Farmers are coming around on climate change

Flooded fields, persistent droughts or ravaging wildfires are giving many a change of heart

Extreme weather has hurt American farmers and prompted them to embrace efforts to combat climate change.  (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images file photo)
Extreme weather has hurt American farmers and prompted them to embrace efforts to combat climate change. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images file photo)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 5:30am

Major farm and livestock groups held a press conference in February to project a united voice on an issue they’ve long avoided. The coalition leaders said they wanted to join the fight against climate change rather than remain cast as villains avoiding the responsibility.

The approach was a sharp departure for an industry that less than a year earlier looked more like a victim as photos circulated of nearly 20 million acres so saturated and flooded that farmers, mostly in the Midwest, couldn’t get into their fields. The federal crop insurance program paid out more than $4 billion in claims.

But farmers and ranchers now acknowledge that they have to change their practices. In myriad ways, the agriculture sector pumps carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere, contributing to a warming planet. They suffer the effects in flooded fields, persistent droughts or ravaging wildfires partly fueled by trees killed by insects that are increasingly flourishing because of mild winters.

To counteract agriculture’s contribution to climate change, environmentally minded farmers are changing the way they work. They are planting “cover crops,” such as ryegrass, crimson clover, oil-seed radishes and cereal rye, which prevent soil depletion when cash crops are out of rotation. And they are shifting to no-till agriculture, which also protects the soil by leaving it undisturbed during cultivation and harvesting. Healthier soil can serve as a “carbon sink,” a reservoir that absorbs more carbon than it emits.

These farmers are self-motivated. They know that they face projected yield declines in major crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum and cotton as temperatures increase and water becomes scarcer.

“If you ask any farmer if they’ve experienced a difference between when they first started farming and today, almost everybody can recognize some dramatic differences in weather patterns,” says Josh Yoder, an Ohio corn and soybean farmer.

The EPA’s 2018 greenhouse gas inventory says the U.S. agriculture sector accounted for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, up from 9 percent in 2017. Overall, the EPA found greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. rose by 2.9 percent from 2017 to 2018 because of increased fossil fuel use.

Zippy Duvall, the American Farm Bureau president who raises cattle and crops in Georgia, said at the press conference that climate issues are a growing priority for the country and for Congress and his industry should be at the table.

The goal for farmers is to make sure they’re involved in policy decisions that could affect their livelihoods. The pressure isn’t just coming from the environmental movement. Big customers are responding to investors and consumers by pressing suppliers to reduce emissions.

The agriculture groups’ turnaround can be attributed at least in part to the release in early 2019 of the so-called Green New Deal, a resolution by two Democrats, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, that cast farmers as part of the problem.

One sentence in a question-and-answer document about the proposal raised alarms across the agriculture industry: “We set a goal to get to net-zero rather than zero emissions in 10 years because we aren’t sure we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, plant lots of trees and restore our ecosystem to get to net-zero.”

In effect, the document from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party said that any remaining emissions would need to be compensated for.

“Some of the conventional agriculture groups want to get ahead of this,” says Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who is an organic farmer. “They don’t want to be seen as the evil wrongdoers.” But Pingree says that  progressives too often ignore the complexities of agriculture and climate. “Too much of the conversation around climate change in agriculture is just plant a tree and don’t eat meat and close the door. That’s such a simplistic understanding of what is going on.”

Agriculture contributes to climate change in a number of ways. Intense crop cultivation involves the use of fertilizers, the removal of trees and frequent tilling that releases carbon. Livestock are themselves emitters of greenhouse gases, notably methane; the larger the animal, the more it emits, creating a hierarchy of culpability. Some corners of the environmental movement advocate the elimination of livestock production.

The most harmful agricultural practices are still commonplace. The 2017 Census of Agriculture said that nearly 800 million acres are used for crop production or grazing in the U.S. Only 15.3 million acres were planted in climate-friendly cover crops, and farmers had adopted no till or less tillage on about 200 million acres.

In 2019, the U.S. had 94.8 million head of cattle and about half of agricultural land was used to feed and house those cattle. The herd size fluctuates, but its lowest level since 1952 was 88.2 million head. The Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says larger operations have increasingly consolidated animal production. Cattle, including dairy cows, are likely to be housed outdoors while poultry and hog production has primarily moved to indoor, controlled climates. The service says smaller livestock producers own the pasture and grazing lands.

Cover crops and no-till

Farmers’ efforts to reduce emissions may be most advanced in crop cultivation. By reducing tilling, rotating crops and emphasizing crops that can capture carbon, they can reduce their carbon footprints. By allowing trees to grow rather than uprooting them to increase arable acres, they do so as well.

