Morning sun rays light up a wheat field with a barbed wire fence in the foreground
Tell Judkins/ODWC

Is maintaining or even boosting your bottom-line while improving wildlife habitat a pipe dream? It’s a topic that is worth exploring.

I was recently at a workshop which included a landowner panel discussion. While answering a question about what had kept him from doing certain conservation work on his land previously, one landowner had given the answer “I was a farmer, and as a farmer you don’t just take land out of production.” That answer set off quite a cascade of thoughts for multiple people. I know where that landowner is coming from. For at least three generations before me, my family has been farmers. If you could remove a stump in the Ozark hills and get one more bushel of tomatoes, it was worth the work to get that stump pulled. If you could make the perfect corner instead of rounding it out, you could gain an extra couple hundredths of an acre. God gave man dominion of the world, and for the farmer that has been their job; to make it produce and feed their family, and nowadays, the world. But then other thoughts came, like, what if instead of the mindset of “removing” land from production we’d change the focus of production.

Instead of only focusing on producing a commodity for sale, like grain or hay, what if we also considered producing “wildlife habitat,” or “soil health,” or “water quality.” Production of these things still takes effort and conscious decision. “I can’t feed my family with wildlife habitat or soil health,” you might say; producers still must make a profit to sustain themselves and their family. Is it possible for them to produce some of these more-intangible items but still net a similar income? Well, that question has enough angles to it that an absolute answer is impossible, but in a lot of cases I believe the answer is yes.

How can that be? While there are several different reasons, they can be grouped in a couple of different buckets; reduced inputs, maximized returns, and secondary income streams.

Many farmers or ranchers can give the numbers for their average return per acre and their average input cost per acre but haven’t looked at individual acres or the actual cost for production on specific acres. Let’s take a flood-prone acre as an example. The cost to farm that acre is just as much as a drier acre, possibly more, as you may also be spot spraying for invasive weeds that seed after a flooding event, or you may have more tillage operations involved or you may have to make a return trip to the field to catch that spot after it dries up. If that acre was instead devoted to something else, like a riparian buffer if it was near a stream channel or water body, how much would you save by not having those input costs?

Now, with that acre taken out of commodity production, the overall commodity production of the property will be reduced. That’s often seen as a bad thing, and the discussion stops. But let’s look at the average production of the remaining acres. That flooded acre, for example, would often produce a reduced crop – or even no crop – in a year, so by taking that acre “out of production” (or using our new mindset, “changing the production” of that acre) the average of the field remaining in production would actually increase by removing that “low score.” So, with lower inputs we have only slightly lowered total (gross) return but have increased our average (net) return. Now, let’s examine some additional factors that often are not considered. In that less-productive acre that used to be constantly tilled we have now “changed production” and are focusing on soil health and water quality. This sets off a cascade of benefits. With living roots constantly in the ground, organic matter and soil carbon increase causing the water holding capacity to increase. When it rains, more water is captured and held allowing perennial cover to grow. This, in turn, provides habitat for pollinators and predatory insects that can increase the productivity of the remaining farmed acres. Measurable? Maybe, maybe not, but it is always better to work alongside with nature rather than against it.

“Well that all sounds really nice, but it is still an acre that isn’t generating any income.” Alright, let’s take a broader look at how we can make an income off an acre. Some of the obvious secondary income streams involve any number of programs that help incentivize ecological goods and services. Programs like the Conservation Security Program through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Conservation Reserve Program through the Farm Service Agency, carbon sequestration programs, conservation easement programs, the list can go on. Yes, getting involved in some of these may feel like you’re completing a graduate degree, but there is help out there if you look and ask. And like people said about filling out scholarship applications in high school, if you can get paid a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars for filling out some papers, sure seems like an easy way to make some money. Maybe you’d like to make an income without being in “some government program.” Consider the growing market for specialty products like local honey, homemade jellies and jams, even wildflowers. Or maybe you or someone in your community is looking to bolster their food security and there’s an opportunity for pastured poultry or free-range eggs. Or there is opportunity for recreational lease income, either in a private transaction, or through the Wildlife Department’s Oklahoma Land Access Program. Through all this, or with some other outside-the-box thinking, I am confident there are ways that you can bring some type of additional return from an “alternate production” acre.

So, through all this I hope I have given you a little different viewpoint on production. While farmers and ranchers have a long tradition of being caretakers of the land, the continual push for maximum production and the pride of the hard-work mentality has possibly led to a loss of focus on efficiency and on our natural resources. With a new perspective and a little thought, we can continue to be stewards of the land and the producers of our nation’s food and clothing.

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