Organic Broadcaster

New tool helps farms track practices that improve environment

By Catie DeMets

Margaret Pennings and Dan Guenthner own Common Harvest Farm in western Wisconsin. They’ve been working with the University of Wisconsin’s Farm 2 Facts project on its Ecosystem Services tool that tracks a farm’s environmental impacts, including the practices in place to mitigate climate change. Photo by Chloe Surdell

On 40 lush acres perched above the St. Croix River Valley in western Wisconsin, Common Harvest Farm buzzes with life and the season’s activities. To onlookers, it’s clear the farm’s owners and stewards, Dan Guenthner and Margaret Pennings, work hard to ensure their farm benefits their local community and economy.

But there is even more to the farm than meets the eye. Guenthner and Pennings, longtime active MOSES participants, have introduced a wealth of practices to foster a healthy natural environment and generate ecological benefits. Common Harvest Farm is not just a homogenous swath of planted fields; it features a diverse mix of agriculture, pasture, vernal ponds and wetland, and woods.

This approach to agriculture profoundly affects ecologies both above and below the ground. Above, prairie strips around the farm create a refuge and food source for pollinators and beneficial insects. Below, the soil teems with life, absorbing nutrients and carbon and storing them safely under our feet.

How can we, as a society, value this kind of agriculture beyond just the cost of the produce? This question has long stymied us because it requires a shift from the single-minded, economic mentality of short-term growth and efficiency to a broader valuation of long-term sustainability and resilience. And, it requires producers to track their practices—a tall order for folks juggling a full season’s activities, even more so for beginning farmers who are, as Guenthner described, “dealing with the realities on the ground of getting products out of the field to customers.”

MBut here’s the rub: without measuring and tracking those practices, it’s hard to communicate or market a farm’s environmental impacts. This is especially true for small, diversified farms, including many organic operations, for whom agricultural carbon markets aren’t a good fit. What’s more, many such operations often aim to do much more for natural ecosystems than just sequester carbon. These kinds of holistic practices can be tricky to measure and communicate because of their complex and intertwined impacts.

This is where Farm 2 Facts comes in. Farm 2 Facts is a nonprofit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that helps farmers and farmers markets succeed by collecting meaningful data that can be used to tell their stories of community and economic impacts. We’ve been working closely with producers like Guenthner and other experts across the U.S. to create a streamlined new Ecosystem Services tool that collects data about a farm’s environmental impacts, including the ways they’re working to reduce climate change.

The Ecosystem Services tool translates data into customizable marketing materials that direct-market producers can use to tell the holistic story of how their practices are enhancing the natural environment. Through a 15-minute assessment, the tool asks producers about six key areas of practice: soil health, biodiversity, livestock, infrastructure, alternative power, and transportation. Farms can track their responses from year to year to benchmark and build on their improvements.

Guenthner, who has collaborated on the tool’s development, pointed out, “We’re all going to need to know in a lot more detail how our farm practices are contributing to climate change and environmental health, and the tool gives us a snapshot of that. It gives us an indication of where we are at this moment in time, and…once we’ve established that, we can get some indication of what progress looks like, what movement in the right direction looks like. Without establishing a benchmark, that’s very difficult to do.”

For instance, he explained, “Many farmers talk about nagging practices that are bothersome, whether too much tillage or purchasing of an input we know is not in concert with our values. The Ecosystem Services tool helps us recognize and name those things and then figure out a way to move forward. It adds openness and transparency to our reflection. I’m excited about that. I like being self-aware to the point of knowing that our farm can be better. And in our case, we have this supportive community that wants us to keep striving to do better.”

Indeed, one of the tool’s main purposes is to support farmers in communicating and marketing their environmental stories to their consumer communities. Guenthner expressed his hope that the Ecosystem Services tool will enable farmers to “start being recognized and paid for what they’re able to sequester rather than just what they’re able to produce. I hope that we can start thinking about farms not just as primary units of production, but for their conservation value and for [their value in achieving] larger societal and global goals.”

He added that farmers are “in a unique position in that we own land, or we are the managers of land, and we have the opportunity to make changes to meet these goals on a real scale. That’s very, very exciting! There’s something about owning a farm now that seems more timely and important than any other time we’ve been farming. For me, every day, climate impacts are real— but the opportunities to do something about them are equally real, and that’s very exciting. [Climate change] is not some hypothetical discussion that’s removed from our lives and comfortably compartmentalized. This is real, and we’re all trying to figure out how we deal with it…And we need partners and more help doing that.”

Farm 2 Facts helps by highlighting producers’ hard work to benefit natural ecosystems through the Ecosystem Services tool, which will launch in late summer at farm2facts.org.

Farm 2 Facts also offers a comprehensive suite of reporting metrics suitable for farmers markets looking to use data to more effectively market their story to their community and complete custom grant applications and reports. For more information on becoming a member and gaining full access to Farm 2 Facts’ suite of services, visit farm2facts.org or email.

Beyond serving individual producers, the Ecosystem Services tool will enable Farm 2 Facts member markets to aggregate responses to tell the story of their vendors’ collective environmental impacts. Through this, the tool aims to raise awareness and connect farmers and consumers around their shared goals to support a collective movement towards environmentally beneficial practices.

This, it turns out, is key to building mutually beneficial relationships with consumers. As Guenthner explained, many consumers “see themselves as being part of creating a new agriculture. They want to be part of something bigger than just access to organic produce for their own personal wellbeing. Any place where there’s an interface between the farm and the person eating the farm’s goods, people are seeking out deeper connections to not only the land, but the farmers, too.”

He added, “We as farmers have a lot of hard questions about our future, and more and more people want to be part of a solution. In the end, we’re all in this together and we all need to do our part—and that part can be a small plot of land in an urban farm or it can be a thousand-acre organic wheat farm—but we are all part of the same transformation of our food system.” Hopefully, the Ecosystem Services tool, too, can play a part in facilitating this transformation.

 

Catie DeMets is in the doctoral program in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is working on the Ecosystem Services tool with Farm 2 Facts.

 

From the July | August 2021 Issue

 

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