Policy Research and Development to Support Multiple Benefits from Agriculture: Phase II

Final Report for LNC02-204

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $95,350.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $461,350.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Carolyn van Schaik
Land Stewardship Project
Expand All

Project Information


This project furthered the application of sound research to fair farm policy through the development of a universal farm cost-benefits analysis, on-farm research on the agronomic consequences of citizen-derived land use changes, and a campaign to educate through presentations, field events, peer-reviewed journal publications, web pages, fact sheets, and a watershed committee. Use of the “multiple benefits” lens through which to view agriculture and its myriad public goods has increased as a result. Organized public education is shaping the Conservation Security Program to better encourage and pay for stewardship outcomes; this work informs the mounting effort to improve the CSP in the 2007 Farm Bill.


It is economically and environmentally beneficial to shift agriculture toward more diverse systems on actively farmed land - and if financial incentives motivate change, citizens are very willing to pay (Multiple Benefits of Agriculture Phase I executive summary).

But how? Current federal farm policies primarily subsidize commodity-based production. Since income subsidies are determined in part by acreage in major row crops, the incentives offered by these policies discourage breaking out of the mold of conventional agriculture. These are the very same farming systems that have been found to contribute to environmental problems such as the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico (CAST 1999), soil loss, water contamination, stream bank destruction, habitat degradation, and economic and social problems such as price depression, loss of independent family farms from the region, and the decline of rural communities (Randall 2001).

At the same time, conservation policies have attempted to mitigate some of these same environmental problems by providing cost-share programs to improve farming practices and for land retirement. Major benefits have been realized by these programs, especially in terms of soil conservation, wildlife habitat, and the removal of fragile lands from production. They don’t, however, adequately address working landscapes - the 50% of private lands (excluding Alaska) in the United States that are managed for crops, range, and/or pasture use (Heard et al. 2000). While soil erosion has slowed and pockets of farm country can report biological improvements, the dominant story is one of environmental decline.

Simultaneously addressing the social issues and major environmental problems resulting from conventional farming will require the adoption of a different vision in agricultural policy.

Project Objectives:

a. Farmers in contact with the project stop viewing conservation as a threat to their livelihoods.

b. Farmers, agents, and the public reached by this project validate the non-market benefits of agriculture as a result of education and outreach.

c. Farmers, agents, and the public realize they have a collective interest in stewardship farming.

d. Farmers, agents, and the public begin to embrace the need for outcome-based farm payments to provide the necessary incentives for sustainable agriculture.

e. At least 100 researchers, farmers, and other stakeholders are actively engaged in designing policy concepts and disseminating the process and its outcomes to colleagues.

f. The above group plans a full demonstration project to test the policies and mechanisms on farm when separate funding is realized (Phase III).

g. The public-at-large begins to exert pressure in favor of rewarding farmers for the non-market benefits of agriculture that result from their food and fiber production.

In order to achieve these outcomes, our objectives are to:

(1) Thoroughly develop policy concepts intended to reward farmers for utilizing integrated farming systems that result in significant environmental and social public benefits;

(2) Create feasible and effective indicators and methods for measuring the environmental and social results of farm management;

(3) Educate and involve stakeholders to understand the benefits of such policies; and

(4) Recruit participants in a Minnesota demonstration project planning committee. This work will be affiliated with related demonstration projects at other national sites.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • George Boody
  • Paul Brietzke
  • Dr. Frank Casey
  • Dr. Kate Clancey
  • Linda Dahl
  • Larry Gates
  • Prasanna Gowda
  • William Hunt
  • Members of LSP's Fed. Farm Policy Comm.
  • Mark Schultz
  • Logan Creek Steering Committee
  • Doug Thomas
  • Bill Thompson
  • Dr. Patrick Welle
  • Dr. Jonathan Winsten


Materials and methods:

Not applicable

Research results and discussion:

(1) Thoroughly develop policy concepts intended to reward farmers for utilizing integrated farming systems that result in significant environmental and social public benefits.

