After a Rough Year, Farmers and Congress Are Talking About Climate Solutions

The Midwest floods revealed another benefit of sustainable agriculture: fields that had been farmed with conservation practices recovered faster.

This story was co-published with The Weather Channel as part of Collateral, a series on climate, data and science. 

As millions of acres of American farmland sat under historic floodwaters this spring, a remarkable pattern began to emerge.

Even among fields that sat side-by-side, with the same crops and the same soil type, researchers and farmers noticed that some bounced back faster than others.

2019 Year in Review

What made the difference? 

The fields that were slow to drain and remained waterlogged longer had been farmed conventionally—tilled, left bare and unplanted over the winter. The fields that drained quickly and were ready for sowing hadn't been tilled in years and had been planted every winter with cover crops, like rye and clover, which help control erosion, improve soil health and trap carbon in the soil.

"There's a pretty stark contrast," said William Salas, the interim CEO of Dagan Inc., a firm that specializes in geospatial data.

As the disastrous 2019 farming season unfolded, Salas and his colleagues decided to analyze whether conservation methods, like planting cover crops and using "no-till" farming—which research shows can prevent erosion and improve the soil's ability to filter water—had any effect on whether fields could be planted or not this year.

Using satellite images of this year's planting across counties in three states and the company's database of conservation practices, they got a clear answer.

"Our preliminary analysis found that fields with more intensive conservation had a significantly higher success rate of plantings," Salas said.

Two fields after the 2019 flooding: The field on the left used cover crops and no-till practices; the field on the right used conventional tillage and no cover crops. Credit: Courtesy of Rob Myers/University of Missouri

Two fields after the 2019 flooding: The field on the left had been farmed for several years using cover crops and no-till practices. The field on the right, with standing water, had been farmed with conventional tillage and no cover crops. Credit: Courtesy of Rob Myers/University of Missouri

As the extreme weather that caused flooding in the Midwest this year dovetailed with the scientific warnings, climate change and its impact on agriculture started to get more attention—including among farmers, lawmakers and farm groups that have been reluctant to connect the dots. Even in the Trump administration, top agriculture officials who have brushed off climate change warnings in the past began talking about farming as a potential climate solution.

Within that shifting conversation, agricultural soil health is becoming an increasingly urgent topic in climate policy circles. Healthy soil will be especially critical for sequestering carbon in farmland, and scientists project that as extreme weather events become more common in American farm country, more resilient soil will be crucial for farms to remain productive.

Rodney Rulon, a corn and soybean farmer from central Indiana who has planted cover crops for decades—and, unlike many of his neighboring farmers, was able to produce a crop this year—traveled to Washington, D.C., in December to speak to staff members of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus specifically about soil conservation.

"It's hard to deny," Rulon said. "The conversation about resilience as it relates to climate change is changing."

The Shifting Conversation on Capitol Hill

The National Climate Assessment released in late 2018 warned that climate change will exact a dire toll on American farms. It projected more drought, more heat—and more extreme rainfall.

A few months later, the Midwest flooding began, swamping fields as farmers watched helplessly. In the months that followed, 2019 notched two records: It became the wettest year on record in the lower 48 states, and a record 19 million insured acres were left unplanted, costing taxpayers an estimated $4.2 billion in insurance payouts.

Chart: Floods Left Millions of Acres Unplanted

In May, as farmland lay soaked and muddied, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on climate change and its potentially ruinous impact on American farms. A few months later, a new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held one exploring the same theme. That was followed in December by a Senate Climate Solutions Caucus meeting on cover crops that Rulon attended.

Lawmakers introduced at least two pieces of legislation this year to start to address the issue: one to boost incentives for farmers to adopt soil conservation practices; another, in draft form, to give a tax credit to farmers and ranchers who store carbon on farm and rangelands. The top Democratic candidates for president also included agriculture in their policy plans addressing climate change. 

"We're not there yet, but the conversation is changing," said Rob Myers, a coordinator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. "I'm seeing a lot of things that have surprised me this year."

In a recent poll, conducted across five Midwestern states for the Union of Concerned Scientists, voters said soil health was becoming an important political issue. A majority of voters in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas told pollsters they would be more willing to back a presidential candidate with proposals to boost healthy soils.

"No one is closer to that reality than farmers and that's what's driving the conversation," said Tim Fink, policy director of the American Farmland Trust, a conservation group.

Too Little, Too Late?

Most of the discussion in policy circles and the agricultural industry continues to center around voluntary measures within a farming system that continues to avoid regulation even as emissions rise.  

Despite the potential for storing carbon on American farms and reducing emissions, most of the farming practices that are good for the soil—and sequester carbon—are rewarded through government conservation programs that aren't directed at climate change specifically. These programs are chronically underfunded and oversubscribed.

