hard year for our region’s agricultural producers. Recent extreme weather challenges came when farmers had experienced multi-year drops in incomes due to ongoing trade wars and commodity surpluses. Simultaneously, high input costs — including property taxes — had already contributed to thin profit margins.
While today’s agriculture is highly productive and efficient, leading to low food costs, market prices often fail to provide a livable income for producers. Furthermore, our specialization in a few crops or a single livestock enterprise leads to even greater economic instability.
Today, America’s urban society is largely disconnected from its basic food source, with little understanding of agriculture. That leads to misunderstandings as well as a lack of appreciation for ag producers, their challenges and the vital roles they play. Producers’ practices that seem to be necessary to feed the population are increasingly seen by the urban population as detrimental to the environment.
Producers are on an economic and public relations treadmill, with high-dollar stakes, increasing risk, mounting uncertainty and public scrutiny. Extreme weather events brought on by our changing climate only add to the economic and environmental vulnerability.
Business as usual is not sustainable — we need a new vision. This new approach not only must result in production of abundant, nourishing and safe food supplies. It must also sustain our natural resources and protect both rural and urban environments.
We are not suggesting a return to an earlier era of farming structure, practices or technologies. Nor are we advocating for extreme dietary shifts or government regulations. No, we see a new vision building on the strengths of our current food production processes. Our producers are already using precision technology, and many are applying sound water and land management practices. But, there are additional possible refinements in farming practices, and new opportunities exist.
Nebraska is a top five food-producing state with the natural resources, human capital and ingenuity to lead this transformation. Farming principles and practices that seek to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem are being tested. If refined and adopted, they may also increase land productivity and profitability, and build greater resilience to weather extremes.
A key component is protecting and improving soil health.
Nationwide, there has been a decline in soil health, with productivity maintained using synthetic fertilizers. Nebraska’s farmers lead the nation in the percentage of harvested cropland under no-till practices (53%), which favor soil health. Other important soil health practices — e.g., more diverse crop rotations, cover crops and holistic management systems — are used sparingly. Of note: The Nebraska Legislature last year created a Healthy Soils Task Force to further enhance this state’s current efforts to improve our soils.
“Climate-Smart” agriculture provides a host of valuable “ecosystem services” — benefits — for all of us. These include reduced erosion and downstream flooding, enhanced water quality, reduced irrigation needs, restored wildlife and pollinator habitat, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and, perhaps significant, atmospheric reductions of CO2 via permanent carbon sequestration.
These benefits show that agriculture is part of the solution in mitigating a changing climate and protecting and enhancing the environment. We need to recognize and appreciate our farmers’ and ranchers’ vital roles as primary stewards of the state’s land and water resources.
But ag can’t make that transition alone. We all must share the stewardship responsibility and costs. We must support and appropriately pay farmers and ranchers for these eco-system services rendered — something our current systems largely fail to do.
These thoughts merely scratch the surface of a new vision for Nebraska’s agricultural future. It will take the wisdom and will of both rural and urban Nebraskans to embrace the potential and then build and invest in a 21st century production agricultural system that leads the nation.
So, let’s begin.