Lately I have seen a change in the way farmers are thinking about climate change, water quality and conservation measures that save soil and improve resilience. Just a few years ago, talking about some of these things was somewhat taboo. But now I hear growing interest in the potential for agriculture to provide many of the solutions to environmental priorities like climate change. It's encouraging to hear farmers talking about ways to turn productivity and healthier landscapes into economic value, especially right now when we are swimming in excess production, but fighting a compromised market due to circumstances beyond our control.
While it is exciting to think about solutions that agriculture can provide to meet sustainable development goals, we need to address them systematically instead of chasing silver bullet solutions which, in reality, do not exist. Agriculture varies greatly across this nation, and approaches that work in the Midwest where I farm, may not in other places. That is why I think the first thing farmers should focus on is the outcomes they and society expect. To reach the interconnected goals of economic viability, sustainable production, clean water, increased soil organic matter, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, farmers need a production system that works for them. No one method will get us there, but a whole arsenal of related practices building on each other can.
Across much of the Great Plains and the Corn Belt, for example, there is potential to sequester carbon by no longer disturbing the soil with tillage. Keeping the carbon in the soil and increasing organic matter will make the land more resilient and improve its ability to adapt to extreme conditions. That also improves the ability of soil to hold more water for dry spells and increase its capacity to minimize runoff during large rain events, avoiding the loss of precious nutrients that growing plants need to thrive. When cover crops are added, excess nutrients are scavenged and are saved for the next crop, reducing the need to add more. Herbicides can also be reduced by crowding out the growth of weeds. Soil health is improved with each growing crop and soil loss no longer has to be accepted as a given.
While carbon sequestration is what much of the buzz is about these days, there are other tools and systems farmers will need to adopt to address environmental challenges and improve bottom lines. Farmers can reduce their carbon footprint by more precisely and strategically applying inputs like fertilizer. It does not make much sense to get paid for sequestering carbon if other greenhouse gases are not accounted for while growing the crop. Over my four decades of farming, I have often watched farmers replenish their soil with additional nutrients after large rain events. Much of what had been applied had leached through the soil profile, wasting money and fueling non-point source pollution. By simply reducing the loss of applied nitrogen by 10 percent, farmers can avoid emitting as much as the equivalent of a ton per acre of GHG emissions in the form of NO2, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. By growing specific cover crops such as legumes that can produce nitrogen, we could also reduce the application of synthetic nitrogen, saving money twice over.
Another tool in our 21st century toolbox is livestock production. Think of the possibilities of harvesting a spring cover crop that is high in energy, mixing it with animal manure in a biodigester and collecting the biogas from that process for energy, and then spreading what is left back on the land as a soil amendment. Not only are we producing a high value form of protein, but we are growing renewable energy and improving our soil. That is a win-win-win!
My farm is not my father's farm. Technology has enabled us to double our productivity without increasing our inputs over the last 30 years. Some say we need to go back to farming like we did many years ago. If we did, many would go hungry and our environmental footprint, I suspect, would be much larger. We must continue to reach for "sustainable intensification" in order to prepare for the 10 billion people that will occupy the earth by 2050.
As we produce food, fiber, clean energy and a long list of high value ecosystem services to meet a growing world, let's avoid the temptation to search for quick fixes to the complex challenges that farmers and the world are facing. Success, as defined by improved livelihoods and quality of life, will be achieved with silver buckshot, and not with silver bullets.
Solutions from the Land Co-Chair Fred Yoder is an Ohio corn, soybean, and wheat producer; past president of the National Corn Growers Association; past director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association; and chair of the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA).
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