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Finding real solutions

We're at the start of a century that will test the planet's resources to produce food, fiber and energy, but the solutions from that challenge are likely to come first from landowners and managers.

That's how a panel that included farmers, a rancher and a representative of the forest industry view a new report that kicks off a dialogue between leaders in agriculture, forestry and the conservation community called Solutions from the Land.

"This report acknowledges private land ownership, which I think is important," said Larkin Martin of Martin Farms, a cotton, corn, soybean and wheat farm near Courtland, Alabama. "The actual work of this will be done by many individuals."

Martin was among the farmers and land managers who spoke at a Farm Foundation Forum in Washington, DC, Wednesday on report from Solutions from the Land, "Developing a New Vision for United States Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation."

In spite of the challenges agriculture will face, the report's vision is optimistic:

"In 2050, U.S. farmers, ranchers, and foresters manage land to produce the food, fiber and energy needed to support a growing population and economy, while simultaneously protecting and improving biodiversity and the health of the environment."

Martin sees herself already doing some of that, with the help of technology that includes precision farming and genetically modified seeds.

Martin farms once treated its cotton four to six times a season with insecticides that have been made unnecessary by Bt cotton, she said. And glyphosate-tolerant soybeans have allowed them to keep fields fallow in the winter instead using tillage.

"Our soils are much healthier," she said, "because we're able to engage in row crop farming without the tillage."

Martin said she admires the "great wisdom" in organic agriculture, which was a reaction to monoculture. But she regrets the organic and local food movement's opposition to GMO technology, which like all technology, needs to be used wisely. "It's not the be-all and end-all. Resistance is developing," she said.

If there's a theme to the report and producer reaction, it's that solutions need to involve collaboration, not confrontation, and to come from the bottom up, not the top down. Federal regulations and litigation may be hindering the process.

"The reality is people are doing things on the ground and being held back by this archaic federal process," said Patrick O'Toole, whose ranch, Ladder Livestock Company, LLC in Savery, Wyoming, is part of one of the largest river restorations in the nation. But it's a private project with Trout Unlimited, not a government mandate.

Some federal laws are fostering a market for environmental services. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which requires developers to offset the loss of wetlands, is providing a business opportunity for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation, said Cassie Phillips, vice president of sustainable forests and products.

"We have wonderful mapping systems and we collect data on our land and we categorize it," she said. At one time, the potential wetlands appeared as blank spots on those maps. Today, "they're starting to appear as potential assets."

Working with The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, Weyerhaeuser is close to being the largest wetland mitigation owner in the U.S., she said.

The report produced by Solutions from the Land was co-chaired by former California agriculture secretary AG Kawamura and Tom Lovejoy of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.

The report outlines ongoing land management challenges and proposes a vision for producing more agricultural and forestry

products and ecosystem services with fewer inputs and environmental impacts.

It found several near-term opportunities, including:

  • Creating a centralized database or inventory of integrated land management projects that are either planned or under way across the country.

  • Identifying policies and regulations that work at cross purposes and stymy progress, along with successful resolutions to such problems.

  • Sponsoring and facilitating regional dialogues to inventory, explore, and assess market-based mechanisms for ecosystem services and sustainable supply chains.

  • Developing ways to prioritize and streamline research processes in a way that would integrate agriculture and forestry with conservation goals and ecosystem services.

  • Identifying "meta-metrics” that can serve as broad indicators of sustainability.

The full report is online here.

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