Can it pay to stop farming unproductive land?

Taking underperforming areas of a field out of production can support farm profitability and conservation, say researchers

Can some farmers increase their profitability by not working underperforming parts of the field? Researchers at the University of Guelph think so.

According to those researchers, combining conservation with crop production on a field-by-field level can better serve both the environment and producers’ bottom lines.

Why it matters: Consistently underperforming areas of a farm hurt profitability. Small investments in conservation are an option for situations where that productivity can’t be improved in an economically viable way.

Calculating (potentially poor) performance

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Some data evaluation software used by Canadian crop input supply companies evaluates unprofitable acres.

What they find with that software is now backed up by a recently published study called “Precision conservation meets precision agriculture: a case study for southern Ontario”.

Study researchers gathered yield data from three farms in southern Ontario over a 10-year period. The data was converted into profit maps showing which regions of each field had management costs that exceeded the market value of the commodities produced. This was measured over time to identify areas with consistently low or negative profits.

Overall, the researchers found examples of relatively small areas within each farm that could be taken out of production without affecting the economic revenue for the producer.

Clarence Swanton, a grain farmer, professor in the department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, and one of the study’s authors, said the results illustrate how precision technology — specifically yield mapping — can be useful in linking environmental improvements to farm profitability.

Swanton said farmers know which part or parts of a given field do not perform well.

What’s less known is how much money is being lost when those areas continue to be worked. With yield mapping, producers can directly analyze performance for specific areas over time and get a much better idea on the returns (or lack thereof) being generated from those underperforming soils.

Determining the business sense of conservation

Once the losses associated with underperforming parts of a field are known, the logical next step is to investigate ways to improve productivity, as in what it would cost to fix the problem and whether that cost is reasonable.

If rectifying the situation doesn’t make good economic sense, Swanton said producers should determine the feasibility of working around the area. If it can be done practically, it’s then possible to investigate what he refers to as “ecosystem-service” approaches. These could include planting trees, converting the area to pollinator habitat or grassland, or whatever approach will work for both the farm and conservation. Often it can be done with minimal investment, he said.

“All of a sudden now precision ag starts making you money. It works on a field-by-field basis. Some situations may not be worth changing, but others will … we have the data to back this up.”

The land rental factor

The study also acknowledged barriers associated with rented land, where renting farmers are less likely to invest in conservation practices and more likely to plant crops on unproductive land in an effort to make some profit, however small.

For Swanton, opportunities exist if data indicates potential savings for the renter and conservation ideas resonate with the landlord’s personal values. With more urban dwellers buying or inheriting farmland and the continued proliferation of precision farming technologies, this scenario could become more common.

“We can overcome barriers with good communication, data, and management decisions,” Swanton said. “The whole thing has to make business sense and appeal to values.”

Other benefits

Aside from increasing production efficiency, Swanton said that greater diversity in the landscape can have more indirect economic impacts for farmers. More specifically, he said diversity can help growers better handle “fluctuating conditions,” including the more acute and increasingly frequent weather extremes indicative of a changing global climate.

The study also argues these small, farm-level conservation projects could have benefits in the world of trade.

“Management practices that are environmentally friendly are now valued in the market,” the study said. “Enhancing conservation and sustainable production through precision agriculture could thus help producers to better brand their products, and secure and enter new markets.”

Clarence added the overall public perception of agriculture might be better if more landscape diversity was visible.

About the author

Contributor

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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