Planting cover crops, farming no-till or employing other soil-building practices can be a losing proposition for farmers when you consider the cost of cover crop seed and seeding, no-till equipment and, sometimes, adopting new ways of growing crops.
Each of those can provide long-term benefits for producers and for society as a whole by building carbon in soils, but the initial investment costs can be daunting, especially in times when commodity prices are low.
That’s why a proposal from the Rural Investment to Protect our Environment, a non-profit group of farmers, ranchers and commodity association representatives, that could pay producers $100 per acre or $100 per animal unit is beginning to attract attention in farming circles and in Washington.
“We at RIPE are here because farmers have a pivotal role to play in tackling climate change, but they shouldn’t sacrifice their prosperity in the process,” said Aliza Wasserman Drewes, executive director of RIPE, which is based in Washington.
“So our proposal, RIPE100, would offer a $100 an acre payment that reflects the public benefits they are providing when adopting stewardship practices. With cover crops, for instance, at $100 per acre you would fully cover the costs of the cover crop and the cost that climate policy would be imposing on the economy through higher fertilizer and other expenses and would allow for a $40 per acre return.”
RIPE is a relatively new organization whose board of directors and steering committee read like a who’s who of farm organizations. Curt Mether, president of the board, is a former president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Vice President Eunice Biel is an active member of the National Farmers Union and has participated in its legislative fly-ins.
Kelly Robbins, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation; Brad Doyle, vice president of the American Soybean Association and a soybean farmer from Weiner, Ark.; and Jim Whitaker, a member of the USA Rice Federation’s Conservation Committee and rice farmer from McGehee, Ark., are members of RIPE’s steering committee with ties to the Mid-South.
Drewes began her career in agriculture working with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which represents small and medium-sized farmers in California. At the time California was taking steps to advance climate regulations, and she was part of a team working on what the CAFF’s position should be.
“I learned the hard way that once the rules of the legislation had been written so that farmers could participate in carbon farming and nothing else, it just wasn’t a good deal, looking at the costs that climate policies could be imposing on things like fertilizer input cost increases compared to the potential payments from carbon farming,” she said.
“Our organization was supportive of climate policy but still was really torn about this issue that farmers were being asked to sacrifice financially while being offered pennies on the dollar. It seemed there had to be a better way to help farmers by thinking about the broader environmental benefits farmers are delivering.”
Drewes then moved to the National Governors Association where she was working on state policy. When climate policy regulations began moving to the forefront again, she decided to try to take the lessons she had learned in California and create a better system. So she founded RIPE.
“Because that carbon market frame has been and continues to be the only mindset that those policies get designed around, there's really no opportunity for farmers to contribute in a significant way because they're only being offered partial compensation,” she said.
“A cover crop would cost $37 to implement, according to studies we’ve seen. And a carbon farming program would offer $5 to $10 per acre. The policy field has been stuck in this arcane idea that’s just not going to work both from the environmental perspective and farmers’ bottom lines.”
USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service has some “tremendously valuable programs,” she noted. “But those are not set up for success for this larger goal because they’re constrained by cost-share regulations.
“When you look at the climate space, all the other industries that are contributing value – the clean energy sector, electric vehicles, they're being offered a reasonable return. They're not showing up for cost. They're not delivering clean energy because they're getting pennies on the dollar. They're doing so because the policies have allowed the market incentives for them to earn a reasonable return and farmers have simply never been offered that same opportunity.”
Drewes said RIPE is just starting its campaign to reach farmers and other agricultural stakeholders and talk about the benefits of an incentive-based program for capturing carbon in the soil and other conservation practices.
“We’ve been in research and development mode for the last few years, thinking about our proposal and talking with stakeholders, particularly farmers,” she said. “We’re now in the very early stages of outreach. We're just starting to convene folks who are interested in this to share the word with their neighbors and their farm associations to try to advance it.”
RIPE representatives have talked to policymakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress and the key agricultural and appropriations committees. “They have said their doors are open,” she noted. “It checks the boxes on both sides of the aisle. It’s voluntary for farmers with no penalties and no penalties for early actors.
“Key policymakers have said they love this idea. What they need is to hear from farmers. They want to see if farmers ask for that. That’s the key need at this point.”
To learn more about RIPE, visit Research and Policy - Rural Investment to Protect our Environment (RIPE) (riperoadmap.org)