The reigning emphasis of environmental philanthropy is missing opportunities to do good

Dec 20, 2021

Trying to help build more trust among farmers and those who serve and finance them would yield much benefit.

Private farmers, ranchers, and foresters in the United States and most other free countries could easily adopt profitable and cost-saving practices that will improve soil integrity, enhance water quality, and produce more wildlife—while lessening damage from or perhaps improving atmospheric conditions that drive much climate change at the same time. And they might be able to make more money or cut costs. This could all be carefully developed and encouraged, including through philanthropically supported means.

In the U.S., more than a million farm, ranch, and forestry families own and manage soils, waters, wildlife, and crops. Farmlands cover about 40% of our nation. To improve that land’s enhancement of our atmosphere further, what works now and what is needed for the future? Trusted messengers, encouragement, and examples. Nonprofit groups and concerned individuals could help create and nurture packages of those.

Local farmers coming up with and implementing innovative, profitable solutions carries much more weight than government agencies, academia, or research projects led from afar. While publicly supported university extension programs provide a vast array of scientifically and economically sound educational and research services to agriculturalists, there are an increasing number of private groups—including nonprofits—that are doing research, offering services, and deploying incentives related to issues pertaining to farmers, ranchers, and foresters, and climate change.

Following fellow farmer families

But the matter of whom one can and should trust arises. Three examples of agricultural conservation success demonstrate how effective innovation inspired by teachers, stimulation, and examples can be.

Cover crops that protect soil against losses due to water and wind erosion—Jimmy and Ginger Emmons of Oklahoma adopted cover crops so successfully that the U.S. Department of Agriculture reclassified soils on their farm because of a great increase in organic matter. More organic matter means that carbon dioxide has been taken out of our air.

Rotation, altering the sequence of crops or cattle—Jerry Doan of North Dakota adopted intensive rotational grazing, achieving a number of objectives all at once, including more wildlife, better cattle production, weed control, and soil-health enhancement. And greater profitability.

Grazing on cover crops—that is, bringing in livestock to eat plants that covered the ground, but could not on their own be harvested—The family-owned Jorgensen Land & Cattle Company of South Dakota shows how to graze more cattle on the same amount of land. They produce more cattle to sell because forage is greater when wintertime cover crops also keep soil from wind erosion.

As it stands now, in my opinion, “smart philanthropic money” would and should increase its private bolstering of direct, farmer-to-farmer practices like these that mitigate the harm of climate change.

Moving forward, nonprofits could be supported to explore training and motivating of farm-services providers. Those are, generally, agronomists who sell seeds, fertilizers, and gather and distribute information. Also, bankers would do well for the land of their clients by being better aware of some of these practices, too.

Oxygen and opportunities

It is a matter of human nature: farmers are likely to trust peers who are economically successful. Many farmers trust the agronomists with whom they contract. Nearly all farmers have to “trust” their bankers.

Help develop and then fortify more trust, I’d say, then get out of the way. From my decades of experience in the field, I believe effective nonprofits across our nation could do this—benefiting thousands of agricultural producers and their families.

Overall, it seems to me that the reigning, aggressive “climate-change” emphasis in environmental philanthropy “sucks a lot of oxygen out of the room” for what could be real, genuine, “on-the-ground” improvements in habitat, water quality, and species conservation on private lands. This is too bad, and is causing much missed opportunity to do good.