Opinion

Small farms in the Midwest can heal the environment and prosper with ‘Green New Deal’

Tariffs, politics and midterm election, complicated in rural Missouri

Kile Guthrey, presiding commissioner of Saline County, Missouri, talks about how tariffs affected rural Missouri and its politics and midterm election.
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Kile Guthrey, presiding commissioner of Saline County, Missouri, talks about how tariffs affected rural Missouri and its politics and midterm election.

It’s been a tough year for farmers here in Iowa and across much of America. After several years of low commodity prices, President Donald Trump’s tariffs and a partial government shutdown have rocked the markets.

Only the largest of operations are making any money. Land prices are down, farm real estate listings are up, younger farmers are looking bankruptcy in the face and older farmers are saying they’ve had enough, and retiring. To share just one significant number, hog operations are losing $18 a hog.

A new survey of bankers in 10 Plains and Western states tells us the regional rural economy is shrinking, a casualty of Trump’s “tariffs and low commodity prices.”

One sobering observation is that dairy organizations are publishing suicide hotline numbers.

Trump trade representative Robert Lighthizer, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last December, said he considers March 1 “a hard deadline” to reach a trade deal with China. If it doesn’t happen by then, Lighthizer said, the administration will follow through on its threat to raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

Unfortunately, damage has already been done, and that “hard deadline” is too late. The harvest has already started in Brazil, which will lower commodity prices even further.

The one sliver of hope this past harvest season, if you can call it hope, came from an odd place: The Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out, telling us that we have about 20 years to turn around our pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And then the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration on Nov. 23, 2018 — Black Friday — lays out major threats to our nation, the world, agriculture and rural lifestyles with continued increasing temperatures if nothing is done.

Yields will decline in number and quality and large economic losses are predicted, as well as risks to food security and price stability. The report says strategies are available to help farmers cope, and make a difference — if considerable investments are made in changing practices. These investments should include incentives for farmers to fight climate change.

The actual consequences of the reports are dire. The opportunity is here, however, for farmers to emerge as leaders and be part of the solution to climate change. They can lead via carbon sequestration, or carbon farming — the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by biological processes and stored in the soil. However, most commodity farmers haven’t been managing their farms to capture carbon. They have instead, as might be expected, been managing to maximize yields.

Current government programs incentivize yields of a narrow set of commodity crops through a number of initiatives, but especially through the crop insurance and commodity programs. If these programs were modified to also incentivize carbon farming, farmers could start to manage their farms with both outcomes in mind.

Carbon farming can happen naturally when farmers implement conservation efforts. These include:

planting cover crops such as small grains or legumes over winter when fields are normally barren

leaving organic matter in fields after harvest

adding additional crops such as alfalfa, oats, wheat or rye to a soybean corn rotation.

Managed grazing — which puts livestock on fields rather than in feedlots and confinements — also plays a role. Grazing encourages root growth, trampling pushes plants into the soil encouraging increased microbial interaction, as does the manure laid down by the grazing animals. This fertilizer also provides valuable nutrients for the plants.

Farmers often see the choice as either commodity and livestock production or environmental services. With incentivized carbon farming, it doesn’t have to be.

In the face of an economic downturn, amplified by a trade war, many farmers are starting to look for additional income streams. Thus, the potential good news from the climate reports is that the world needs new services from farms, and that there is potentially money to pay for these services. The Paris Agreement signals the movement towards a global monetization of carbon, even if the Trump administration ignores it.

More farmers are starting to consider a future with farmers innovating to manage their farms for multiple benefits rather than just yields, rate of gain, or pounds of milk. The world is demanding solutions to global warming. American farmers are in a great position to develop more complex farming systems. Incentivized by public policy, these pioneering farmers could combine industrial scale production of commodity crops and livestock with industrial scale carbon farming to remove the pollutant from the atmosphere and to put it to work in the soils on their farms.

Other benefits to carbon farming are substantial: water quality improves; soil erosion is reduced; farmers can better manage weeds, disease and insects; and wildlife and biodiversity improve, along with soil health. This is the engine of carbon capture.

So why don’t farmers just go ahead and do this on their own? Some do, but for many the costs are prohibitive. For the most part, we are talking about family farms, not large businesses. We need to dispel a big city rumor: that big agribusinesses dominate American farms. Sure, the big agribusinesses control seed, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. But for the most part, that’s not true of the farms themselves.