The Multiple Benefits of Agriculture (MBA) Initiative continues to contribute to the shape and direction of policy to foster agricultural diversification and resulting public goods such as improved habitat and water quality, at the state and federal levels. State and national highlights include:

a. The MBA approach and language are embedded in materials on targeting state funds by the “Leveraging the Farm Bill Work Group,” an interagency and stakeholder group advising the Minnesota governor’s water cabinet about how to use state funds to leverage farm conservation programs.

b. LSP continues to be active with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency-led Impaired Waters Stakeholders by advocating for innovative farming systems that improve water quality.

c. State goals include the provision of public goods – the multiple benefits – as part of agriculture after an MBA presentation. The state’s Department of Natural Resources Policy Director advised LSP during the last legislative session.

d. LSP helped to secure the support from the National Farmers Organization (NFO) for the now-approved Minnesota CREP proposal, pushing for expanded grazing options on otherwise set-aside farm land.

e. Rep. Lyle Koenen and Rep. Dean Urdahl included provisions for pasture development and on-farm processing into a dairy modernization bill that otherwise focused largely on confinement dairies that rely on row crop feeds.

f. Partner Frank Casey of the Defenders of Wildlife Conservation Economics Program participates on the CEAP committee on wildlife. LSP also worked closely with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC) on background information for SAC participation on CEAP’s Blue Ribbon Committee convened by the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

g. LSP recruited several hundred farmers and others to submit comments on the proposed CSP rule during each public opportunity. MBA steering committee members and partner researchers also submitted comments based on MBA research findings related to the public willingness to pay for non-market goods and the environmental benefits of increasing perennial cover on working farm lands.

h. LSP actively recruited farmers to enroll in the CSP in designated watersheds.

i. LSP participated in the Commodity Policy Dialogue.

j. LSP co-organized a roundtable on performance based policies for the Upper Midwest in Ames, Iowa in late 2005. Forty key regional people participated in a facilitated day-long workshop to further our collective understanding of what performance-driven agriculture policy is and how we best get there. Planning was led by LSP with a committee including the North Central Region Center for Rural Development, The Leopold Center, and The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. A concept paper was written; a two-page synopsis is appended.

k. LSP developed a proposal for a new payment category with the CSP called “pastured cropland” as one way of supporting approaches that yield multiple benefits. This was included in the interim final rule.

l. LSP staff assisted the Sustainable Agriculture Committee (SAC) with the development of recommendations for changes in enrollment categories that do not penalize resource conserving crop rotations and grazing as much as was proposed initially.

m. Approval has been secured for a legislative workshop on performance-based farm policies: organizations such as the Northeast Midwest Foundation, the Congressional Research Service, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society will organize it with LSP taking the lead.

n. Against the backdrop of a strongly pro-corporate farm report from the Governor’s livestock task force, LSP helped found the Citizen’s Task Force on Livestock and Rural Community Development, which advocates the merging of successful livestock production with enhanced water quality and other public goods from family-sized farms. With MBA research as influence, its first report rings a clear message of how to optimize public good from farms.

(2) Create feasible and effective indicators and methods for measuring the environmental and social results of farm management.

a. In answer to the question of whether or not farmers can (let alone choose to) afford to make the changes the public says it will finance, Patrick Welle at Bemidji State University has completed a simplified cost-benefits analysis and initial report. Based on Minnesota numbers, Welle points to a 4:1 benefit cost ratio of public goods to farmer costs, suggesting that farmer incentives for the public goods found in habitat and water quality improvements could rise significantly. Welle also suggests that conservation efforts could increase up to 10-fold in order to meet the demand for environmental improvements that Minnesotans say they are willing to pay for, above and beyond what they currently pay through taxes for agricultural programs. Welle’s report will be web published within weeks; a one-page version is in process. This work is the foundation to research in Ohio, undertaken with separate funding. The project seeks a universal set of equations that will match stewardship payments with what conservation really costs by way of transition, risk, and lost and newly gained income. The goal is to inform policy makers with real farmer numbers so that farm policy aptly reflects the growing demand for public goods, the farmer’s true costs, and real incentive in stewardship payments.

b. Project partners have had some initial success with a new modeling program called the Conservation Planning Tool (CPT) in utilizing birds as indicators of land use performance goals. With separate funding, we have applied the CPT to “what-if” scenarios reflecting different land uses to learn how species occurrence changes accordingly. The new scenarios match the agronomic modeling in the same watershed and were designed with significant input from watershed residents and local agents. The goal was to test this tool as a possible vehicle for determining performance at a quicker rate than what biological systems normally would permit. Stewardship payments could then be tied to a pre-determined expectation of performance. Analyses are nearly complete.

c. This relationship between land use and the public good of wildlife habitat resonates with audiences better than when we speak generally about “multiple benefits” or “public good” or “non-market goods.” Since these connections are a critical step to change, this feels like a major breakthrough, and it was the successful approach when findings were presented to watershed residents.

d. Note that this work is presented in two lights: to let stakeholders draw their own conclusions about land use and habitat, and as a potential yardstick for federal farm incentive payments. These two routes allow us to further our long-term goals of making stewardship performance pay and helping the farming and non-farming public see the value of habitat-conserving land uses.