Corn spilled from grain bins soaked with flood water in March 2019 near Union, Nebraska. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

With the devastation from the Midwest's 2019 flooding, agricultural soil health has become an increasingly urgent topic in climate policy circles. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have little hope in the short term of addressing a problem that critics say has been ignored for too long and requires, like so much in tackling climate change, an immediate response. 

But they say they're teeing up ideas that could inform legislation when the political moment comes.

"We're under no belief that 2020 is going to be the landmark year for some big climate legislation on the Hill," said Juli Obudzinksi, interim policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "That being said, there's a lot of momentum. Candidates are talking about this. Bills are coming out."

Progress is happening on the farm, too, as more farmers use conservation farming methods, including less tillage and more cover crops. 

"There were 20 million acres in cover crops and 104 million acres in no-till," Myers said, referring to 2017 Census of Agriculture figures. "We've still got a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction."

The Potential for Carbon Markets

As agriculture has come increasingly under the microscope for its greenhouse gas emissions, discussions of a cap-and-trade system have re-emerged.

In 2009, legislation that became known as the Waxman-Markey bill outlined the first economy-wide carbon emissions trading system in which American farms could voluntarily participate. Greenhouse gas-emitters would be able to purchase credits from farms that took carbon-storing steps on their land. The bill passed the House, but not the Senate, after the fossil fuel industry and agriculture lobby worked to scuttle the legislation. At the time, critics said it would be too difficult to calculate what constituted a trade-worthy credit.

But that was a decade ago, and mounting evidence has since made clear that cutting emissions from agriculture and land-use will be critical in the battle to forestall climate change.

"Ten years ago, farmers didn't see themselves as sequestering carbon, but we've had 10 years of education. Now it's seen as something viable," Myers said.

Even Sonny Perdue, the conservative Secretary of Agriculture who questions the link between human activity and climate change, has countenanced the idea of a cap-and-trade system.

"Farmers and producers have been really intense victims of climate change," Perdue said in a budget hearing in April.

"We've been really guilty of not talking about how farmers can be part of the solution," he said. "It's amazing the tons of greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions that we can capture in our soils if we have, I think, the incentivization of maybe a carbon market from agriculture do that."

Rye grass, planted here in a corn field by aerial seeding, is an example of a cover crop that can establish itself before corn is harvested. Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service Massachusetts

Rye grass, planted here in a corn field by aerial seeding, is an example of a cover crop that can establish itself before corn is harvested. Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service Massachusetts

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which was instrumental in taking down Waxman-Markey and worked with the fossil fuel industry to cultivate doubt about climate change, has also started to embrace the idea that farmers might be part of the solution, though only if they can profit from a carbon market.

While Farm Bureau leaders continue to question the link between human-induced emissions and climate change, a related public relations organization, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, released a short film this year that portrayed farmers as heroes in the climate battle.  The "docudrama," as the group called it, said agriculture was striving to be "one of the first industries with a negative carbon footprint."

"The intent really is to create a conversation around agriculture's role as a solution," Erin Fitzgerald, the alliance's CEO, said in an interview with InsideClimate News this summer after the film's release.

Fitzgerald explained that the film was timed to coincide with a meeting attended by a number of major farm and industry groups, including the Farm Bureau, as well as environmental groups, to discuss the industry's response to climate change. "We didn't think we could get everyone in the same room," Fitzgerald added. "There's never been a place for all these farmer groups to get together."

Private industries, too, are jumping at the idea of participating in carbon markets.

In February, some of the biggest names in agriculture, including ADM and Cargill, announced that, in collaboration with environmental groups, they would build a carbon market by 2022. That effort—the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium—will allow farmers to generate credits by sequestering carbon or other conservation measures that they could sell to companies trying to reduce their carbon footprints.

This summer, a company called Indigo Agriculture, announced the establishment of a new private marketplace through which farmers can generate credits by storing carbon on their farms. Farmers who enrolled in the program received $15 per ton of carbon dioxide stored. 

Market-based approaches like these could gain more traction, especially as the farm economy suffers amid President Donald Trump's trade wars and low commodity prices.

"A lot of industry action on this is issue is because they think it's in their best financial interest," Ritter said. "The market is beginning to value and demand these things, and there's a lot more pressure to be green."

But critics say these market-based approaches might not lead to any meaningful greenhouse gas reductions.

"We want farmers to be rewarded, especially in a farm economy that's really bad," said Tara Ritter, a senior program associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "But we're concerned about offsets, whether it's a carbon market or tax."

These approaches also allow the current resource-intensive, carbon-emitting agricultural system to continue and expand.

"We're heading in the wrong direction if we keep going with the status quo," Obudzinksi said. "If you look at the trends in agriculture, we're seeing increased consolidation, increased emissions, more monocultures. If we're serious in this country about addressing the climate crisis, we can't keep going down that road."

Top photo: Water stood in farm fields near Gardner, Illinois, in May 2019. Only 35 percent of the state's corn crop had been able to be planted at that point, compared to 99 percent by that time in 2018. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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