‘Pencil Farming’: a Threat to Climate Action

Why field experience is a necessary input, and why growers should be the focus of our climate conversations.

Growers are at the forefront of climate mitigation. Their decisions (though influenced largely by the agrifood supply chain) determine how food production affects our environment, and they are the first to feel the effects when the climate shifts.

But often, growers aren’t in the room for climate conversations and program development. 

Why is that? Is it because growers have other priorities? Do companies, project developers and standards bodies assume they can develop one-size-fits-all programs that will apply to most operations? Is it because those parties assume farmers will work within the boundaries of our programs? 

No matter the answer, one thing is clear: in order to build lasting, effective climate programs, we must step away from more generalized ideas of farming and lean on the experts in the field.

‘Pencil farming’ happens off the field, and it lacks essential context for program development

'Pencil farming' came up as a common concern across both growers and agrifood corporations during this year's Agriculture Resilience Summit. It refers to the practice of planning agriculture practices without understanding what happens on the field. 

This approach can be dangerous when it comes to climate efforts, as it fails to take into account how conditions on the ground may differ from those in the plans, and how changing environmental conditions could affect agricultural production. 

In order to truly understand agricultural systems, farmers must experience producing food on their land and in their own fields. Through this type of hands-on experience, farmers gain an intimate knowledge of their environment that cannot be obtained through pencil farming alone. 

All stakeholders in the agrifood supply chain except farmers (advisors, project developers, sustainability leaders, researchers) are at risk of pencil farming if they don’t have access to necessary resources (growers) or context (agricultural data). 

Pencil farming can be more dangerous than it sounds; especially when ‘on-paper’ practices turn into full climate programs.

For example, some growers may experience extreme weather events, pests or other unforeseen circumstances that interrupt cropping plans or threaten yield and profits. In moments like this, growers need to make real-time decisions to save their crop. ‘Pencil farming’ doesn’t take into account the need for real-time decision making, and as a result, some decisions can cost farmers eligibility in carbon or conservation programs.

It is essential that we center growers in our climate efforts if we are going to build a more resilient food system and meet our climate targets. Farmers possess valuable insight into how best to maximize yields while respecting environmental limits - which is essential for both agricultural success and sustainable development. If we want our climate efforts to be successful, it is critical that we provide growers with access to resources and support them in taking an active role in planning for sustainable agricultural development.

Bringing efforts to the field

Involving growers in discussions around climate policies allows them to offer input on how best to implement climate-smart farming practices according to their own conditions.

How can we center growers in our climate efforts?

  • Consider more flexibility in program development. One grower at Agriculture Resilience Summit explained that a series of extreme weather events (flooding and drought in alternating seasons) led to changes in his crop rotation, and as a result, he was ineligible to participate in a conservation program he’d prepared for. What would happen if we allowed growers the freedom to choose how they’d like to meet program goals? What if we suggested viable practice changes and timelines, and allowed some space for growers to implement practices that help them fulfill program commitments without sacrificing other aspects of their operations (like crop production or mitigation for unforeseen weather events?)
  • Consider focusing on grower support as a means of building supply chain resilience. While transparency is important, it doesn’t allow growers flexibility in practice implementation. If a grower is unable to implement sustainable practices one year, that shouldn’t lead businesses to source commodities elsewhere for the sake of sustainability metrics. Rather, it should encourage businesses to make long-term commitments to producers, helping them establish the resources to transition to climate-smart practices. Upfront commitments to growers tend to have long-term rewards, as one Summit panelist described.
  • Include growers in program development. From data collection technology to outcomes measurement, ensure that the processes and technologies in your program will fit growers’ needs and capabilities. Ensuring that program participation is simple and streamlined will help you secure long-term participants… and long-term results.

With more growers at the table, we’ll have less need for ‘pencil farming.’ Let’s continue to build resilience by ensuring that our systems and programs are accessible and useful for producers. 

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