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How to keep farmers integral in future climate solutions

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Senate Ag Committee hearing on climate features testimony from farmers on how to ensure success on mitigating climate.

As Congressional discussion of climate heats up, the Senate Agriculture Committee held its first hearing of the year on Thursday and focused on climate featuring testimony from farmers. While carbon markets offer a potential new income stream for some producers, for others it could be cost prohibitive if not designed properly, witnesses and senators detailed.

‘While the potential of carbon markets is very promising, I want to acknowledge that they aren’t going to work for everyone. But that doesn’t mean farmers can’t embrace climate-smart farming and still benefit,” explains Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark., adds although there are exciting new opportunities to compensate farmers and foresters for their environmental gains, “the current reality is farmers must navigate complex barriers in order to access this uncertain marketplace.”

There are costs associated with verification, validation, technical services, new technologies and equipment, and often times costs associated with reduced yields. These costs add up and can become prohibitive. For this new opportunity to be viable for producers and forest owners, the benefits must outweigh the risks and costs they take on.

Boozman adds, “As Congress and the administration develop a framework to promote farmer, rancher and forester participation in combatting climate change, we must avoid policies that would distort planting decisions or markets.”

Four witnesses representing the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance’s founding organizations and co-chairs – American Farm Bureau Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and National Farmers Union – offered their insights and reiterated some of the 40 recommendations agreed to by FACA.

Here are some key considerations in ensuring the government approach offers a farmer-friendly solution.

Voluntary approach should not penalize farmers who voluntarily choose not to participate. Mark Isbell, on behalf of USA Rice, testified that Congress must ensure that whatever comes down is truly voluntary. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it, it’s also not a predicate for access to other programs.”

In Boozman’s opening comments he adds, “While protecting our climate is critical, we must avoid a heavy-handed government approach that could place unbearable requirements on our small farmers in particular, and likely drive concentration within the agriculture sector.”

New to the ag committee, Sen. Cory Booker also says a voluntary approach must be utilized. “Farmers are already too often selling crops below the cost of production and have a hard enough time keeping their operation going. We need voluntary transition,” he says.

Related: Farmers need education, seat at table in climate discussion

Flexibility avoids one-size-fits-all approach. Isbell adds that every region and different crop is important to take into consideration for whatever policy advances.

“It is important that carbon markets develop in a way that farmers of all regions and farms of all sizes can be partners with the public in addressing climate change,” Isbell says. “With a studied, nuanced, and inclusive approach, this committee can play a role in unleashing the enduring creativity of American agriculture to attenuate climate change.”

Isbell also says he only plants rice on his land because it offers the best return on his economic investment and ecosystem. “Any policy implemented shouldn’t drive people to do things on their land that is less sufficient than it should be,” he says.

Carbon should not be the only focus. As much of the discussion looks at creating a carbon market, other actions can also offer environmental benefits. Clay Pope, Oklahoma wheat farmer and cattle rancher, who testified on behalf of the National Farmers Union, explains as an example the laser focus on soil health leaves out the important contribution of livestock operations.

Stefanie Smallhouse, Arizona cattle rancher and president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, adds many practices incorporated by livestock operations are extremely expensive, which requires incentive-based approaches. Federal lands also offer an important partnership in allowing for public lands grazing which offers tremendous benefits in forest management and preventing wildfires which significant contribute to carbon emissions.  

Locally led input is key. Pope shares that local leadership is critical in advancing further adoption and making sure the right approach is taken for each region. He’s a big fan of conservation districts who allow for a bottom-up decision on best practices and priorities for watersheds.

USDA can serve as referee and serve as the guider in addressing natural resources challenges. The Conservation Security Program offers an example of how local concerns drive what plans get approved. Locally elected conservation district representatives help set priorities and state agencies work between those districts and USDA to allow a flexibility with voluntary, incentive-led methods to craft something that is not a one-size-fits all approach.

Farmers’ experience can also give confidence in adoption choices. Hearing about what a farmer can achieve in Iowa is one thing but hearing what someone across your state can accomplish offers an important technical expertise, Pope adds.

Related: Report examines costs of climate policies in U.S.

Balance rewards to those producers who have already implemented climate smart practices. Cori Wittman Stitt, Idaho diversified farmer and farmer adviser to the Environmental Defense Fund, warns many of the proposals discussed right now reward carbon sequestration done going forward, but leaves those early adopters out of capturing economic incentives today. Those early adopters took on huge risks on their own dime to improve soil health and improve the environment.

“We need Congress to step in with a viable path forward for early adopters,” Wittman Stitt says.

On Isbell’s rice farm in England, Arkansas, his family over the past 60 years has built up the organic matter up to 7% per ton. If policies are created in a way that doesn’t reward early adopters, what the market would tell you to do is plow up that ground and “squeeze the sponge” to capture payments, rather than building on the successes he’s already built up on his farm.

Data and science must be at the center of discussions. John Reifsteck, an Illinois grain farmer and president of GROWMARK, Inc., urges that any climate change policies developed by Congress be based on hard data, drawn from real-world farming operations.

He has had a 25-year partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has had a climate research site on his farm since 1996. In that time, it has been estimated more than 8 billion pieces of data have been collected; this site and its data have been used in nearly 400 scientific publications by multiple federal agencies and universities.

“We have learned that on my farm conservation tillage sequesters about a 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre annually. In comparison sites that use conventional tillage, a release of nearly 2,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year was found on average,” Reifsteck explains. “That is a meaningful difference.”

Farming is increasingly a collaborative effort. Although a lot of focus rests with USDA and the technical expertise that could come from NRCS, Reifsteck adds retailers such as Growmark could play an important role as well.

His cooperative has hundreds of trained agronomists trusted by farmers and regularly on farms helping producers make economic and environmentally smart decisions. He recognizes the federal government and land grant universities may have financial constraints in providing technical expertise, but cooperatives and retailers can also be part of the solution.

“As Congress moves forward with climate change legislation, recognizing that farmer co-ops can help bridge the gap to the producer and magnify the impact of climate-friendly policies should form an important part of any final proposal,” he says.  

For a great recap of Thursday’s hearing, listen to closing comments made by each witness starting at 2:28:30 of the hearing.

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