One of the best approaches for combating climate change lies beneath every Midwestern farm: the soil. By increasing soil organic carbon, farmers can help the climate, their bottom lines, and their farms and communities better adapt to the impacts of extreme weather. The Land Stewardship Project is part of the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (MSAWG), a growing, informal network of farm and community-based organizations across Midwestern states working to advance soil health on farms and address climate change.
Agriculture is already on the front lines of a changing climate. Compared to a generation ago, farmers are experiencing more frequent weather extremes, from recurrent 100-year floods to severe and prolonged droughts to greater heat waves that threaten workers, crops, and livestock. As temperatures continue to rise, new pest and disease pressures are impacting crop yields and quality. Farmers and ranchers are accustomed to adapting to change, but the greater extremes — wet springs, early winters, strong storms — they are experiencing today are unprecedented. Our rural communities often lack resources and infrastructure, making them especially vulnerable to climate change impacts. These challenges are not experienced equally — oftentimes disproportionately affecting socially disadvantaged communities, especially farmers and ranchers of color. Rural population loss adds stress to communities.
We must look to the soil. The input-intensive corn-soybean systems advanced by increasingly consolidated technology corporations and commodity buyers, together with federal farm policy, have too often de-emphasized life-building soil practices. Midwestern soils lost a net 3.5 billion tons of carbon between 1850 to 2015 from erosion and loss to the atmosphere. Assisting farmers and ranchers, who manage one-fifth of the land in the U.S., to improve soil health and increase soil organic matter on their farms and ranches is essential. Carbon uptake through living plants and building soil health are the most viable ways to draw down atmospheric carbon levels, which is at the root of climate change. This approach is recognized by farmers and scientists throughout the world and the Midwest as a critical climate strategy.
Using integrated soil health practices like multi-species cover crops, longer crop rotations with small grains and perennials, along with organic systems and agroforestry — also called continuous living cover — together with no-till and well-managed livestock grazing, hundreds of farms and ranches across the Midwest are showing how they are becoming net carbon sinks.
One team of researchers estimates that integrating continuous living cover and reduced tillage or managed rotational grazing on 25% of U.S. farm and ranch land could make agriculture a net carbon sink and effectively lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 9% — the total amount released by agriculture.
These same practices can help manage water and cut erosion. A 1% increase in soil organic matter (58% of which is carbon) from soil friendly farming practices soaks up and holds roughly 25,000 to 27,000 gallons of rainwater per acre in the top six inches, according to one estimate by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Tom and Alma Cotter farm near the Cedar River outside of Austin in southern Minnesota. They integrate summer annual crops such as corn and soybeans, cover crops, and livestock production via managed rotational grazing to build organic matter in their fields. Sometimes they integrate all those practices in one field during the same growing season. Using cover crops and grazing improves the farm’s ability to manage precipitation, increasing fertility and sequestering carbon.
“Capturing water, capturing carbon — I know if I get those two things, I will get a pretty good crop,” Tom Cotter says.
Cover crops, along with no-till and longer rotations such as those in organic systems, improve soil health on the best corn land. Continuous living cover also makes economic sense on marginal row crop fields. Reintegrating well-managed livestock grazing can transition low-productivity, vulnerable lands to perennial cover — increasing their profitability while reducing erosion. Livestock grazing also makes cover crops generate a near-term, as well as a long-term, return, according to the Pasture Project Report and Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Many of the climate solutions offered by agriculture provide multiple benefits to our farms, our communities, and our environment. Among them are stabilized crop yields, reduced nutrient and soil runoff, increased per-acre profitability, greater resilience to weather extremes, improved air and water quality, and enhanced wildlife habitat. We should seek to advance climate solutions that provide these multiple benefits through the innovation and success of our farmer-leaders and rural communities.
But agriculture cannot become part of the climate solution without significant investment. Profitable markets for products from soil-friendly farming systems that include longer rotations, organic production, diverse cover crops, and more cattle on grass must be expanded and developed. The Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, and the Land Institute are developing new cover crops, perennials like Kernza, and forage options for Midwestern agriculture (as well as markets for these products).
We must reduce the risk to producers in shifting to new climate-friendly agricultural practices by investing in relevant technical assistance, financial incentives and research — especially for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Land Stewardship Project each released recent reports showing that farmers and ranchers, as well as landowners who rent out land, can sequester tons of carbon per acre by implementing these practices. These reports include recommendations for public policy change.
No climate policy at the state or national level will be complete or effective without recognizing the role agriculture must play in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing our carbon sinks, and building our land's resiliency. Farmers are leading the way forward and the science is catching up. MSAWG member groups are advancing these changes throughout the Midwest. Our food security and the viability of our rural communities depends on embracing agricultural solutions to a changing climate.
LSP Science and Special Projects Leader George Boody is the author of Farming to Capture Carbon & Address Climate Change Through Building Soil Health. He can be reached at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.