USDA ‘making headway’ on carbon research

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, April 12, 2019

The Agriculture Department is coming closer to figuring out how much carbon is lost or stored on farms through various practices in the field, an agency official told lawmakers yesterday.

“We’re making headway,” said Kevin Norton, acting associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, during a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on sustainable agriculture practices.

The hearing, requested by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), highlighted conservation practices that can help farmers respond to extreme weather and agriculture’s role in addressing climate change.

Norton, whose agency oversees many of USDA’s voluntary conservation programs, said NRCS uses a tool called COMET-Farm to assess the carbon impacts of farming practices. Farmers can use the program’s computer-generated models to project possible carbon savings, he said.

In addition, he said, officials continue conversations with organizations devoted to soil health in hope of building carbon-related markets that could give farmers a financial incentive to conserve.

While the debate around human-induced climate change still falls along partisan lines in Congress, the reality of extreme weather and agriculture’s potential for carbon sequestration has become more widely accepted, and yesterday’s hearing didn’t reveal any fault lines.

Lawmakers may be receiving a message from home; consumers are increasingly aware of agricultural sustainability issues, said Jason Weller, a former NRCS chief who’s now senior director of sustainability at Land O’Lakes, the Minnesota dairy cooperative.

“Because of surging innovation and growing consumer interest in sustainability, I am more excited and optimistic about our future and path forward than I have ever been in my career,” Weller said in prepared testimony. He told lawmakers that farmers are consulting with Land O’Lakes agronomists to take up conservation practices aimed at saving carbon.

An organic farmer from Belgrade, Mont., Nate Powell-Palm, told the panel that organic farms sequester about 26% more carbon than conventional farms and that organic practices pay off for farmers, for example, by lowering costs for added fertilizer.

“By adopting organic practices such as crop rotation to build soil fertility and control weeds and pests, farmers spend less money on off-farm inputs like synthetic herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides,” Powell-Palm said.

With higher prices for organic crops, Powell-Palm said, he learned he could nearly double his net revenue from a field by growing certified organic grain in rotation with pasture and hay. More economic returns could come through market-based incentives for sequestering carbon, he said.

For Pingree — an organic farmer — the hearing represented something of a victory, as her new status in the majority has made it easier to highlight sustainable agriculture issues. The lawmaker said she gets frustrated sometimes in the climate change debate by the public’s limited awareness beyond the benefits of planting trees.

“This kind of made my week,” Pingree said.