(3.) Educate and involve stakeholders to understand the benefits of such policies.
Many presentations and publications mark the work to date, as funded by SARE and others. Some highlights:

a. BioScience/ January 2005 publication of MBA results (http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/mba/Multifunc_Jan05_BioSc.pdf );

b. Six fact sheets on the Conservation Security Program rules have been posted to our CSP web page (http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/programs_csp.html);

c. Redesigned web page for the Multiple Benefits of Agriculture work: (http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/programs_mba.html)

d. Recent presentations (2005) include, among others:

- Minneapolis Foundation Digital Junction conference

-Driftless area meeting co-sponsored by LSP and Trout Unlimited

-A meeting on modeling methods sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers focusing on the Minnesota River Plan.

-The Kellogg Food and Society Initiative conference

-A new currency for conservation: Markets and Payments for Ecosystem Services on our Nation’s Forests and Farms co-sponsored by the Southern Environmental Law and EPA

-A session co-sponsored by the Organic Farming Research Foundation called Assessing the Multifunctional Benefits of Organic Agriculture and Policy Implications at the Agriculture Food and Human Values Conference

-Lake Pepin Driftless area meeting sponsored by several RCand Ds

-Health Care Without Harm first annual food med conference presentation.

d. Minnesota River Research Forum presentation;

e. Whitewater River Watershed Technical Meeting presentation;

f. Participated in Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service workshops with leaders from around the country and Program Leaders for CSREES in Washington DC and listening sessions in Wisconsin;

g. Briefings with key staff of NRCS, EPA at state and national levels;

h. Presentation for scientists with the Agricultural Research Service, Soil Conservation Laboratory in Morris, MN as part of their 50 year anniversary;

i. Presentation at the W. K Kellogg Conference as part of a panel, “Are We Making Real Progress? Measuring Sustainability on Agricultural Lands in the Upper Mississippi River Basin”;

j. Presented to the Commissioner and Associate Commission of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources;

k. Co-prepared a paper on Farm Bill Programs for the Habitat Conservation Incentives Workshop in Wash. D.C;

l. Soil and Water Conservation Society International meeting presentations (3) by MBA steering committee members/researchers;

m. Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group meeting presentation;

n. The Nature Conservancy presentation by steering committee member farmer Dan French;

o. Minnesota Environmental Partnership presentation;

p. Minneapolis Foundation/Minnesota Rural Partners conference presentation;

q. Farmer policy meetings in Minnesota.

r. LSP staff, working with our Federal Farm Policy Committee, developed a 7-page paper on the changes we seek in federal farm policy. LSP’s “Prosperous Farms and Healthy Land: Reforming U.S. Farm Policy,” was distributed during a March fly-in to Washington DC.

s. A 13-farmer fly-in and training to Washington DC that included 43 visits and interviews, national press, and leadership training.

t. Watershed meetings and two CSP-focused field days.

u. A white paper on environmental indicators and useful tools by partner Frank Casey, Defenders of Wildlife Conservation Economics Program.

v. OPED pieces in regional papers addressing food security issues as well as weather-research-farm policy connections.

w. Research results are regularly integrated into presentations to diverse audiences that address food, performance policy, and water quality issues. Examples in addition to those above include the Lake Pepin Total Maximum Daily Load stakeholders group, The Nature Conservancy, the newly formed Driftless Area working group, Ducks Unlimited, Dinner on the Bluff series at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, several church, food, and service clubs, legislative aides in Wash., D.C., university classes, watershed residents.

(4.) Recruit participants in a Minnesota demonstration project planning committee.
We have actively engaged and been engaged by some of the resident and agency players who live in or work with those who reside in the Logan Creek sub-watershed of the Whitewater River Watershed in Southeastern Minnesota. This watershed was the basis of an agronomic modeling research effort to predict environmental outcomes as a function of changing land use (with other funds). It also provided the inspiration behind an economic effort to calculate the real costs to farmers of making land use changes as compared to both the federal government’s current incentives and the public willingness to pay for significant environmental improvements as a result of farm practices. The watershed was chosen in part because an earlier survey illustrated residents’ sentiments correlating farm policy and poor environmental outcomes.