Missouri has more than 99,000 farms, and 63 percent of them are small farms under 180 acres in size. Iowa farm census data from 2012 shows nearly 89,000 farms there, 57 percent of them under 180 acres. In Kansas, it’s 48 percent under 180 acres. Most farms are small business operations that can innovate if they choose to and if the economic incentives cooked into agriculture policy rewards it.

But our national farm policy — past Farm Bills and the current one Trump recently signed into law — works against the complex management farmers need to undertake to effectively do carbon farming. National agriculture policy rewards overproduction, which can result in lower prices for farmers as well as deplete soil health and its ability to capture carbon.

Ideally, the Farm Bill would support both the production of traditional crops and a higher level of management to integrate environmental services. Farmers have the technology to do this. For much of the green revolution, the management unit of a farm kept expanding until it was at the field level, which could be several hundred acres. For the past decade, the management unit has gotten smaller. Using precision agriculture which includes things such as GPS and computer controlled equipment such as tractor auto steering, a farmer can manage the entire farm in square meter units. For example, a farmer could leave a small, unproductive wetland in the middle of the field using computer controlled systems to turn planters and sprayers on and off.

The point is farm policy needs to catch up with what farmers are capable of doing and what the world is demanding. Carbon farming is not a throwback to our grandparents’ farms. This is high management fueled by high technology.

Unfortunately, Congress has no apparent interest in carbon farming or much in conservation funding in general.

Farmers need to advocate for incentives that reward innovation on their farms. Farmers need political partners in consumers and businesses all along the supply chain that understand carbon farming provides public benefits on par with stable food prices. Farmers need to use these new partners to convince the USDA and congress for additional support akin to the billions for tariff bailouts, and to make the next farm bill as transformative for carbon farming as the New Deal was for commodity production.

Farm programs typically cost each American just pennies per meal and account for less than one-half of 1 percent of the total U.S. budget. Refocusing incentives to reward carbon farming will likewise have great effect at minimal cost.

In order for farmers to leverage both farm policy and new market demands, farmers also need better partners in their innovation from more pure research funding for the agricultural sciences. Let our state land grant institutions pursue research agendas that contribute to soil health, water and air quality, and reducing carbon in the atmosphere. Big agribusiness tends to focus its research on topics that generate profits — avoiding research that doesn’t improve its bottom line. What’s best for corporate profits has no necessary relationship to what’s better for our soil, water, air, our health or our environment. Or even our food supply. Farmers need independent state and federal dollars put into research that does.

Carbon farming is not easy work. Farmers need time and resources to develop the complex farming systems that will integrate conservation tillage, extended crop rotations, cover crops and livestock production, especially managed grazing.

Think of it: farmers in rural parts of every state working together to help mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change. Every state has a role to play in food production, and they can all can farm carbon. Coupled with the alternative energy initiatives that rural America is leading, incentives can also stabilize our rural economies, as well as secure our food supply, while slowing the effects of global warming.

Those against initiatives to combat climate change should take note that this will result in little or no change to the average American lifestyle, and should be a net positive economic gain. The technology is in place. We just need to incentivize it.

While other initiatives such as carbon taxes would ideally be part of the solution, they have met considerable opposition. However, farmers are successful at leveraging federal subsidies as support for food security. Farmers can leverage similar support for carbon farming — if they choose to do so and Congress acts. Incentives for capturing carbon in American fields should be loved by red state Republicans and blue state Democrats alike, as it can yield great benefits for all with reasonable costs. But farmers need to lead.

While individual conservation efforts will continue to be important, we aren’t going to get ourselves out of this climate mess changing out one light bulb at a time. It’s a systemic failure that got us here, and it is going to require a systemic effort to solve the problem.

As Democrats try to build a “Green New Deal,” and as many Republicans are beginning to recognize the reality of climate change, farming is part of the solution. American farmers can lead the way by innovating on their farms and leveraging their political power to reward success. And when they do, the act of saving their farms in these difficult times can also help save the world.

Robert Leonard is an anthropologist and radio host in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa. Matt Russell is executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light and co-owner of Coyote Run Farm in Lacona, Iowa.

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