This blog was guest authored by Kris Johnson of The Nature Conservancy and Clare Lindahl of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
Science tells us that moving toward a regenerative agriculture system by improving nutrient management and rebuilding soil health in farm fields can deliver dramatic productivity benefits for farmers, while also delivering a range of environmental benefits. But research also tells us that focusing our efforts on in-field practices alone is not enough. We need to improve conservation opportunities at the edges of the farm fields, too.
A whole-farm—or whole-systems—approach to improving agricultural management is necessary for long-term sustainability and profitability, and to meet water quality, greenhouse gas, and habitat goals. To fully employ a systems approach to agriculture, producers need access to both in-field and edge of field (EoF) conservation practices.
EoF practices are designed to slow, filter, and process water running off from farm fields, both above and below the surface. In addition to providing water quality benefits, they also enhance carbon and water storage, pollinator and wildlife habitat, and streambank stabilization. Edge of field practices—including vegetated buffers, two-stage ditches, wetlands, bioreactors, and prairie strips—can be paired with in-field conservation practices to support farm productivity and profitability while maximizing the conservation benefits. In fact, TNC scientists estimate that approximately 550,000 acres of restored and constructed wetlands could help treat nutrient loss from 50 million acres of cropland.
Farmers across the United States have successfully installed EoF practices to better manage water and reduce nutrient and sediment loss from their fields, demonstrating the crucial role well-managed farms can play in solving environmental challenges. However, EoF practices have not yet been applied at meaningful scales, likely due to up-front costs, technical barriers, and misperceptions about the role these practices can play on productive, profitable farms.
To overcome these barriers to adoption, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS), and Meridian Institute recently unveiled Leading at the Edge: A Roadmap to Advance Edge of Field Practices in Agriculture. Featuring successful and innovative case studies from across the nation and recognizing the accomplishments of individuals and organizations, the EoF Roadmap is a blueprint for collaborative action to implement these practices on a larger scale and at a faster rate.
Over the last year, TNC, SWCS and Meridian Institute, with support from the Walmart Foundation, convened 26 partners with expertise and experience in agriculture, conservation, water issues, and relevant research, policy, and practice. Partners included farmer leaders and early adopters of EoF practices; representatives from environmental and conservation nonprofits, commodity groups, professional associations, and agriculture and food companies; and current and former public agency staff. This diverse group collaborated to develop nine recommendations to advance effective public policy, support innovative private sector action, enhance, technical assistance and create partnerships to advance EoF practice adoption.
Adopting EoF practices is a crucial, but underutilized, conservation opportunity to reduce nutrient and sediment loss from farm fields and restore functional landscape features that benefit people and nature. The EoF Roadmap is just the beginning. The true value will be realized through collective action to enact the Roadmap’s recommendations and lasting impact on the farm and beyond.