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'People are losing their mind over carbon right now'

Farmers walk a fine line when it comes to climate change and science. Part four in a series.

Mike Wilson, Senior Executive Editor

September 28, 2023

6 Min Read
An aerial view of compost windrows at Bowles Farming Co., Los Banos, CA.Courtesy: Bowles Farming Co.

This is part four in a five part series.

Where does agriculture fit in the global discussion over climate change and carbon sequestration? We asked Derek Azevedo to weigh in on a host of challenges farmers face in a wide-ranging series that runs all week. Azevedo is executive vice president and COO at Bowles Farming Co., a respected 11,900-acre specialty crop farm near Los Banos, CA.

In recent years the mass media has widely adopted the view that climate change is an existential threat to our future. Do you agree?

Agriculture takes a long view of things. The harsh truth is, farmers don’t make decisions based on climate change.  That’s not to say that farmers don’t “believe” in climate change, but there are simply a number of factors that pose more immediate threats to the average farmer’s livelihood. Climate change and GMO’s are sensitive topics and I don’t really understand why. The folks that preach about climate change accuse nonbelievers of being science deniers. But if you ask that same person about their stance on GMO’s they’ll likely say they are bad for you. The science that supports GMOs is probably more robust and thorough than the science supporting climate change, but those two groups are having religious arguments against each other. Who is the real science denier?  So why do I feel like I’m in such a lonely place if I think GMOs are safe and I think the climate is changing a bit? Why is that stance so rare?

Interest in carbon is at a fever pitch. People are losing their mind over carbon right now. I spoke at a conference last fall. This one woman in a breakout stood up and said, ‘We all need to think if the elephants in Gabon don’t live to be 60 years old they’re not going to sequester carbon.’ And I looked around the room and thought, what in the world is going on here? If you ask the average 7th grader what their biggest fear is, they will probably say climate change. They’re terrified of climate change.

Big companies are making public pledges of support for regenerative agriculture. Your farm is growing regenerative cotton. What is the smart play for farmers when it comes to regenerative ag?

Try to learn without losing too much. Farming is a science-based profession and anytime you modify practices it could pose a significant threat to your livelihood.  It’s been our hope that regenerative or climate beneficial farming practices earn their way into our modern farming system. There are interesting pieces that we think could provide value, but there are many that don’t

We’re trying a multi-species cover crop, grazing that out with sheep; we’re minimal and strip tilling and not including glyphosate, and we are receiving premiums. We’re seeing this as a chance to participate in the crafting of what brands want.

Regenerative ag is a way for farmers to de-commoditize. It’s something I try to do every day. I want to distance myself from the commodity price. I want to grow a better product, get a better price, and give my guys bonuses when everyone else is struggling. Regenerative ag doesn’t have to stop at farming, regenerative ag created the space to elevate the transparency in the supply chain. Why not use this as an opportunity to identify opportunities to improve the supply chain and drive transparency of information back to farms?  

I’m not so sure how this will end up. We adapt and modify each year. We also host a number of CPG’s and textile brand CEOs a few times a year. It’s good interaction to have discussions with decision makers at these companies, and get closer to the consumer. It gives them an opportunity to see what’s possible and what’s not possible on farms.

We’re all about transparency and sustainability. It’s what consumers expect us to be doing. But there’s a lot of folks in the middle who intentionally keep the farm separate from the consumer. When you look at the goals of the farm and goals of the consumers, they are closely aligned; it’s the competing interests in the middle who create a wall.

Ultimately consumers still trust farms, but the messaging through the messy middle of the supply chain gets polluted. If you walked through the grocery store cereal aisle and took everything you read verbatim, you’d think that was the healthiest place to shop, because every box has a nutrition claim; yet walk around the produce aisle, there’s no health claims on fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s the disinformation age we’re living through.

Do you think farmers will embrace climate smart practices?

To the extent they make the farm stronger I believe they will. If they increase risk and resources, then they probably won’t. Everybody’s trying to call a practice ‘regenerative’ but right now it could be the same old thing they’ve always done. Crop rotation falls into this category. We’ve always rotated our crops but all of a sudden it seems like the fresh thing everyone wanted to talk about.

We’re at this tipping point where consumers are sick of being lied to. We believe they are ready and willing to support brands that are able to convey authenticity. At no point in human existence have we had more trouble telling the difference between truth and lies. Look at how many people follow Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop and other celebrity wellness brands. Folks are following people they trust more than brands. 

This also illustrates the fact that consumers aren’t asking us to be perfect. Gwyneth Paltrow certainly isn’t perfect, but she connects with her followers and they believe her.  That seems to be good enough for them. Nobody is going to sit down and read an 80-page lifecycle assessment on carbon in cotton; they want to know who they are dealing with. That’s why smaller brands might have an advantage over big international brands. Small brands can be more nimble.

What do you see as the unique aspects of climate smart farming here compared to the Midwest?

We’re very different. We receive 60,000 tons of green waste a year from cities. It completes the ‘fork-back to-farm’ circle, and that is unique to our food shed. California has some of the most progressive laws in the country related to green waste recycling. There’s 25 million tons of stuff that has to go somewhere other than landfills. So maybe I don’t need to put time and energy into cover crops if I can use compost to create healthy soil for us and carbon sequestration for customers.

We don’ have to adopt same practices that they try in Canada and the Midwest. And we don’t have a hard freeze killing cover crops in the winter. But we do have ample compost. So it’s about taking advantage of the abundance of what we have in the area.

Azevedo will be part of a panel discussion on AI at the upcoming Organic Growers Summit, Nov. 29-30 at Monterey, CA. Register at https://www.organicgrowersummit.com/

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About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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