Debates among farmers about which agriculture methods are more successful and profitable have gone on for decades in rural coffee shops. No harm, no foul. But skirmishes between environmentalists and farmers take a different tone and going more public.

Two cases came to light this week:

An interesting story in the Bemidji Pioneer (Minn.) outlined intense debate between environmental interests and farmers in the vulnerable Pinelands Sands area of north-central Minnesota. The Northern Water Alliance is pushing farmers to adopt a more regenerative approach, while farmers there are trying to eke out a living in a tough economic environment.

Locals say this battle has been brewing for a decade and some are asking for a compromise to be reached between conservation initiatives and farming needs. One farmer held a field day recently and, despite his reservations, invited the Alliance’s director and other supporters to discuss their differences.

Mike Tauber, who leads the Alliance, has been critical of ‘corporate farms’ and the potential impacts they could have on the environment. Speaking about a large potato producer in the state, he told the Pioneer that if the company adopted regenerative practices they would, in his eyes, go from a ‘pariah’ to a ‘messiah.’

“There’s a gigantic demand for real food. It’s coming, and it can’t be stopped," he says.

• A district court in western Kansas ruled the chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources acted properly in approving a water-management tool proposed by the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4 to aid in local conservation efforts to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.

On October 15, 2019, the Gove County District Court upheld the adoption of a Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) in much of the district. The case was brought by multiple petitioners who are required under the LEMA plan to reduce the amount of groundwater withdrawn over the next 5 years, the Hays Post reports.

Petitioners challenged whether the reductions in water use can be made without those cuts being based on priority (date the water right was approved) and generally challenged the lawfulness of any cuts or use of a LEMA, the Post says. But the court found the LEMA plan’s restrictions “do not appear to be unconstitutional on their face or as applied. There is substantial evidence backing the agency’s decision and therefore it is not arbitrary or capricious.”

These debates are important to have, but also hard to watch because both sides have legitimate points and concerns.

Feeling pressure from consumers who want safer food, some large food companies are putting more pressure on their suppliers to raise food sustainably. The term “regenerative agriculture” takes no-tilling even further, as it pushes more crop diversity, livestock integration, living roots in the soil year round and a reduced dependence on synthetic inputs. One example is General Mills, which announced it will partner with organic and conventional farmers to drive regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres by 2030.

I do worry about farmers who ignore the conservation movement. Frankly, it’s hard to understand such a choice with all the tools available to help today, including Facebook, YouTube, NRCS and Extension staff and programs, local and national conferences, field days and the like. There’s a lot more help now than there was for farmers joining the no-till movement began during the 1970s who had to figure out management challenges on their own.

The Ogallala aquifer is dwindling and that poses a very real risk to Great Plains farmers and their communities. Sure, nobody wants to be told to use less water. But there is technology that can improve irrigation efficiency and even some financial incentives available to implement it. Yet some farmers are stubbornly lining up new pivots anyway. Why keep fighting it?

I also know from reading and writing hundreds of articles on farm management over the last decade that success doesn’t come overnight when making big changes on farms. Some 104 million acres of farm ground in the U.S. is no-tilled, and acreage under cover crops is growing at an even faster rate. The number of acres farmers reported under “intensive tillage” dropped nearly 25% in the period between the 2012 and 2017 Census of Ag reports.

There has been progress. But it’s taken nearly 60 years for no-tilled acres to reach their current level, and cover crops have barely scratched the surface of their potential. Just quitting fertilizer and herbicide cold turkey isn’t a great idea, as it can cause unneeded crop failures. I think there is a tendency by not all, but some, advocates of regenerative agriculture to greenwash over adoption challenges. It's one thing to advocate, and it's another to provide resources and solutions to these challenges. 

The lead article in Dryland No-Tiller this week offers examples of a handful of growers in Canada who moved to regenerative practices successfully. It does take some planning and forethought. Hype alone doesn’t get it done.

For progress to continue in the transformation of agriculture in the U.S. there needs to be dialogue, rather than threats of fines, lawsuits and endless bureaucracy. The only people that win those fights are lawyers. Let’s keep the conversations going and use our taxpayer dollars to boost incentives instead.