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Farmers need education, seat at table in climate discussion

February 26, 2021

House Ag Committee begins deeper conversation of role farmers play in mitigating climate change.

By: Jacqui Fatka

“The question isn’t whether or not climate change is real. The question is not whether or not to reduce emissions. The question is how to best approach it,” House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Glenn “GT” Thompson shared during one of the first debates on the role agriculture can play in the climate discussion.

Thursday the House Agriculture Committee brought a bipartisan look to an issue undoubtedly taking on greater importance from both the private sector but more notably the new Biden administration and members of Congress. Two farmers were featured in the discussion – president of the American Farm Bureau Federation Zippy Duvall and Gabe Brown, who owns a 5,000-acre ranch near Bismark, North Dakota.

Brown has spent the last several decades learning firsthand the many benefits of conservation and soil health. He testifies that regenerative practices made his farm profitable over the last three decades, and he increased soil carbon more than six-fold since implementing on-farm measurements in 1993. In 2020, when his neighbors experienced the second dried year on record, his soils prevented any yield losses.

When he purchased his ranch in 1991, soil tests showed that the soil organic matter levels were from 1.7% to 1.9%, and that approximately 75% of the soil carbon had been washed away or released into the atmosphere. Today his organic matter levels on his farm are from 5.7% to 7.9%, while his neighbors are 1.7%. His soils can infiltrate 30 inches of water per hour, while it was just ½ inch per hour on his neighbors’.

When asked what farmers need to help support a transition to more regenerative agricultural practices, Brown response: Education.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Brown says, adding he owes a debt of gratitude to the Natural Resources Conservation Service for working with him over the years to better understand conservation practices. Brown suggests NRCS and extension services can help farmers understand best what works in their area. For that well-known farmer comment about cover crops not working in a particular area, Brown says better education can help provide the right answer.

Often missed is how much farmers and ranchers who use regenerative practices are decreasing their inputs. Brown says the average cost to produce corn today is $5, however he knows of many farmers doing it for less than $2/acre.

Carbon bank funding

One ongoing discussion is that of USDA establishing a carbon bank under the Commodity Credit Corporation to pay farmers for actions they take. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., says that he doesn’t want to see any money moved into environmental policy that would take away from the current farm bill programs also paid out of the CCC.

Scott is a lead sponsor of a bill (H.R. 843) to increase the CCC’s borrowing limit from $30 billion to $68 billion. He warns the concept of moving $30 billion directly into environmental funds would be the wrong move, especially if additional money wasn’t provided in the CCC.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., expressed concern that some of the current discussions focus on specific commodities and actions and may disincentive production of some crops to garner a higher payment for actions only allowed in others.

Duvall also adds that he’s concerned that many of  the practices farmers have been doing for decades won’t get recognized or rewarded going forward. He says partners, such as USDA, will be important to continue the conversation in advancing adoption of conservation actions.

Seat at the table

The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance brought together environmental, agricultural and food groups to agree on three guiding principles and offer 40 recommendations to Congress as it moves forward on establishing any legislative approach. Those guiding principles include any policies must be voluntary, market-driven and incentive-based programs, promote resilience in rural communities and be science-based.

The Farm Bureau is one of the founding members, and Duvall says it will be important to continue to have a seat at the table as the discussion continues.

“We need to be at the table so we can tell you how policies affect us on our land whether we are small, medium or large,” Duvall says. He adds it’s important more research dollars are invested to find new technologies and make sure whatever policy is established doesn’t tie producers’ hands on which technologies are used that have allowed much of the progress seen so far.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., promised that he will “make sure farmers are at the center of our movement” of whatever climate legislation or climate appropriations measures advance.

“Our whole thrust forward to deal with climate change must be anchored in agriculture,” Scott says. “Climate change is based upon making sure our farmers are not only a seat at this table for climate change, but at the head of the table.”