As the new administration settles into the White House, it’s clear that climate and the environment are high on their list of priorities. While not everyone agrees on the seriousness of climate change, the cause, or its impact on the future, it is a concern of many that is not going to just go away. In fact, many conversations have shifted from the verbiage of climate change to climate crisis, and legislation that affects agricultural producers will inevitably become a reality.
Just two weeks after the election took place, Jamie Powers, the senior manager for agricultural engagements with the nonprofit program Rural Investment to Protect our Environment (RIPE), moderated a panel discussion during the Sustainable Agriculture Summit. The conversation focused on what would make climate legislation successful.
Voluntary and viable
“Regardless of the election results, many agricultural producers sense that climate legislation is headed their way,” Powers said. “What role should agriculture play in climate solutions?”
The first comments from the panel came from Eunice Biel, who owns a dairy and crop farm with her husband, her son, and his family in southeastern Minnesota. Biel said they have used many conservation practices over the years.
“Farmers and ranchers understand the importance of conserving natural resources and mitigating climate change. Their livelihoods depend on it,” she said.
However, she indicated that these practices often require significant time, money, and expertise. “That’s why programs that provide financial and technical assistance for conservation efforts are so vital, and so popular,” she said in reference to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within USDA.
Marty Matlock, a professor of ecological engineering at the University of Arkansas, also gave a nod to USDA’s conservation programs.
“We have 2.3 billion acres of land in the contiguous U.S. Of that, over 900 million acres are in private farm ownership. If we are going to achieve any sort of continent-scale improvement in conservation, we are going to have to engage private landowners in a way that is viable,” he stated. “That’s why USDA’s implementation of compliance through voluntary engagement is so powerful, and it has been working.”
He used soil erosion as an example. “Soil erosion has been declining dramatically for the last 40 years in row-crop areas. We are not done yet; we still have too much erosion. Every farm knows erosion is bad,” he said. “But reducing it is a possibility when we start engaging conservation programs and expanding our partnerships.”
Matlock has been working with ag communities around the nation for 20 years to identify opportunities for improving land conservation, production efficiency, and farm profitability. “You have to have all of those things if you are going to have a sustainable agricultural enterprise,” he said.
He emphasized farmers’ important role in protecting our natural resources and compensating them for that work.
“We need to pay our farmers for what they give us,” he said. “It’s a simple, simple principle.”
It became political
Despite the growing need for climate change legislation, establishing forward progress has been very difficult for lawmakers. Clare Sierawski, who worked for a number of years as a legislative aide on a variety of governmental efforts in climate change and agricultural policy, shared her insight on this topic.
“There are a number of reasons why previous attempts to pass climate legislation have failed,” she said. “The first and biggest is that climate change has become a truly divisive, partisan issue.” She said some elected officials won’t even bring the topic up in conversation because they think their constituents will oppose it.
“In a country as deeply divided as ours is between Republicans and Democrats, you need people from both parties to push for legislation or nothing is going to happen,” she shared.”
She believes the second barrier to climate legislation has to do with the cost.
“We’ve all been convinced that climate legislation is going to come at a big cost,” she explained. “While transitioning away from fossil fuels will come at a cost in the near term for some, it can also create serious economic opportunities, and the cost of inaction most certainly will outweigh the cost of action.”
To overcome these barriers and move forward, Sierawski said, “We need to change the players and reframe the approach.” She feels it will take a commitment from farmers to get this done.
“We need ag producers to take the reins and make ag climate legislation work for them. We need legislation that is led by middle America. We need legislation that will create real benefits; benefits worth fighting for by farmers and ranchers,” she stated.
“There haven’t been any attempts to date to design climate legislation that puts the agriculture community front and center. That’s the missing piece,” she emphasized.
Farmers at the helm
Nebraska crop farmer Brandon Hunnicutt agreed with Sierawski’s comments. He farms with his family at Hunnicutt Farms where they grow corn, soybeans, and popcorn, using various methods and technology to reduce inputs and protect soil, water, and air quality.
“We need to lead this charge. It’s an opportunity that comes around maybe once in a generation,” he shared. “All the stars have aligned at this moment in time for us to push for the legislation to not only help farmers but help the climate crisis we are in.”
Hunnicutt said farmers have opportunities for government payments, but those that center on climate change have been missed. He feels there is a need to compensate farmers who are already using climate-friendly practices along with incentivizing more farms to do so in the future.
The first challenge for farmers to enact change, Sierawski said, is collaboration. “You need the ag community to agree that it’s going to fight for it,” she said.
Farmers across the country are in different situations and face their own unique challenges. However, future policies could impact all farmers, and climate legislation designed with farmer input would be better than legislation that has little ag input at all. Hunnicutt encouraged his fellow farmers to step up to the plate.
“As farmers, we need to take the lead. We need to be the ones who are driving this conversation. It’s coming,” Hunnicutt said. “It’s either coming at us, or we are going to drive the train and make sure we get the legislation we want and need.”
This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 8 and 9.
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