Producing environmental benefits will become an important enterprise for American farmers, giving them the ability to monetize their response to climate change and other environmental challenges. But as these new enterprises get going, farmers, agribusiness professionals, researchers, policymakers, and rural leaders need to ask how these solutions can be created by farmers — not just be something that happens to farmers.

Will ecosystem services, following the conventional model of agriculture, be driven by a top-down model prescribing how farmers will farm? Will it leave them holding the costs while those further up the supply chain reap the benefits? Or will ecosystem services be developed by farmers innovating on their land, with significant value staying on the farm? If so, farmers will be empowered to pursue the best innovations to accelerate the disruptive changes that the science clearly indicates need to happen.

Over the past 50 years, America minimized or excluded those innovations and that entrepreneurialism. Success was defined in terms of efficiency, with the aim being the highest crop yields and the most productive livestock systems. But there were also costs to these systems that have long been coming due, in water quality, soil health, and now climate change.

This economic model has also been built on scale and consolidation, which means the bigger have only gotten bigger, driving others out. This vicious cycle works only if farmers adopt top-down technologies; it prevents farmers from innovating within these systems to try and improve them. But even for farmers who do manage to tinker within the system, innovations are often appropriated by the supply chain, and profits pulled upwards.

Read the full article about rewarding farmers' innovations by Matt Russell and Robert Leonard at The Rural Blog.