Climate not a dirty word in ag anymore

Times change fast: Before the 2018 Farm Bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan couldn’t get a hearing scheduled on climate change. She had to call it a “severe weather” hearing.

Last week, Stabenow presided as Democratic chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee over a climate hearing labelled as such that promises to set in motion a transformation of farming and forestry. Farmers and senators on left and right generally embraced ramping up conservation programs dramatically and establishing standards for paying farmers to sequester carbon in the soil and in trees.

Epic floods, long-term drought on the Great Plains and freak windstorms called derechos that flattened more than 14 million acres of crops last summer have a way of fixing attentions and changing minds. Resiliency is the watchword. Soil health is getting sexy. Grazing on grass is groovy, because it can help save the planet from cooking.

“I feel really good about where we’re going,” Stabenow said. “I’ve spent years working on this, and it’s wonderful to finally see people say, ‘Yeah. I get it.’”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tells me the Biden administration wants agriculture and renewable energy to be at the center of their climate strategy. It sounds like the ag establishment — from the American Farm Bureau to the National Farmers Union — is eager to buy in. The main way farmers made money the past four years was through tens of billions in emergency payments doled out through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vilsack would rather use that funding — perhaps $30 billion — to immediately start paying farmers more for conservation agriculture.

Senators and farmer witnesses agreed that agriculture can quickly morph from a major contributor of greenhouse gases to a leading carbon sink resilient to extreme weather — with financial support and greater technical assistance. How do you plant a winter cover crop like rye that sequesters carbon while holding nitrogen in place, and can I make $10 an acre doing it?

Just four years ago, Republicans were bent on cutting conservation programs in their farm bill negotiations. Now the conversation is how to make the Conservation Stewardship Program for working lands a major driver in the bid to cut chemical fertilizer and herbicide use, eliminate surface water pollution and suck carbon out of the air. Stabenow says she wants to triple funding for the CSP and the Conservation Reserve Program, which idles cropland into grass long-term. “Farmers love these programs,” she says. Indeed they do, as they are sold out every year on meager funding.

Stabenow and Vilsack are pushing for the creation of carbon trading markets, whereby CO² generators like a power plant or ethanol distillery could offset their emissions by paying a farmer to grow trees or plant native prairie grass amid row crops. Her “Growing Climate Solutions” bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., with more than 60 major ag organizations on board, would direct the USDA to adopt technical standards for carbon sequestration, which varies widely by soil type or species and is hard to calculate. Presumably it implies some sort of cap on carbon emissions under global accords.

Stabenow and Sen. John Thune, R-SD, worked together on financial incentives for cover crops. They find common cause with Sen. Corey Booker, D-NJ. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., voiced concern for water resources underlying the Great Plains and Southwest alongside Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-NM. Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, urged colleagues to fund increased research at land-grant universities.

The Ag Committee is a patch where bipartisanship can be cultivated. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is long a proponent of biofuels and wind energy, as is Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democrat next door in Illinois. Stabenow believes those relationships can lead to progress on a big infrastructure program built around climate. She is working with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, on doubling tax credits for clean energy manufacturing. GM plans to invest $23 billion on electric vehicles in the next five years, Stabenow said, which demands more investment in a smart electric grid. She envisions reshoring battery production from China to Ohio and Michigan, and finds support among her Republican colleagues. Clean energy could sow a new future for Appalachia and the Rust Belt through better jobs and new investment. Resilient agriculture can help farmers and rural communities prosper. Senators were getting the message.

“They ought to work with us on these things,” Stabenow told me. “They make sense.”

The change in tone on the Ag Committee is a far cry from the last farm bill, delayed two years by bickering. Stabenow promises the next farm bill will be done within two years. It could be historic.

“Just a few years ago climate change was not an issue that farmers talked about among themselves in meetings or in a coffee shop,” said Illinois farmer John Reifsteck. Now agriculture is seen as a central player in helping save the planet while reversing a half-century of erosion in Rural America.

“It’s amazing,” Stabenow said.

Art Cullen is publisher and editor of The Storm Lake Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017.

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