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Can farmers sow their way out of climate change?

A climate reckoning in the heartland

Nine percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are caused by agriculture. Those emissions are changing the earth's climate and amplifying savage weather conditions that have been taking a heavy toll on the nation's farmers over the past few years. They've been battling historically wet conditions over the past year, including massive floods last spring.

As a result, over 19 million acres of land were left unplanted in the U.S. in 2019. And that cost farmers an estimated $7 billion dollars in lost revenue, says Chad Hart, an Associate Professor of Economics at Iowa State University. 

Recently, climate activists have begun a campaign to urge farmers to help reverse the warming trend. They say that farmers and ranchers have the capacity to cut emissions produced by agricultural activity dramatically and could even offset them to make U.S. agriculture carbon neutral.

"I have a lot of confidence that if we invite farmers into this problem...they're going to innovate around it and figure it out," Matt Russell, a farmer and Executive Director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, a group that advocates for faith-based solutions to climate change.  

Russell is quick to acknowledge that cost is a factor for farmers. "Part of that invitation is when you do this you get rewarded, like by being paid," he said.

The principle is simple, according to Russell: incentivize farmers and ranchers to reduce their carbon emission production and they'll see improved water quality and better soil health while capturing more carbon from the atmosphere. 

In practice, though, it's still not an easy choice for farmers. 

Russell makes the case that more farmers need to embrace practices like extended crop rotation, conservation tillage, which means farmers would rarely or never till soil, and keeping the soil covered with winter and perennial crops. He also says other agricultural methods would also have to be adopted, including putting livestock back on the land, practicing more rotational grazing, and generating green energy on farms.

Fighting global warming is a powerful incentive, but farmers are likely to need a financial boost, too, to make this a viable option for them.

If farmers and ranchers fully embrace these practices and control emissions from nitrogen fertilizer application, American agriculture could become carbon neutral within 10 years, says Emily Heaton, an associate professor in Iowa State University's Agronomy Department. She concedes these changes would require big shifts for the nation's farmers.

The outcomes

Soil is the largest terrestrial source of carbon and holds more of it than anything besides the oceans, according to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When farmers and ranchers grow crops and protect their soil, they can help take carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, a process known as carbon farming. 

"By changing how farmers grow the crops they currently grow, we can reduce the amount that agriculture contributes to climate change," Heaton said. That includes using some of that recently removed carbon energy instead of fossil fuel energy and making some changes to crops that are grown.  

Twenty million acres of cover crops — approximately five percent of U.S. cropland — can soak up enough carbon dioxide equivalent to offset emissions from 12.8 million passenger vehicles, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program and the EPA. 

For many farmers in Iowa, commodity crops are soybeans or corn. The cover crops that Russell and Heaton talk about are those that have positive environmental impacts, such as cereal rye or oats.

A big reason for farmers' reluctance to plant cover crops as part of their seasonal rotations is the cost, Russell said, even though they have benefit for farmers over time. The seed can cost about $30 per acre, and then it takes time and labor to plant it. If it's a crop like cereal rye, it won't die by the time farmers have to plant their commodity crops again. So, it'll cost the farmers again to kill the crop in the spring, since it's not being planted to be sold. Waiting for it to mature to harvest would mean they wouldn't be able to plant their commodity crops, which isn't an option.

Ray Gaesser farms 5,400 acres of corn and soybeans in Corning, Iowa. For the past 10 years, he's been planting about half of those acres with cover crops in between growing seasons. He says the practice has made his soil healthier and increased his crop yield. 

Saving the world while making a living

Gaesser believes that more farmers are ready to be engaged in environmental practices to improve their carbon footprint, and more are doing things like planting cover crops. But, he says that many do not "because they can't see a return on that investment."

"They need to be able to see that they can do these practices and still feed their family," Gaesser said. "That's the bottom line. It's about making a living."

There are some federal programs, including the USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), that pay farmers for environmental and conservation services. However, the bulk of incentives, such as subsidies, crop insurance and emergency payments for lost crops, push farmers to grow as many commodity crops, like corn and soybeans, as possible, Russell says. 

"Right now, the economics are that if I want to do high level conservation on my farm, I am bearing a lot of the risk," he said. 

Shifting away from that incentive structure could have huge environmental impacts, said Heaton. She says land that only grows annual commodity crops leaves the soil bare for several months and causes it to absorb less carbon dioxide than it could. Planting cover crops and more perennial crops, which don't have to be replanted every year, can turn soil into a carbon sponge.

"Right now, agriculture is a net emitter of greenhouse gases," Heaton said. "We will require a change in the kind of crops we grow if we really want to be carbon-negative."

There are two main issues from getting more farmers involved in environmental practices, according to Heaton. There needs to be greater institutional infrastructure, like providing insurance for carbon farming crops, increasing cover crop seed availability and making sure more farmers understand how to do environmental practices. The other issue is removing economic barriers.

Climate and the caucuses

Russell has worked on getting farmers involved in combating climate change for several years, but it was only after he started holding conversations with farmers in church basements last year, he says the idea began to take off and presidential candidates latched on. Nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates have included farmers and ranchers as key players in their climate plans. Their proposals include increasing money for the CSP, expanding crop insurance programs, letting farmers participate in carbon markets, paying farmers directly for improving soil health and providing funding for farmers to improve carbon sequestration. 

The idea is likely to resonate in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, where climate change is one of the top issues. Seventy-one percent of registered Iowa Democratic voters said climate change was "very important" in the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll, second only to healthcare. 

Russell has worked with nearly every campaign on the issue. He has also hosted candidates on his farm including Senator Kamala Harris and former Representative Beto O'Rourke, who before he ended his presidential bid last week often made references to paying farmers to fight climate change on the trail. 

Joe Biden's climate plan strives to ensure the American "agricultural sector is the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions." Elizabeth Warren says farmers need to be paid for proven practices to help "decarbonize the agricultural sector." Bernie Sanders says incentives need to be directed at "conservation not over-production." Pete Buttigieg says farmers can be "leaders...in the fight against climate change by paying them to capture carbon."

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