Risky Business

Farming is risky business. That’s why the Alliance attended the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership’s Risk Management Conference on June 19 in Normal.  The Risky Business conference brought together farmers and stakeholders to talk about water and soil health from a risk management perspective and to address the inherent risk that farmers assume when they change practices on their farms.

Keynote speaker Jerry L. Hatfield, Ph.D.,  the laboratory director and supervisory plant physiologist for the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, explained to the group that we are “cooking the life out of our soils we cannot till our way to soil health because that is continually destroying the fabric of our soil system.”

Participants discuss risk management with a diverse range of speakers out on the ISU research farm in Lexington, IL

Weather management, corporate supply chains, conservation economics, and resiliency were discussed throughout the day, but perhaps the most important topic was Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. The big question that kept resurfacing was how are we, as a group and individually in our own organizations and professions, going to make Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy happen? The conversation surrounding that question has often been dodged or “danced around”, as one farmer panelist said. So far answers have been hypothetical, ranging from providing incentives to cost sharing conservation measures with farmers.

The bottom line is, if we want to drive soil health, we need to address who does and who should take on the risks and costs of change. As it is, farmers bear all the risks. But there must be other players in the value chain and in government to help mitigate and share those risks as well. The choices farmers make on the ground to increase soil health are a public good and a consumer good. They lead to cleaner water, healthier soils, and more resilient ecosystems. There’s growing demand for soil health by consumers, and in turn, by some brands. Now is the time to develop more strategies for others to share the risk and not lay it all on farmers.

We have a long way to go to develop those strategies, and partnerships are key.  Illinois Stewardship Alliance will continue to work with our partners and coalitions to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders–farmers, corporations, policy makers, environmental and agriculture groups– to ensure we are making the best decisions to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels by 2025 and to keep family farms on the land.