ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Current and past USDA deputy secretaries keynoted the Our Farms, Our Future Conference on April 3, attended by more than 900 people discussing the next 30 years of sustainable agriculture research and education.
The conference marked 30 years of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, a USDA grants and education effort emphasizing whole farm profitability, conservation of natural resources and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and rural communities. Congress authorized $35 million for the SARE program for fiscal year 2018, the highest allocation ever for it.
Steve Censky, current deputy secretary for the USDA, said the farming practices, education and research funded by SARE may now be more important than when the program began in 1988. He highlighted the USDA emphasis on soil health and cover-cropping, areas emphasized in SARE.
“From my perspective, I think it’s great that soil is becoming cool again,” he said. “I see the opportunity to learn more, through the agricultural research, of what can be applied at the farm level in terms of the soil microbiome.”
This is a soil’s unique mix of microbes, and USDA soil scientists anticipate an explosion of information about the soil microbiome, particularly at the molecular level. “We plan to increase the investments in research on the microbiome of soil, of plants, of farm animals, as well as on agricultural data applications,” said Censky.
He explained the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Systems Program, a new effort under the Agriculture Food Research Initiative, will invest $80 million to improve agricultural productivity, “all in the context of improving soil and water health, productivity and sustaining the profitability of producers and rural communities.”
Censky also expects USDA to continue expanding cover crop knowledge and applications. He noted a special challenge for producers wanting to plant cover on rented land.
“I think we have a challenge there of how do we either educate, or how do we monetize, the value of those cover-cropping, soil health practices so not only the farmer gets paid but also the landowner gets some benefit as well,” he said.
Consumers and Food Systems
Many at the conference were focused on growing local food systems, in both traditional and non-traditional farming areas. Urban farming continues growing, said Krysta Harden, Censky’s predecessor at USDA, now vice president of external affairs and chief sustainability officer at Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDuPont.
“The stories of success are wonderful,” she said, citing produce grown commercially in formerly vacant lots and high-value production by vertical farming, in urban buildings.
Harden said connecting consumers with where their food comes from is important, regardless of farm type and scale. Producers need to educate consumers about what it takes to farm. “The tight margins, the lack of availability of land and other resources – I think there’s such a disconnect with the general public” about farming challenges.
Stefani Millie Grant, senior manager of external affairs and sustainability at Unilever, said the company is re-launching its sustainable soy sourcing initiative through Practical Farmers of Iowa.
“We made a five-year commitment that we’d be investing in this. We think that’s really important for healthy soils,” she said.
The sustainable soy program will fund cover crop cost shares for participating Iowa growers, at $10 an acre up to 10 percent of farmed acres. The soybeans will be crushed for oil used in Hellmann’s mayonnaise, a Unilever brand.
The consumer shift toward seeking food products with sustainability labels and claims has created opportunities and challenges for large- and small-scale food producers. The SARE program is viewed by many as contributing to farmer ability to meet those demands, and supporters attending the conference celebrated the recent increase in SARE funding.
“It’s really gratifying to see how, despite very tough fiscal times, Congress has responded to this program,” said Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic advisor for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Since fiscal year 2012, the SARE funding has gone up 82 percent.” He said that is the biggest increase, in percentage terms, of any program at the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.