Crop farmers can turn to no-till farming that avoids turning over 6 to 10 inches of soil that releases carbon and exposes bare soil to wind and evaporation in order to plant seeds. They also can plant cover crops as they rotate crops through the growing seasons to help retain soil carbon and nitrogen and to reduce the use of fertilizer that can form nitrous oxide. Doing so, however, entails a financial sacrifice because they are not sold at market.

While more farmers are adopting one or both practices, they come with trade-offs in efficiency and income.

Ranchers can change the way they manage damage to the land left behind by their animals’ grazing. The Food and Drug Administration approved a drug in 2018 to reduce ammonia emissions from cattle manure and urine that can form nitrous oxide and  research is underway on additives to animal feed that could help control the methane levels of cattle manure and belching.

The effect can be dramatic - even if it isn’t enough to achieve a net zero emissions.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in February said he wanted to cut agriculture’s carbon footprint in half by 2050 “without regulatory overreach,” while still boosting crop productivity by 40 percent during the same time period. It is meant to be an overarching strategy that was missing from the 2018 farm bill. That bill maintained voluntary conservation programs focused on soil health and water quality.

EPA figures show agriculture accounted for 618.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas in equivalent carbon dioxide in 2018, or more than 9 percent of the 6,676.6 million metric ton total emitted by the nation.

Perdue said the USDA would spend this year working on the finer points of the blueprint for the Agriculture Innovation Agenda. Although there are still details to come, the fact that Perdue addressed greenhouse gases marked a turnabout for a department accused by congressional Democrats and some of its researchers of downplaying research on climate change.

Pingree says she sees reason for hope in Perdue’s announcement and wants to build on it with legislation she introduced to expand the Agriculture Department’s suite of conservation programs.

“I would say that I’ve seen a sea change in conventional agriculture and agriculture thinking,” Pingree says. “That doesn’t mean we’re at the point where everyone has signed up for every conservation program.”

Debbie Reed, executive director of Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, is part of the drive to give ranchers and farmers an incentive to sequester or store carbon in the soil. Reed is working on establishing a trading system that matches corporations looking for ways to earn carbon credits with farmers interested in storing carbon in their acres for a price. She is eying a 2022 rollout for the credit trading system for carbon, water quality and water quantity.

“We have interest in buying credits (by the companies). We’re doing it with both buyers and sellers at the table,” Reed says.

Reed says the consortium thinks it can avoid a philosophy of “if you build they will come” that undermined earlier efforts to create credit systems.

The consortium counts among its members agri-business giants Bunge and Cargill, food companies General Mills and Land O’Lakes, and agriculture groups such as the National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Reed is not the first to tackle the idea of constructing a viable carbon trading system that could provide agricultural land owners with revenue for aiding companies that want environmental offsets for their emissions. But no one has been able to keep a national carbon market like that going. 

Reed says it can be done. The consortium is laying the groundwork for such an exchange through its work with food and beverage companies and in small pilot programs with ranchers and farmers that requires participants to manage their lands in a way that keeps carbon in the ground or aids in improving water use and quality.

But Princeton University researcher Tim Searchinger, a fellow at the World Resources Institute, says he’s skeptical of no-till as a tool in crop agriculture as a long-term way to trap carbon dioxide even though he sees cover crops as practical. Searchinger says it is unclear how much carbon no-till actually captures, and it appears that some farmers only stick with no-till for several years.

No-till also doesn’t adequately address nitrogen emissions, which Searchinger sees as a bigger problem in agriculture. Fertilizer use in crop agriculture is a large source of the nitrogen loss, researchers say.

“I’m a big believer in cover crops as a nitrogen control. There may be technologies emerging very soon that allow you to cut your fertilizer use a lot more,” Searchinger says, adding that there is evidence that fertilizer use can be reduced by 30 percent if it is applied five to six weeks after planting using precision agriculture to calculate the needed levels.

Jennifer Moore-Kucera, climate initiative director at American Farmland Trust, says there is growing awareness among farmers of the benefits of conservation practices that also serve as tools for sequestering carbon and reducing the production of nitrous oxide.

“Once they’ve seen the results, they don’t go back,” Moore-Kucera says. However, she says a farmer must be willing to invest the time to see results.

“It takes many years to rebuild organic matter in soil,” she says. That’s why her organization advocates strengthening USDA conservation programs that help troubleshoot transition problems and provide funds to offset initial costs of managing cover crops in the early years of planting. The nonprofit group also emphasizes agricultural policies such as conservation easements in which an owner agrees to preserve land for farming or wildlife habitat.