A local steering committee was initiated at the beginning of this project and time has seen that group evolve into a more active and expansive group. We have successfully engaged some of the board members who direct the Whitewater River Watershed Project (a separate effort not led by LSP). Its director is an active member of the group, as well. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency support this project financially and staff was regularly engaged as part of the steering committee. We also held the interest of local agencies, specifically the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Farm Service Agency (for technical/GIS support), the Department of Natural Resources, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The group worked arduously through “what-if” scenarios to be modeled for their land use consequences given the present farming situation on Logan Creek farms and with these farmers. We worked with the modeler so that he could actually use our scenarios to fruition. We worked hard, against many changing minds, to guard the anonymity of the 13 interviewed farmers, to maintain the integrity of the results, to design a future that does not look so unfamiliar as to be out rightly dismissed. We have presented the results in their larger context to help landowners move by their own conclusion from status quo to something else with more perennial vegetation, more hope for farming, and greater engagement in farm policy as their policy.

Research conclusions:

Many of our point source impacts were highlighted in 1.above. There are other arenas in which the MBA approach continues to bear influence:

a. A public increasingly interested in food source and security resonates with MBA research that connects the environment to the dinner plate and the economic well-being of a region.

b. An outcome-based reporting system that measures actual performance is now mandated for the NRCS, but it does not address perennial systems or the impacts of the CSP. The agency is interested in our MBA research, and project partners already sit on one of its steering committees.

c. The CSP is not yet what was intended in the 2002 Farm Bill and is again being challenged as policy-makers warm up for the 2007 version. The MBA research shows what can be accomplished by tying environmental outcomes to higher payment and enrollment rates and measuring the potential for restored eco-system functions.

d. MBA research results encourage landscape diversification strategies under mounting pressure to meet Total Maximum Daily Load requirements and ever-tightening budgets.

e. U.S. subsidies for row crops are under scrutiny by the World Trade Organization whereas the MBA research suggests that switching public dollars from commodities to the CSP and similar programs could be done with no marginal cost to the taxpayer.

The process of involving these largely conventional-with-a-streak-of-something-else committee members in envisioning a healthier future as attainable was difficult, at times satisfying, and in need of many doughnuts. I watched a local DC move from mere buffers to asking for grass as his idea of what to model in a “what-if” scenario. The arduous meetings to sort out those scenarios have helped a hard core environmentalist/DNR agent acknowledge that the DC is actually “an OK guy.” We all learned more than we may have wanted about the language of predictive models and just what a modeler means when he says earnestly, “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” We worked a lot of over time hours and some are still grumpy about it. The results were less glamorous than we had hoped, in part because the modeler was unable/unwilling to proceed as planned. That said, there were some gems. Ultimately we learned that if we really seek good habitat and clean water in SE Minnesota, we must put more permanent vegetative cover on our farmland. This message resonates across otherwise divergent convictions.

The work also taught us all about the need not only to convince policy makers about the merits of reasonable stewardship payments but of almost everyone of the connection between agriculture and the public goods it can provide. Residents of Logan Creek had already indicated some awareness of the negative role that federal farm policy plays on the landscape. In that sense, they may be ahead of the curve. But in other respects, they reminded us in public meetings and private interviews how much their farming is driven first and foremost by the need to make a living. This is a universal requirement, one we are trying mightily to honor with our economic analysis.

It has been another very challenging year of work together. We hold a brighter candle of hope for attaining a different future. It is a fragile state. This is a small watershed, about 11,000 acres and about 85 families, most of who are no longer farming. Although most of those who have attended our meetings refrain from using such terminology as environmentalist, their presence and willingness to participate suggest an interest in a stewardship ethic.

We hope to build on this with further research involving the conversion of some cropland to perennial vegetation.

Economic Analysis

Not applicable

Farmer Adoption

Not applicable

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Not applicable

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

The need to explain farming in economic terms to both farmers and everyone else remains great, especially in view of shifts in federal support. We cannot in good faith ask a farmer to make significant changes in his/her practices without due acknowledgement of the value of those benefits – those public goods – we seek in exchange. What are those benefits worth to us as taxpayers? What is a reasonable incentive to encourage their place on farms? How much should the risk to a farmer be compensated? We – LSP and its MBA partners – continue to sweat through these questions, carrying the work to an intertested watershed in Ohio. We strive for a universal equation that eventually reflects the Conservation Security Program along with other current federal dollars. It is complex work that needs more attention so that the federal farm bill, the paying public, and farmers make more reasonable, equitable decisions about stewardship and commodity payments.

Another area requiring some attention rests in the interest to actually convert cropped land to hay or other permanent vegetation and then measure its impact on a farmer’s economic situation as well as the environmental consequences we’ve so far only predicted with models.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.