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America's farmers can fight climate change

America's farmers can fight climate change
Polly Pittman fastens netting around the grapes to protect them from birds at the Dodon farm. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Maryland farmers are confronting the challenges of changing weather patterns that are the result of carbon pollution and warmer temperatures. Following heavy rain last September, more than in the previous five Septembers combined, red wine production in 2018 from our vineyard in Davidsonville was less than half the amount it had been the year before.

Others in agriculture fared even worse. Some Maryland vineyards produced no red wine at all. Vegetable production at one local farm was a quarter of the usual yield. Several neighbors who grow soybeans simply didn’t harvest them.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. New agricultural practices can make our farms more resilient and help address climate change. The key is capturing atmospheric carbon and storing it in soil. These regenerative practices are already used in many parts of the country and are ready for large-scale deployment at relatively low cost. The challenge now is to encourage farmers to adopt these new methods.

Historically, changes in land use — such as conversion of woodland to cropland — and common agricultural practices like tillage (prepping the land for crops) have resulted in significant net loss of soil carbon. One quarter of all anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere, about 450 billion metric tons emitted over 8,000 years, can be attributed to these harmful land use practices.

Enhanced soil management can reverse this trend by reducing agricultural emissions and, in many cases, resulting in net draw down of greenhouse gases. Because soil stores three times more carbon than the atmosphere, increasing soil carbon content by even a small percentage represents a substantial mechanism to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and reverse global warming.

Soil carbon can be increased through plant assimilation of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reducing losses associated with decomposition of soil organic matter. Returning agricultural land to native ecosystems is probably the best way to increase levels of stored carbon over time, but this is not always an option. Improved cropping systems, conversion to perennial crops, agroforestry and novel grazing methods are also very effective.

The National Academy of Sciences has conservatively estimated that improved agricultural land management could result in removal of 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the United States, nearly 20 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions each year. Achieving this level of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere will require active participation by America’s 750,000 farmers.

In addition to their benefits on the climate, practices that sequester carbon can also boost agricultural yields, increase soil nutrient retention and enhance soil water infiltration and holding capacity. In other words, investing in regenerative agriculture will not only reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it will also benefit farmers and rural communities and improve global resilience to climate change.

Even with these direct benefits to farmers, additional incentives and education will be required. First, many small farmers face a great deal of risk and are reluctant to change from time-tested methods. Second, soil enhancing methods must be adapted to specific places and crops, and this need for customization complicates implementation. Third, many farmers believe that they should be compensated for removing atmospheric carbon that came from non-agricultural settings, suggesting that financing these changes must also be considered.

There are several mechanisms already being used throughout the country to engage farmers in this process of change. Carbon offset markets, which directly compensate farmers for achieving quantifiable emission goals, represent the most ambitious approach. The California Air Resources Board protocol that allows rice farmers to sell offsets into the state’s cap and trade market is one example.

Other methods to finance farmer incentives include direct subsidies, such as those used by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to achieve conservation and water quality goals, and certifications or labeling based on sustainability-based performance standards established by agricultural distributors and retailers like the Field to Farm Alliance.

Now is the time for policy makers to engage farmers on climate change. First, the state should fund the Maryland Healthy Soil Initiative that was created to develop agricultural responses to climate change. Second, it should establish a carbon offset market that would allow electric companies to meet their renewable energy requirement by purchasing credits from farmers who adopt the necessary practices. Third, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s proposed carbon cap and dividend program should be modified to allow revenues to be used to purchase “carbon farming” services.

Maryland farmers lead the nation in adopting conservation measures that improve water quality. Engaging them to put carbon back in soil is an obvious and potentially powerful way to reverse climate change while enhancing global food security.

Tom Croghan (tom@dodonvineyards.com) owns The Vineyards at Dodon in Davidsonville.

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