Pay farmers to capture carbon

Talk of paying farmers to suck carbon out of the air is gaining cachet in Iowa as presidential candidates hear tales of hardship wrought by years of wacky weather and tanking commodities markets.

Floods and drought, trade wars and battles over surface water pollution from the corn-soy culture have Midwesterners talking about a different way of doing business that can reduce greenhouse gases and improve water quality.

The idea spreading across what was once tallgrass prairie: Use small grains and cover crops, like rye, in rotation with corn and soybeans to absorb excess nitrogen, draw down C02 from the atmosphere and incorporate it into the soil through roots and decomposition. Estimates vary, but there is serious science to suggest that altering our cropping patterns in conjunction with grazing cattle on grass can reduce carbon in the atmosphere by a trillion tons.

Groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa have been preaching the gospel of sustainable, or now regenerative, agriculture for decades. Their field days 30 years ago would attract a couple dozen farmers. Today they draw thousands interested in cutting chemical costs and improving their soil for better crop yields. Farmers can read an income statement and see what kind of new pickup that guy grazing cattle on grass drives. They also are acutely aware of water quality problems being laid at their boots as the Gulf of Mexico chokes on excess Midwestern corn fertilizer pouring down the Mississippi River. Most would do something about it if they could afford to.

But most farmers figure it really doesn’t pay to trifle with it. Just a half a percent of Buena Vista County’s acreage is planted into any cover crop, bare and black in winter as the wind blows down from the Dakotas. Sure, planting winter radishes might reduce soil erosion, prevent water pollution and draw down greenhouse gases. But how does it help pay this year’s rent, or that tractor loan?

Nearly all farmers support getting paid to sequester carbon or prevent pollution. Iowans have been scheming over it for 30 years or more. Farmers have proven they will give up corn acres in return for a wind turbine royalty check. They will switch from corn to grass if somebody bids high enough. Bidding remains quiet without a carbon market. It’s not something that the petrochemical industry that dominates modern agriculture wants.

For the first time, carbon pricing may be on the horizon as the West burns, the Great Plains bake and Ohio floods. John Delaney proposes diverting $5 billion in fossil fuel subsidies to help pay farmers to sequester carbon. Elizabeth Warren, of course, is working on a plan and is keen on agriculture’s possibilities. Michael Bennet integrates an agricultural carbon credit scheme into his climate plan. Beto O’Rourke stopped by for a tour of a “rengenerative” farm in central Iowa, after having crisscrossed the Tall Corn State over the past two months seeing fields and towns washed away by floods.

“This is a make-or-break moment for farmers,” O’Rourke told me, citing six straight years of losses. “This cannot happen soon enough. The farmers I’ve listened to don’t see a future in bailouts.”

His regenerative farmer friends, Matt Russell and Patrick Standley, were happy to show off their 110 acres devoted to grass and 24 beef cows not far from Des Moines. Russell also directs Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit that gathers farmers to talk about natural resource stewardship. He has been evangelizing on paying farmers for providing environmental services. Russell said about eight campaigns are interested, with four digging in to learn more.

“We want to get Democrats and Republicans to understand that there’s an opportunity for farmers to lean in and be heroes, but the leaning is all uphill right now,” Russell said. “Production and conservation are at odds, so we have to shift the incentives.”

Funding mechanisms exist, but they have been starved. The Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable ag practices on working lands, was trimmed in the last Farm Bill. The Conservation Reserve Program has been effectively capped. All the campaigns say they want to boost conservation funding. O’Rourke wants to reopen the farm bill to address climate change immediately.

Climate change has emerged as a top issue among Iowa caucus-goers, so writing agriculture in as a big part of the solution plays well politically.

JD Scholten, a Sioux City Democrat who nearly unseated Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, in 2018, notes that the average Iowa farm income last year was a negative $1,500. Deep down, farmers know that their soil is washing away four to 10 times faster than nature can regenerate it. Ohioans are well aware of threats to their Lake Erie water from toxic algae born of fertilizer. We know that grass stream buffers and prairie strips in crop fields work, but it all costs something.

“Our system is broken right now,” said Scholten, who is mounting another bid against King, mainly over rural and farm income issues. He says that paying farmers to capture carbon should be central to the discussion. 

Increasingly, it is.

Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times.

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