The 15 million acres on which farmers routinely grow cover crops have the potential to eliminate between 4.2 to 6.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, Moore-Kucera told the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last year. She also calculates that no-till and limited tillage on 201.5 million acres of U.S. farmland has reduced carbon emissions between 59.1 and 70.8 million metric tons per year.

Ultimately, Moore-Kucera told lawmakers, agricultural land is a resource that should also be shielded from urban sprawl. The USDA estimates that 25 million acres of cropland was lost to development between 1982 and 2015.

She says keeping development at bay will not only protect lands that can function as carbon sinks, which absorb more carbon than they create, but also prevent additional transportation emissions as well as those from heating and cooling of dwellings.      

Grazing, in climate change terms, can be managed in ways that feed livestock but minimize emissions. Cattle have often been allowed to eat grass and vegetation down to the soil, releasing carbon and allowing soil erosion that can pollute waterways. The U.S. has about 400 million acres of permanent pasture land with another 200 million acres of federal and private forest, crop, hay and other pasture lands.

The pilot program organized by Reed for cattle ranchers focuses on managing livestock grazing so grass and vegetation are not eaten down to bare soil. Participants let their cattle graze an area, then move to another pasture to allow the first grazing area to recover. Ranchers also are encouraged to plant native grasses, which are more resilient, to replace non-native grass types.

Meredith Ellis, who ranches with her father in Texas, is the kind of livestock producer Reed hopes to develop a carbon market around.

The Ellis family has 3,000 acres, 2,000 of them in trees and native grasslands and 1,000 acres that provide more than 50 different pasture areas that can accommodate up to 400 cattle, or 200 cows and their calves. The family bales the native Coastal Bermuda grass in pastures for hay that they feed mother cows as a supplement when they are calving.

“It makes me cringe to say it, we could have cut down 80-year-old trees and planted some cash crops or increased our herd size,” Ellis says, adding that doing so would increase the possibility of erosion and of invasive species. “The benefit of increasing your herd size just does not  outweigh the cost. We haven’t done any clearing on our land. It works incredibly well.”

Ellis, 38, says she wants her ranchland to become a carbon sink. She sees promise for her operation and the possibility of broader change in the cattle industry in the carbon exchange that Reed is developing.

“I think this ecosystem market consortium is a huge leap forward in that direction. If you buy beef in North America, it will be from a ranch that has carbon numbers attached to it that says this ranch is sequestering this many tons of carbon annually,” Ellis says. “Ranching in general is a very high risk industry. It’s up to the whims of the markets and the weather.”

The pay-off for ranchers, Reed says, is soil that retains moisture and produces vegetation even during droughts and reduces the need to buy hay.

Reducing livestock emissions

Better livestock grazing practices will lead to some reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, says Searchinger, who has written papers and publications on agriculture and climate change, but he says more needs to be done to manage emissions from livestock and crop production.

Raising food animals carries a big carbon price tag in Searchinger’s calculations because each acre devoted to the animals is an acre that could have been used to store additional carbon. In the pecking order of food animals, cattle require the most land.

“One thing it means is if you’re consuming a food that needs a lot less land, it’s a lot better for the climate,” Searchinger says. “That means, A: plant based food is the best, and B: actually pork and chicken are a lot better than beef, and dairy is a lot better than beef although less good than pork and chicken.”

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But he adds it’s unlikely people are going to stop eating beef, chicken, pork or dairy products.

“I actually think it’s very unlikely that in the future that we are going to be able to avoid having more beef,” Searchinger says, adding that the world population will go from nearly 8 billion people to 10 billion people by 2050. “I don’t think this means American livestock producers are likely to go out of business by any means.” 

Well-managed grazing will help with some carbon emissions, but Searchinger still sees methane emissions from animal manure and nitrous oxide from urine, which presents a greater threat of climate warming than carbon dioxide, as two big challenges for animal agriculture.

The average cow produces 150 to 255 pounds of methane gas a year primarily through belching. Beef cattle are bigger emitters than dairy cows. With an estimated 1.5 billion cows in the world, methane is a serious concern. But the main source of methane comes from manure and the way it is treated. Environmentalists criticize the hog industry for its use of large outdoor manure lagoons to store waste. Biogas methane is released as bacteria breaks down the manure. There are scattered efforts across the country to turn that biogas into energy.

