By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Coordinator
On the 49th annual celebration of Earth Day, National Farmers Union (NFU) is highlighting the existential threat that climate change poses to American agriculture as well as the critical role of farmers and ranchers in mitigation and adaptation efforts.
“Climate change is the single greatest challenge facing family farmers, rural communities, and global food security,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “We should all be striving, every day, to be better conservationists, but Earth Day is an important reminder that this is the only planet we have, and we must work together to preserve it.”
Though warmer average temperatures, greater weather extremes, and rising sea levels affect every sector in one capacity or another, the consequences for agriculture are direct and immediate. “Family farmers and ranchers rely on reliable weather patterns for nearly every part of their livelihoods, from planting to harvest,” noted Johnson. “In the best of times, there’s always some uncertainty in what the temperature or precipitation might look like on any given day. But climate change has thrown these natural systems out of whack, adding even greater unpredictability into an already risky profession.”
As a result, farmers are facing more serious pest pressures, heat stress on livestock, and greater crop loss to drought, wildfire, and flooding — all of which mean lower yields and lower incomes. As the climate continues to change, one can expect these difficulties will only intensify.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, farmers across the country are stepping up to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Many are doing so by implementing conservation practices that build soil health and increase soil carbon sequestration, thus offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions that have fueled this crisis. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, cover crops were planted on 50 percent more acres in 2017 than in 2012, indicating a greater trend towards climate awareness.
Jim Teigen, who has been growing field crops with his wife Rita for the past 44 years in Rugby, North Dakota, says they have been gradually introducing new conservation practices on their operation over the past several decades, most of which are focused on soil health. In addition to planting cover crops, they have implemented reduced tillage, planted windbreaks, and taken more erodible land out of production.
“I’ve been trying to improve the condition of the soil for many years now. It’s much easier to find earthworms than it was 10 or 15 years ago, so I think it’s working,” he said. “It’s good for our crops, but it also means these soils are storing carbon, which is helping reduce the carbon level in the atmosphere.”
The environmental benefits of such practices should not be underestimated; according to researchers at UC Berkeley, U.S. soils have the potential to sequester nearly 300 million metric tons of carbon annually, which could offset more than four percent of the total national emissions.
Farmers not only have the ability to sequester carbon in agricultural soils, but they have the opportunity to decrease emissions from their operations. One way to achieve this is on-farm energy production from solar panels, wind turbines, or methane digesters.
Jenni Harrington, who runs a full-service garden center and landscape design business on her family farm in York County, Nebraska, takes every step she can to make her operation more sustainable. She works to source her inputs locally and recycle all her materials, and she encourages her customers to plant native and drought-resistant species at home. Recently, she redoubled her efforts when she installed a solar panel electric system on her operation.
“We generate our own energy, and we’re even putting some back on the grid. Once we get it paid off, it will save us thousands in utility costs.” Jenni maintains that the improved efficiency and financial savings have required little additional labor or time. “It’s just sitting out there silently, the only thing you have to do is clean the snow off every once in a while.”
Given the substantial advantages of on-farm energy production, more and more farmers are incorporating it into their conservation plans. As per the 2017 Ag Census, the number of farms and ranches using renewable energy producing systems more than doubled since 2012.
Additionally, Jenni uses her business as an opening to talk to her customers and other farmers about renewable energy and climate change. “I like to use it as a talking point of how gentle and silent this electricity we’re generating is, versus the extraction industry and how detrimental that is for the environment,” she said. “Family friends, farmers, customers, anyone who will listen. I’m a big advocate of educating others about climate change.”
As consumers learn more about climate change and conservation practices, they are looking for more environmentally sustainable food products. Ben Pfeffer, the owner and co-operator of a 2.5-acre diversified vegetable and livestock operation outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, has noticed that some customers specifically seek out his products because of the conservation practices he uses, such as no-till and integrated pest management.
He says there are other benefits for his community as well. “It is no secret that our growing methods impact our neighbors,” Ben noted, adding that the impact “is magnified in an urban setting.” Urban and peri-urban farms like Ben’s bring food closer to consumers, thus cutting down on food miles and making fresh food more accessible. Additionally, farmland within cities can make the surrounding areas more resilient to extreme weather events: the soil acts as a sponge for flood waters, and plant life contributes to cleaner air and cooler temperatures during the summer.
When considering the advantages of conservation practices, one might wonder why all farmers don’t implement them. It certainly isn’t due to a lack of interest; as Jim said, “every farmer knows how important it is to maintain the quality of the soil and have clean water available.” But the practices required to achieve those goals are often costly and labor-intensive, making it difficult for already cash-strapped producers to implement them.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a number of programs that provide financial incentives and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers move towards greater sustainability on their operations.
Jacob James Marty, a sixth-generation livestock producer from Wisconsin, was able to transition over 200 acres to no-till perennial production because of his participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), both of which are overseen by NRCS. “EQIP helped by cost-sharing our fencing, waterlines, water tanks, and seeding expenses,” Jacob acknowledged. “This made the decision to transition our working farm into a more conservation-minded farm much easier and practical.”
In addition to improving soil and water quality, Jacob has noticed other environmental benefits from these practices, most notably in the form of biodiversity. “We have seen a huge jump in insect populations on the farm, including bees and butterflies, and we have also had an increase in the amount of birds of prey.”
The practices have been good for Jacob’s bottom line as well. “We have significantly lowered our input costs by reducing the amount of field amendments, nutrients, and seeds that we need.” Not only is he spending less to produce the same products, but he’s making more money on them too. “Some of our products now also fetch a market premium, ranging from 20-300% over conventional, commodity prices.”
It is clear that incentive-based conservation programs are critical in helping farmers like Jacob mitigate and adapt to climate change. Despite their demonstrable importance, these kinds of programs are often threatened by a lack of political support and underfunding. As an example, early drafts of the 2018 Farm Bill would have eliminated CSP entirely and cut overall conservation funding substantially. This would have been bad for farmers and bad for the environment, as it would have added to the financial barriers that often prevent producers from improving sustainability on their operations.
One of the best ways to ensure that environmental policies truly help family farmers and ranchers address climate change is to include them in the development of these programs. Farmers have a lot at stake in these discussions and excluding them will likely only generate resentment towards the resulting policy decisions. Additionally, as Jacob expressed, giving farmers a seat at the table is just a matter of pragmatism, because they are more aware of the realities of farming than anyone else is. “We have a good sense of what is practical or possible and can filter out unnecessary or impractical ideas or plans or policies.”
But regardless of policy, family farmers and ranchers will continue to look for ways to mitigate climate change.” We care about the environment,” said Jenni. “We all just have to keep working hard to do better for the planet.”
Jacob echoed the sentiment: ”We are in the middle of an environmental and climatic crisis. We are all responsible and accountable for being part of the solution.”