The U.S. agricultural and forestry sectors have drawn some questionable, if not contradictory, criticism for their production of renewable energy feedstocks. In some circles, for example, it is claimed that corn production is insufficient to meet our food, feed, fiber and fuel needs. Others complain that producers overgrow corn and other biofuel feedstocks, leading to environmental damage.
However, all of the criticism seems to ignore a basic premise that our nation’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners conscientiously pursue land management and crop production practices that ensure sustainability. No businessman is going to put themselves out of business by the overconsumption of the raw materials needed to generate income.
Critical to sustainable agricultural and forestry production are the policy tools created by Congress and implemented by administration agencies, like USDA. The value of conservation programs and farm energy initiatives authorized in past farm bills does not just accrue to the producers who participate. The programs benefit society as a whole. Conservation programs help improve the environment by reducing runoff into our waterways and maintaining good soil quality. Farm energy programs reduce greenhouse gas emissions by generating cleaner-burning biofuels and lessen the carbon footprint by implementing efficiency measures that reduce energy consumption.
The agricultural and forestry sectors’ pursuit of sustainability was further underscored with the release this week by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of a first-ever report on USDA’s role in advancing agroforestry. Agroforestry: USDA Reports to America details how agroforestry practices are helping farmers, ranchers and woodland owners enhance agricultural productivity, protect the environment and increase profits.
Vilsack notes that his department has invested less than one percent of its budget into tree-based practices, yet that small amount has helped U.S. producers create private goods and public services that reap great rewards, “including reduced greenhouse gas emissions and more resilient agricultural lands.”
Agroforestry is a management approach that intentionally combines agriculture and forestry to create more sustainable land-use systems. Since 2009, USDA has assisted landowners financially and with technical guidance to establish roughly 336,000 acres of windbreaks, riparian forest buffers and alley cropping; about 2,000 acres of silvopasture; and about 500 acres of forest farming.
And that is just the beginning. The acres cited by the department represent less than 1 percent of the potentially suitable land for applying the sustainable land-use practices, suggesting there is an opportunity to significantly expand the application of agroforestry in the United States.
USDA officials say the goal of promoting agroforestry practices is to help landowners understand that trees and other permanent vegetation, once planted in the right place for the right reason, will add value to their lands. The report shows landowner successes that include saving family farms and sparing woodlands from development. And the practices provide benefits beyond rural areas, offering opportunities in suburban areas to improve wildlife habitat, mitigate the movement of odors and dust, serve as noise barriers and act as filters that keep water clean.
Members of Congress are urged to keep this report in mind and understand that the practices it highlights are driven in part by critical policy measures such as the conservation and energy titles of the farm bill. The newest five-year farm legislation is now being negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee and lawmakers are urged to remember the economic and environmental benefits offered by farmers, ranchers and forestland owners by authorizing and fully funding the bill’s conservation and energy titles.
The 25x’25 Alliance commends USDA for using the report to start a national conversation about agroforestry with producers, landowners, communities and the young people who will become America’s farmers in the future. The agroforestry initiative also sends a clear message to critics of agricultural and forestry production that farmers, ranchers and forestland owners are taking an active and significant role in ensuring that the nation’s food, feed, fiber and fuel needs are being sustainably met.