Outdoor America 2019 Issue 3
Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) compiles the Census of Agriculture – a comprehensive look at American agriculture based on surveys of farmers and ranchers. The 2017 Census of Agriculture, which was released in April 2019, is a report card on the adoption of conservation systems designed to reduce the impact of farming on our water and land.
The results show that outreach and incentive programs, including federal and state programs supported by the League, can convince farmers and ranchers to adopt new conservation systems. However, the data also show that the pace and level of progress varies widely from state to state and that unregulated drainage of cropland can offset the gains made through adoption of better conservation systems.
Some highlights . . . and lowlights.
Cover crops reduce erosion and build soil health, but farmers have been slow to adopt its use – even with federal (and some state) incentives.
Farmers planted winter cover crops on 50 percent more cropland in 2017 than in 2012. However, the 15 million acres of cover crops planted in 2017 represent less than 5 percent of cropland nationwide. Cover crops reduce erosion and build soil health, but farmers have been slow to adopt its use – even with federal (and some state) incentives.
“No till” was practiced on 8 million more acres of cropland in 2017 than 2012, and farmers used “conservation tillage” (aka reduced tillage) on 21 million more acres in 2017 – another big increase from 2012. Unfortunately, more than one-fourth of U.S. cropland (approximately 80 million acres) was still intensively tilled in 2017, leaving soil more vulnerable to erosion and destroying fungi that boost soil health and hold soils together.
The number of organic farms grew by 27 percent from 2012 to 2017, and the value of organic production more than doubled to over $7 billion in 2017. But organic production still represents less than 1 percent of U.S. farms and farmland and less than 2 percent of the value of crops and livestock produced.
Offsetting the growth of conservation practices such as cover crops, no till, and organic farming, 8.8 million more acres of farmland were artificially drained by tile systems (as shown above) or ditches in 2017 than in 2012. Nearly all of those new tile and ditch systems carry polluted runoff of fertilizer, pesticides, and often manure directly from fields into nearby streams, making our water quality problems even more challenging.
For example, Iowa (the nation’s largest corn-producing state) saw 2.9 million fewer acres of cropland subjected to intensive tillage in 2017 but an increase of 1.5 million acres of farmland drained by tile systems during the same time period. The impact of tile drainage systems on water quality downstream triggered an unsuccessful lawsuit by Des Moines Water Works in 2015.
The share of farms using managed rotational grazing on grassland dropped slightly to 21 percent in 2017 – a move in the wrong direction.
More troubling numbers are found in the grazing data. America lost nearly 15 million acres of permanent range and pasture from 2012 to 2017. The conversion of native prairie and other grasslands to cropland, suburbs, and shopping malls means a loss of habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife. Native prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, and dozens of species of birds and other wildlife that depend on prairie are in sharp decline.
Just as troubling, management systems on America’s ranges and pastures appear to have seen little overall improvement. The share of farms using managed rotational grazing on grassland dropped slightly to 21 percent in 2017 (from 22 percent in 2012) – a move in the wrong direction. The research is clear that managed rotational grazing provides better production, more profits, healthier livestock, improved soil health, and better water quality.
The Census of Agriculture highlights signs of progress in reducing the impacts of agriculture on our natural resources. Yet agriculture remains the largest source of polluted runoff threatening our rivers, and grasslands continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate. These are some of the challenges the League will face as we work to move American agriculture toward a more sustainable future.
Learn more about our agriculture work