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Conservation and Conservatism on America's Farms

"Farmers who employ sustainable practices on their farm are saving money and reducing their impacts on climate change, which benefits literally everyone, everywhere."

This is an opinion piece by Brittany Wienke of the Rainforest Alliance.

I was standing in the middle of a mint farm in central Oregon, the fields stretching out far to my left and right, the snow-capped Cascade mountain range ahead of me—enormous even at a distance. Despite the amazing view, my eyes were drawn to the ground, where mint farmer Bob Franke was showing me how his farm conserves water.

"Water is a very precious commodity, so we're always looking for ways to conserve water," said Franke. He excitedly told me about the center-pivot irrigation system he installed on his farm called Essex Farm, a technology upgrade that reduced the farm's water usage by 40 percent. The bigger nozzles, lower-pressure water flow, and the closeness of the nozzles to the ground meant he used less water, and less water was lost to evaporation.


Water is a big deal in this part of Oregon—as it is in most of the western United States—and is the source of tense conflict between environmental organizations and farmers. The two groups are often seen in direct opposition to each other, and not only on the topic of water.
As has been widely reported recently, words like "sustainable," "climate-smart," or even "environment" cause instant suspicion in many farming communities. According to a 2013 survey among Idaho farmers, 35 percent said climate change was caused equally by natural changes in the environment and human causes. 23 percent said climate change was mostly caused by natural changes, 27 percent said there was not sufficient evidence, and 4.6 percent said climate change was not occurring at all.

And farmers don't trust environmental organizations to provide advice. The same survey says 29 percent of respondents trusted information and advice from environmental groups the least. (31 percent trusted the mainstream media the least, and 18 percent said federal agencies were least trustworthy.)

But Franke's farm straddles this divide. Essex Farms is on the cusp of achieving Rainforest Alliance certification, the second farm in the United States to do so. (The first, Albrecht Farms, is also a mint farm, about three hours' drive away from Essex Farms.) In addition to strict water conservation, Essex Farms also practices a number of sustainable agricultural techniques. But here, their appeal is less about protecting the environment and more about cost-saving and quality control.


Essex and Albrecht Farms sought Rainforest Alliance certification not necessarily because they wanted to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods (which is the Rainforest Alliance's mission). As Kody Albrecht, who runs Albrecht Farms, put it: "We get a premium for [certified] product." Their buyer, CoreBotanica, a high-quality mint processor, actually increased the amount of mint they bought from Albrecht after he committed to certification.

Running a farm in the U.S. is an expensive business—both farmers told me about the multi-million dollar loans they've had to take out, and I saw the several hundred-thousand dollar pieces of equipment stored in the farm shop. It's not a secret that farming is a hard game with slim margins, so every edge, certification included, gives farmers a bit of a boost.

Mint farmers Lonnie (left) and Bob (right) of Essex Farms.

While Franke and Albrecht fetch a higher price for their certified (or, in Franke's case, soon-to-be-certified) mint, they're also reducing their contribution to climate change. Even though we never explicitly discussed climate change, both men talked to me about how wild the weather had been in the past year. Essex Farms got 24 inches of snow this winter, which is way above their average.

When the weather doesn't do what it's supposed to, there's an economic reality that farmers have to deal with—and increasingly, they're dealing with it using sustainable agriculture practices.


For example, on Essex and Albrecht Farms, land is left undeveloped for wildlife habitat, which helps preserve biodiversity. The farms do everything they can to conserve water. Albrecht and Franke employ a complex series of crop rotations and practice no-till farming, which enriches the soil, produces a high-quality product, saves on labor, and reduces the farm's greenhouse gas emissions. They keep detailed records, so they can increase efficiency, which saves money and also reduces emissions. Organic matter gets left in the field or composted, reducing waste and saving labor costs.

Every single technique Franke and Albrecht demonstrated have dual benefits.

One: these conservation practices make economic sense, reducing inputs and saving costs while leaving them with a high-quality product that could sell for more. Two: the conservation practices work to reduce the farm's greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore reduce their contribution to climate change.

Mint from Essex Farm poking up after the long winter.

It doesn't matter which you think is more important. Farmers who employ sustainable practices on their farm are saving money and reducing their impacts on climate change, which benefits literally everyone, everywhere.

There isn't a farmer in the U.S. who isn't dealing with climate change, whether they call it climate change or crazy weather. Weather patterns are changing and it's impossible to count on the seasons like we used to. Delayed action from farmers exacerbates climate change—but more to the point, it can mean lost revenue for farmers who aren't prepared.

So what can you do? Patronize your local farmers markets. Educate yourself on climate change and farming issues, from how changing weather patterns will affect farmers to how your local legislators propose to deal with it—if they even plan to deal with it. And link up with an environmental organization that is both pro-farmer and pro-climate action. The two are not mutually exclusive; everyone wants clean water, pure air, food security, and a future for farmers. Donations are the best way to help, but volunteering is helpful too.

Besides the Rainforest Alliance, you can visit the Union of Concerned Scientists or Food Tank to learn more.**