In a new effort to spark investment in sustainable agriculture, Earth Economics is embarking on an agriculture-focused valuation project to assess the economic impact of sustainable management practices on ecosystem services.

As populations grow and urbanized development accelerates, farmland is under increasing pressure to be productive and operationally efficient. More than half of U.S. cropland is currently dedicated to a handful of high-yielding commodity crops, yet this type of conventional farming harms soil quality and health, eventually decreasing productivity. Farms also frequently become dependent on synthetic inputs that hurt ecosystems and human health.

Cattle graze on one of Farmland LP’s organic pastures near Corvallis, Oregon.

Cattle graze on one of Farmland LP’s organic pastures near Corvallis, Oregon.

Most farmers are locked into this predominant conventional, mono-cropping system, despite the fact that research and thousands of years of practice clearly show that farmland is most productive when a variety of crops and livestock are grown and raised in synergistic, multi-year rotations rather than mono-cropping systems.

Some innovators and farmland trusts are seeking to spur a transition back to more sustainable practices. Investors are beginning to purchase conventionally-managed farmland to convert to organic, sustainably-managed crop and livestock rotations. By investing in farmland, many see an important opportunity to support the transition to sustainable practices while also making a solid return on their investments.

With more and more investors looking to farmland, there is a growing need for consistent and transparent metrics to monitor farmland’s environmental performance. That’s why Earth Economics is partnering on an agriculture-focused valuation project with Farmland LP, a sustainable agriculture investment fund, and Delta Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on energy, ecosystems, and waste. In May, our team and members of Farmland LP and Delta Institute visited some of the sites where conversion to sustainable practices is taking place. This on-the-ground field visit will prove invaluable for setting context as we move forward with the project.

Introducing diverse pastures into crop rotations can improve soil quality and fertility. Our team and partners examine the soil in a converted pasture in Oregon that has now been sustainably managed for several years.

Introducing diverse pastures into crop rotations can improve soil quality and fertility. Our team and partners examine the soil in a converted pasture in Oregon that has now been sustainably managed for several years.

This new collaboration will quantify the financial impacts of farm-scale, sustainable management practices on ecosystem services. The project focuses on Farmland LP properties in California’s Sacramento Delta region and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but the results will be applicable nationwide. As part of the project, the team will develop a tool for agricultural producers, landowners, and other stakeholders to quantify and report on the effects of their management practices, both sustainable and conventional.

This new analysis will provide invaluable data for investors – with a clear picture of the financial impacts of sustainable agriculture practices, they’ll be able to gauge the environmental and financial impacts of their investment and compare investment options. If this sort of data can sway investment away from conventional agriculture, then this could be a big step towards a more sustainable economy.

Investors won’t be the only ones to benefit in this case - farmers and neighboring communities will, too. Farmers will have more access to organic or transitional farmland, and sustainable farms tend to boost the local economy with more jobs and better profits. Nearby farms and communities will also see their soil, air, and water quality improve as farmland is converted. All in all, this sort of data is exactly what we need to support the transition to a more sustainable future.

Photo Credits: Mary Stephens