Federal Government’s $20 Billion Embrace of ‘Climate Smart’ Farming

Source: By Linda Qiu, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The techniques are a cornerstone of the Agriculture Department’s approach to addressing a warming planet, but it is unclear whether more widespread deployment of such methods can truly reverse the effects of climate change.

Herds on Lindsay Klaunig’s farm outside Athens, Ohio, are rotated to allow vegetation to regrow.
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

But through climate-friendly techniques and a little help from the Agriculture Department, Ms. Klaunig now grows heirloom vegetables, raises grass-fed cows and goats, and makes small-batch chocolate on her farm in Appalachia, named Trouvaille, or “lucky find.”

Rotating a herd through smaller parcels of pasture allowed vegetation to regrow and rebuild vigor. Terracing the hills, tilling as little as possible and sowing plants like buckwheat and crimson clover prevented topsoil from eroding. And using varieties suitable to the climate of the area reaped larger harvests while requiring fewer environmentally hazardous substances like pesticides and fertilizers.

These techniques, known as regenerative or climate-smart agriculture, are a cornerstone of the Agriculture Department’s approach to addressing a warming planet. For Ms. Klaunig, the practices yield practical benefits and adhere to her convictions, but it remains to be seen whether more widespread deployment of such methods — as the administration has sought to encourage — can truly reverse the effects of climate change.

“Trying to constantly balance what the land needs versus what we need from the land — that’s what it is for me,” Ms. Klaunig said. The important thing for the land is to “not leave it barren and eroding over the winter,” she added.

The Biden administration committed $22 billion this summer toward Agriculture Department programs using that approach, the largest federal investment to date in climate-smart practices. The funding makes good on a pledge from President Biden in his first week in office to encourage such practices in a sector that produces about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

Mr. Biden has heralded the potential of these techniques to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in the soil, thereby reducing the effect of the planet-warming gases. However, scientists still have not determined just how much and for how long carbon can be sequestered and how to even measure any impact.

“Trying to constantly balance what the land needs versus what we need from the land — that’s what it is for me,” Ms. Klaunig said of climate-smart agriculture techniques.
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Nonetheless, farmers, experts and the federal government broadly agree that these practices confer benefits like improving soil and water health, building resilience against drought and enhancing biodiversity.

“All these things together are going to be helping with the mitigation and adaptation side of climate-smart agriculture,” said Caitlin Welsh, an expert on food security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

Scott Faber, the vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said that farmers played a critical role in ensuring a habitable planet.

“We tend to believe that farmers are good stewards of that land,” he added, but said that positive perception could change. “That belief will be shattered if and when agriculture is 30 percent of U.S. emissions.”

The bulk of the federal funding, about $19.5 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act that Mr. Biden signed last month, would shore up existing agricultural conservation programs that encourage climate-smart practices. The Agriculture Department announced in recent weeks that it would spend an additional $2.8 billion to enact and research climate-smart production on 20 million to 25 million acres of working lands.

Demand for the existing conservation programs has long exceeded the amount of funding that the Agriculture Department has been able to provide, and half to two-thirds of farmers who apply are turned away each year. Likewise, the department received over 1,000 applications for the climate-smart pilot projects that totaled $20 billion in requested assistance, Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said at a news conference this month.

“Farmers want to do these types of conservation programs,” said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minnesota-based research and advocacy nonprofit. “This is a significant step. We need this money and these resources to help farmers transition.”

Currently, climate-smart agriculture remains a niche but growing trend. The latest Census of Agriculture estimated that farmers use no-tillage systems — planting crops directly into the land without digging or turning the soil — on about 100 million acres of cropland. Farmers also planted cover crops, sown to prevent erosion and to increase moisture, on about 15 million acres out of 900 million total of farmland in the United States.

Farmers who tapped into existing conservation programs have observed firsthand the ecological and economic benefits of such climate-smart practices.

Ms. Klaunig grows heirloom garlic, which when properly planted can withstand the cold months.By Andrew Spears for the New York Times

Seth Watkins, who raises cows on about 2,800 acres in southwest Iowa, said that employing practices like rotational grazing and planting clover as a cover crop has attracted Monarch butterflies and songbirds to his farm — and has also helped his bottom line.

He has bought less store feed for his cows, which now graze longer on pasture. Their health has improved from fresh air and grass, translating to reduced veterinary bills. He has also had less fuel to buy for his tractor and no purchases of fertilizer because of the nutrients that his soil has regenerated.

“My savings came because I reduced my fossil fuel usage across the board,” he said. “We cannot allow agriculture to continue to be dependent on finite resources.”

In nearby Indiana, Brian Scott has for a decade been planting cover crops like radish and ryegrass on about a quarter to a third of a 2,400-acre farm where he also grows corn, soybeans and wheat. He has also refrained from tilling his land for several years.

“For us, really the reason to do it was less labor and equipment,” he said. With the increase in available funding, Mr. Scott hopes to apply for another round to expand the cover crops.

On her organic vegetable farm in Pennsylvania, Hannah Smith Brubaker has converted cornfields into pastures; planted rows of trees known as windbreaks to control erosion and protect against high gusts; and constructed grass waterways or channels seeded with vegetation to collect water.

“We’ve had drought so bad this year,” she said. “And if we didn’t have some of these conservation practices installed, I don’t know what we would do. We might just be closing up shop because our soil would be so dry.”

Their experiences are reflected in the data. A March report from the Agriculture Department assessing the effect of its conservation programs over a decade found that these practices helped reduce water erosion by 76 million tons and wind erosion by 94 million tons per year. Average annual fuel use also decreased by 110 million gallons of diesel, equivalent to 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Still, experts cautioned that to truly make a dent in agricultural emissions, the programs needed to discourage practices with noted harms and incentivize farming and ranching practices that have proven consequences.

Ms. Welsh of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that the existing programs and the new grants did not do enough to directly address a major source of emissions from farming: fertilizers. They release nitrous oxide, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Encouraging more precise fertilizer application and incentivizing more sustainable manufacturing processes “would have benefits for both climate change and also benefits producers, given the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the high price of fertilizers right now,” she said.

Mr. Lilliston said the additional funding, while a good start, was “not transformative and doesn’t address the fundamental system.” That system, along with agricultural policies, incentivizes practices that are not so good for the planet, he said.

“Large-scale commodity production requires a lot of fertilizer use and pesticide use,” he said. “The core farm bill programs that lock those systems in place are still there.”

Of the hundreds of practices encouraged by existing conservation programs, only a few dozen could actually mitigate climate change, Mr. Faber argued. According to research from the Environmental Working Group, just 20 percent of funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of the Agriculture Department’s largest conservation programs, supports practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most funding helps farmers and ranchers with structural projects, like installing irrigation systems, that do not curb emissions.

“We’re very supportive of these programs because they’re our best chance to reduce emissions,” he said.

But, he added, “there’s a real risk based on recent history — not to just past, long ago history — that a lot of this funding will be squandered.”

Mr. Watkins, a self-described “tree hugger,” was more hopeful. He recalled a recent lunchtime conversation with two neighbors who are new to farming and regenerative agriculture. They recently received funding to convert some farmland to pasture — “something that wouldn’t have happened without EQIP because they just don’t have the margins right now.”

Farms can become “little oases when we build these projects,” he said. “Nature is so forgiving. You give her half a chance, and she gives so much back. I think that’s what this is about.”