Ecosystem Services in Working Lands: US Northeast

Recommendation 4.2 Evaluate the role of cash-transfer and basic income programs to supplement conventional, market-based systems.

 For Cooperative Extension: Working closely with working-lands managers and producers, develop an understanding of how to give farmers the financial support and other resources they need to make a good living in agriculture.  For Agricultural Experiment Stations: Gauge the feasibility and scope of cash-transfer/basic income programs and investigate ways of combining these efforts with efforts to improve the provisioning of ecosystem services to increase synergies between economic and ecological needs and priorities. In thinking critically about some of these issues, the authors of this report see a lot of benefit from talking about ecosystem services in the context of the changing labor market. This is especially true in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has dramatically shifted attitudes about labor in the U.S. and elsewhere. Labor geographies are shifting across the traditional urban-rural divide, and options for hybrid and remote employment and education are also becoming more numerous and widespread, especially in the U.S. Northeast. Therefore, new opportunities are emerging to rethink how labor is distributed and how changing distributions of labor might be leveraged to improve livelihoods and ecosystem services. This change comes as novel policy solutions such as direct cash transfers and universal basic income have gained traction, leading to unprecedented public support and political will. In different ways, cash transfer and basic income programs involve direct, unconditional payments to individuals or households with the aim of supplementing income derived from other livelihood activities (Lee 2021). Research has shown that not only do such schemes work remarkably well in low-, middle- and high-income countries (Forget et al. 2013), but they do so in such a way that is more efficient and cuts down on bureaucratic oversight and the additional costs that come with it (Van Parijs 2004). Put succinctly, while such programs are not a silver bullet, they are an important policy tool that can be used strategically to address the effects of macro- economic factors on households and individuals. In the context of working-lands professions, and agriculture more specifically, one could imagine a direct cash transfer or basic income scheme that supplements farm-based income, especially during the vulnerable first years for new and beginning farmers. Such a basic income structure could also be scalable based on the production of various ecosystem services that new farmers produce on their land. One might also imagine a basic income program that covers young farmers or farm workers during the off-season as a way to bridge lean winter months and keep them plugged into the local food system. If combined with programs that actively provide education to prospective farmers — as well as with resources and financing opportunities to secure farm land — such a program might incentivize multiple material and non-material ecosystem services at the same time. The confluence of changing labor geographies and attitudes provides an interesting and timely space for exploring potentially transformative policy solutions that address intersecting concerns around labor and ecosystem services on working lands. Such policies are, no doubt, of interest to producers and land managers generally; however, for young people attempting to enter into the profession, they may prove particularly valuable. Researching such programs and policies that specifically target this gap between labor and ecosystem services is one important avenue of future research, one with potentially much to offer in regards to increasing the appeal of agriculture and working-lands careers to young people.

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