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Farmers Combat Climate Change

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “it is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken. Our present energy course is not sustainable.”

The American Meteorological Society, Geological Society of America, and American Association for the Advancement of Science all agree that climate change is real and likely caused by human activity. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified climate change as a threat to public health and welfare.

Scientists have identified the culprit as emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxides (N2O), methane (CH4), and other “greenhouse gases” that build up in our atmosphere, trapping more of the sun’s energy.

Fortunately, America’s farmers and ranchers can combat climate change by changing farming methods that currently generate greenhouse gases. They can also plant trees and other plants that take carbon dioxide out of the air and store it as carbon in roots or plant materials.

The following are just a few examples of actions America’s farmers and ranchers are taking to reduce their “carbon footprint” and help America fight climate change.

Sun Powers Water System

Dick Lester, owner of Spring Valley Ranch in northwest Iowa, was looking for better ways to manage the ranch’s 650-acre pasture. Britt and Mark Carlson’s cattle had been drinking from the creek that runs through the property, eroding its banks and concentrating grazing impacts near the stream.

Thanks to technical help and cost-share through Iowa Lakes Resource Conservation & Development, Lester installed a solar-powered pump and water system that met his needs. Eight 175-watt solar panels power a pump that delivers water through 4,600 feet of pipe to three water tanks placed well away from the creek. The system lifts the water 150 feet.

The project, and several others like it in the area, reduce the amount of power needed from coal-fired powerplants. There are other benefits as well.

The Carlson’s 300 head of purebred Angus have access to cleaner water, the streambanks are recovering, and spreading the cattle out has resulted in better use of the forage. Better grassland management should benefit the grassland birds and other wildlife on the farm. Lester also avoided the $20,000 cost of running an electric line to his remote pasture site.

For other producers interested in solar-powered watering systems, the materials, equipment and installation needed are eligible for financial assistance through the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Storing Carbon, Creating Wildlife Habitat

Plants take carbon dioxide from the air, and use energy from the sun to turn CO2 into plant material (photosynthesis). Perennial plants like native grasses can store large amounts of carbon in their extensive root systems. Trees can store large amounts of carbon in the limbs and roots as they grow.

Over 400,000 farmers across America are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Through 10- or 15-year CRP contracts, farmers take marginal or highly erodible cropland out of production and plant grassland mixes, trees or shrubs.

As a CRP field matures, it can store a ton of carbon per acre per year. Planted trees can store as much as several tons of carbon per acre per year. Multiply that by the 32 million acres that Congress authorized for the program and the results are impressive. Research has shown that the program sequesters 48 million tons of carbon dioxide.

As impressive as the carbon storage benefits are, they are not even the primary purposes of the program. The Conservation Reserve Program is designed for soil conservation, water quality, and wildlife habitat. Research has documented that each year the program has kept 450 million tons of soil in the field and out of local streams, provided habitat for millions of ducks and geese, produced 13.5 million pheasants, and reduced pesticide and nutrient runoff, protecting hundreds of thousands of miles of streams.

Exchanging Carbon for Cash

Changes in farming and forestry practices can store smaller but still significant amounts of carbon. An example is eliminating or reducing the use of disks, cultivators and other tillage traditionally used to control weeds in annual crops. Converting cropland to “no-till” or reduced tillage methods allows carbon contained in crop residue and roots to stay on or in the soil. Gradually the carbon levels build up in the soil, reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Thousands of farmers have converted their farms to no-till in the last few years. By agreeing to adopt and continue no-till practices, many are also able to earn cash by selling ‘carbon credits’ on the Chicago Climate Exchange through sponsors like the North Dakota Farmers Union.

Boosting soil carbon also improves the health of the soil, and makes the field better able to store and hold moisture. No-till farming involves trade-offs, since chemical herbicides are often used to manage weeds that were once managed with cultivation, but the benefits can be substantial. As cover crops are added to the system and organic no-till methods are developed, the net benefits can be even more dramatic.

Dairy Uses Less Energy

In Cortland, New York, Kathie Arnold has been running Twin Oaks Dairy with her husband and brother-in-law for nearly three decades. Their dairy farm includes 140 cows on 700 acres. They have pasture and grow hay, corn, and small grains on rolling, highly erodible land

More than a decade ago, they converted their operation to an organic dairy. They use no pesticides and only organic feed, and have put in place many sustainable farming practices to ensure their long term success.

“Organic dairy farming is better for my cows, better for people, and better for the environment,” said Arnold. “My operation reduces energy use, increases nutrients in the milk, and is overall beneficial for cow health.”

Although their transition to organic production was done for other reasons, the substantial reduction in energy use should also reduce their carbon footprint. Research by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and other sources confirms that organic dairies typically use far less energy per gallon of milk produced.

According to the FAO, most other organic crop and livestock operations are also much more energy efficient than conventional practices: “Typically, organic agriculture uses 30 to 50 percent less energy in production than comparable non-organic agriculture.”

The organic production methods used at Twin Oaks Dairy are also better for fish and wildlife in the neighborhood. Pollinators like butterflies and bees are especially sensitive to pesticides, and fish in nearby streams won’t need to worry about runoff of pesticides or synthetic fertilizer.

Multiple Benefits

As the examples above show, addressing global warming by changing agricultural practices can provide many other benefits. Wildlife habitat can be improved and expanded; water quality can be protected; soil erosion can be reversed and soil quality improved. Farmers and ranchers can reduce their costs and improve their productivity.

With programs designed from the start to provide multiple benefits, and tailored to meet the needs of America’s farmers and ranchers, American agriculture can play a significant role in addressing climate change while boosting rural communities.

This is one of a series of Conservation Success Stories published by National Wildlife Federation with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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