The lure of energy has led to partnerships such as Smithfield Foods, which has hog farmers under contract to provide pork for its plants, and Dominion Energy, an investor-owned utility,  to use the methane biogas interchangeably with natural gas. Smithfield has the manure, which counts toward its emissions score, and Dominion Energy has the know-how on renewable energy.

“When you’re in the grazing process, when cattle urinate on grazing land, you get nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas. That is going to be higher in the eastern part of the U.S. than in the drier part of the drier West,” Searchinger says, adding that a chemical reaction between the urine and more prevalent moisture on the East Coast means more nitrous oxide emissions.

Searchinger says the U.S. should keep an eye on developments out of research in Colombia where there is work being conducted on ways to curb nitrous oxide emissions from livestock.

The bottom line 

Outside Columbus, Ohio, Josh Yoder is keeping an eye on his farm’s efficiency, which includes conservation practices that allow him to not waste expensive fertilizer and improve soil on his family’s 1,800-acre farm. He and his father, Fred Yoder, practice no-till and plant cover crops on most of their acreage. The Yoders also operate a store that sells corn and soybean seed as well as software and equipment farmers can use to retrofit older planters with elements of precision technology. 

“If you buy into no-till, cover crops basically just make that whole system efficient. The concept of no-till is to keep soil structure and to keep microbial life. Cover crops act long term as a catalyst for microbial life,” Josh Yoder said.

His father began no-till practices decades ago to add nutrients to the soil and added cover crops later.

The younger Yoder, 34, is among the farmers the Environmental Defense Fund is working with on climate change. The organization is focusing on larger, conventional farms in its long-term plan to see climate-friendly techniques adopted on a broad scale.

Yoder says he’s fine with the idea of the conservation practices doubling as tools to reduce emissions as long as it benefits the land he depends on and balances out on his ledger sheet. For example, he thinks of a cover crop like cereal rye as a tool to control weed growth over the winter and hold on to nutrients that crops planted in the spring need.

He also sees cover crops as a way to protect soil during what increasingly are “large rain events’’ that result in flooded fields.

“There’s a pretty significant difference in a two-inch rain that takes all day versus a two-inch rain that comes in a half hour,” he says. “You think about soil erosion and most of that rain leaving as surface runoff versus being able to percolate into the soil. No-till and cover crops help with that by creating bigger soil pores to basically handle those events.”

Yoder thinks programs like H2Ohio that help farmers offset costs of adopting limited tillage, no-till, cover crops, manure management or other conservation techniques will encourage growers to experiment and help the state achieve its goal of reducing fertilizer-related phosphorus runoff into waterways.

Federal and state officials should find ways to include farmers in their overall plans for tackling climate change, Yoder says.

Shifting the objective 

Agriculture may still have a long way to go before it can become a climate hero. While the majority of scientists agree on climate change and the forces driving it, researchers continue to evaluate the best tools to curb emissions. Scientific estimates differ, for example, about how much carbon certain soil types can store and for how long.

Even Moore-Kucera of American Farmland says more funding for research is needed to understand which soil types work best for sequestration. She says more tools and methodologies are needed to monitor the effectiveness of management practices on soil carbon storage and quantify which land and animal practices best control nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

This research is critical to ensure agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation is built on a sustainable foundation, Moore-Kucera says.

In Ohio, Yoder says the more comprehensive the science on agriculture and climate mitigation is, the more likely U.S. farmers are to adopt climate friendly practices.

“I think one of the most valid critiques of us as American agriculture is that we’re chronic overproducers,” Yoder says. “If you give us something to produce, we will produce the heck out of it. My thought is if you were to take that same approach to sequestering carbon imagine, what can come out of that? We’re optimizers.”

At the Environmental Defense Fund, special project director Callie Eideberg says the organization believes the best way to involve farmers is to talk about climate change in business terms.

“Farmers are interested in staying in business so they can raise their own families,” Eideberg says.

“When an organization starts talking about eliminating your way of life, that is not going to endear you to their message,” she adds. “However, if we can talk with agriculture about ways to remain profitable while making changes that help the environment and then put us on the right path to net zero carbon emission by 2050, they are on board. The language is key.”

The Environmental Defense Fund sees large-scale agriculture as an effective platform to tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know as a society we need to get to net-zero carbon emission by 2050,” Eideberg says. “The way the climate is changing now, we’re not going to do that unless we find ways to be resilient. Resilience is a lot about adaptation and sustainability is about stopping us in our tracks and keeping the water as beautiful as it is now.”

“Everything is pointing in the right direction. We just have to make sure the momentum increases,” she adds.