Measuring a farm’s ecosystem services

Farm 2 Facts, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Kaufman Lab at UW-Madison, is developing a new Ecosystem Services metric to quantify farms’ efforts to conserve the natural environment.

Farm 2 Facts works with farms and farmers markets to help them collect and analyze data in order to measure their economic, social, and ecological impacts. The concept for the Ecosystem Services metric came from suggestions from several farmers and market organization leaders, including Justin Cantafio from the Farmers Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative in Canada, who said the organization should create a tool to help farmers communicate their environmental impact.

Initially, the Ecosystem Services metric was envisioned to solely measure a farm’s greenhouse gas emissions. Almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to agriculture, according to the EPA. The introduction of monoculture and large-scale conventional farming drastically changed the natural landscape worldwide and led to a decrease of carbon sequestration in soils. When carbon isn’t stored in soil, it is released into the atmosphere and causes what is called the “greenhouse effect” – causing pollution, destabilizing natural climatic conditions and, ultimately, driving climate change. Many small farms are taking measures to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions and increase their soil’s carbon storage capacity.

However, during the process of creating the metric, our team learned that farms use a wide variety of practices beyond carbon sequestration to benefit the environment. We spoke to a diverse array of farmers including Dan Guenthner and Margaret Pennings of Common Harvest Farm, a diversified vegetable CSA operation in Osceola, WI, April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range LLC, a heritage pork producer in Blanchardville, WI, James Stoll of Silver Sky Ranch in Petaluma, CA, a sustainable grass-fed, free-range beef and poultry ranch, Farmer Stephen (who prefers not to use last name), a regenerative vegetable farmer in northern CA, and the Thompson family at Thompson Farms in Dixie, Georgia.

Along with research on best practices, the practices and environmental impacts we found through discussions with these and other farmers and experts pointed to six key aspects of how farms affect the ecosystem: farm infrastructure and machinery, livestock, soil health practices, alternative power, biodiversity, and transportation to markets. Together, these components create a comprehensive overview of the benefits a farm provides to the environment, or “ecosystem services.”

To use the Ecosystem Services metric, farmers fill out a survey addressing each of the above six components. The results from the survey can then be used by both farmers pursuing environmentally friendly methods to distinguish themselves in the marketplace and farmers market managers and other organizations to apply for grant funding to support their work and expand their efforts!

The ecosystem services metric celebrates farms for the beneficial practices they use and suggests tailored methods for strengthening on-farm sustainability. For instance, for a farmer who responds that their farm does not include any practices to support pollinators, the Ecosystem Services metric might encourage them to plant prairie strips, which foster biodiversity while fulfilling several other ecosystem services (including carbon sequestration, decreased water runoff, increased soil and nutrient retention, and increased bird and pollinator abundance according to this study).

Farm 2 Facts has begun its initial stages of testing the metric and will be launching the Ecosystem Services metric soon; keep an eye out as we report out on the metric’s progress in the months ahead! We are excited to provide this service to support all the great work of our local farms and farmers. For more information about the metric or how to become involved with our work, please contact Catie DeMets at 

Photo by Anna Feldman.