September 2, 2020
Every farmer stands on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Last year, farmers and ranchers within the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) network mobilized to make certain that policymakers understood their concerns and desires to meet the climate crisis head-on. NSAC members worked with farmers and ranchers to draft a letter that lifts up farmer voices on Capitol Hill and brings attention to the actions needed to include farmers and ranchers as part of the climate solution. Last week, the letter, with 2,130 signatures from farmers and ranchers across the country, was delivered to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (Select Committee).
The letter focuses on the fundamental threat that the climate crisis poses to the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers as well as their commitment to being part of the solution. From extreme and unpredictable weather events to shifting yields and changing disease and pest pressures, farmers and ranchers across all regions of the country have been affected by the challenges brought on by a changing climate. However, farmers and ranchers also have unique tools, practices, and knowledge that can help them mitigate the impacts of climate change on their farms and ranches and, with additional support, begin to reverse the climate crisis that threatens the future of agriculture.
On August 27, 2020, NSAC hosted an online presentation of the letter by farmers and ranchers to Members of Congress – Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL), Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA), member of the Select Committee. Signatories of the letter shared stories of how climate change affected their lives and spoke of their commitment to be part of the climate solution. They urged legislators to continue their work in Congress to support programs and increase conservation incentives to help farmers and ranchers implement climate stewardship practices on their operations.
Some farmers spoke about current U.S. agricultural policies that incentivize higher yields at the expense of the environment and how current agriculture systems can be a significant contributor to environmental degradation and the climate crisis. Others spoke about how agriculture, unlike many sectors that contribute to the climate crisis, can also be part of the solution by shifting towards sustainable and regenerative methods of farming. They discussed how they adopted farming practices that would help them be critical allies in the fight against the climate crisis, and asked for more assistance so they could take even greater action.
As stewards of our land and natural resources, farmers can implement conservation practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions – but they need support to transition to more climate-friendly farming systems. The Select Committee’s report highlights the critical role farmers and ranchers have to play in combating the climate crisis and outlines the necessary investments that Congress should make to provide financial incentives, technical assistance, and research for farmers and ranchers to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate.
During the call, five farmers from California, Florida, and Iowa shared their stories of how climate change has affected the operations of their farms. Their words were made more poignant as climate change driven wildfires forced California farmers to gather their livestock and flee for their lives, hurricanes in Florida left one hemp farmer none but two plants in a 5-acre plot, and a derecho windstorm devastated the crops across much of Iowa.
The losses that farmers have experienced due to the climate crisis are tragic, but it would be inaccurate to see farmers and ranchers simply as victims of the climate crisis.
Matt Russell, a farmer based in South Central Iowa and Executive Director of Interfaith Power and Light, issued the following statement:
“We farmers and ranchers are resilient, optimistic, and innovative by our very nature.”
Since farmers are constantly innovating and finding ways to be better stewards of our land and shared natural resources, they can help mitigate and even reverse the effects of climate change.
California rancher Marie Hoff works with sheep for weed abatement, as well as brush and fuel management. Because of the continued intensity and frequency of wildfires in California, she shifted to advanced grazing management to lower the risk of wildfires.
“I am advocating for grazing management because of its climate appropriateness. Every other way we have of managing biomass, whether it’s by mechanical means, spraying pesticides, ends up emitting more carbon than it sequesters. Those methods are also not scalable and fail to reach areas that are hard to access.”
When farmer Avery Hellman moved back to their family farm in California at the age of 21, they believed that agriculture was the greatest opportunity to foster healthy communities and sustainable practices in the U.S. But what they soon came to realize – and what is the story for many – is that the current agricultural system is stacked against them.
“My friends say things like, ‘It’s not just difficult, it’s impossible to be a farmer.’ I see my community pushed because they become scapegoats for climate change, which is a deeply complex situation that has a complex set of reasons for why it’s happened. At the same time, farmers are not getting credited for the ecosystem services that they’re providing–the clean air, the clean water and open spaces that create meaningful cultural experiences.”
Even individuals with decades of experience struggle because of gaps in funding resources available to them. Eva Worden, Florida farmer with over 20 years of expertise and whose farm boasts a successful CSA program, highlighted some of the barriers that farmers face:
“Part of what is making farming tough is regulation instead of incentives. We’ve been certified organic from the beginning, we’ve participated in EQIP, NRCS, and all of the different programs available–yet still there are issues…Participation is difficult, especially for beginning and disadvantaged farmers.”
She also gave a snapshot of how expensive it is to be a farmer:
“We used to spread seeds by hand, and then we got the spinner spreader for $50 at the tractor supply store, and now we’ve moved on 20 years later to an actual seed drill. But we buy all of our equipment used, we’ve bootstrapped the farm, and still it represents over $100,000 of equipment.”
Florida hemp farmer and agricultural lawyer Scheril Murray Powell, Esq. expressed to the Select Committee the need for proactive legislation that not only helps farmers develop resilience against the effects of climate change, but that also provides sufficient funding for research in urban agricultural communities.
“When we are talking about sustainability and making sure that we are cognizant of this climate crisis, it’s important that we pass the right legislation. The main reason I’m here today is to help deliver the letter and to show support for Chellie Pingree’s Agricultural Resilience Act and the aggressive but attainable goals of reducing agricultural emissions by 50% by 2030.”
Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL), Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA), member of the Select Committee, received the letter and praised farmers for their efforts to address the climate crisis.
“Anyone who eats should care about farmers and the climate crisis. Many Americans understand this, but many do not. Any crisis that affects farmers affects all of us. And America’s agricultural workers are there, rain or shine, even through a pandemic, making sure families can put food on the table,” said Representative Castor. “Large scale disruptions don’t just affect farmers, they have a cascading impact, harming food distribution and so much of what we hold dear. And that’s why we have to solve the climate crisis.”
In response to the event and to farmers sharing their stories, Representative Castor remarked:
“Thank you for demanding your seat at the table and for offering to do more to fight climate change. You deserve a strong federal partner who will support you as we create the clean energy economy and expand climate stewardship across the U.S.”
Representative Brownley, who was also in attendance, started by acknowledging the many farmers and ranchers that provided input into the Select Committee’s report.
“We are so grateful to the many farmers like Matt who helped us craft the agriculture pillar in the report.”
Congresswoman Brownley brought attention to the challenges that the climate crisis already poses for her own district:
“Ventura County also has the dubious honor of being the fastest warming county in the continental United States, an increase of 2.6 degrees since pre-industrial times. That is why this report is so important and why Congress needs to act on it comprehensively, and we need to act on it now.”
Both Congresswomen acknowledged the critical role agriculture has to play in combating the climate crisis.
“U.S. agriculture has been at a crossroads – the path we’ve been on is not sustainable, and we all know there is a better way,” said Representative Brownley. “We can produce food in abundance, farmers can have thriving businesses that provide good livings for their families, and fair labor standards for their workers, and be good environmental stewards of our lands for generations to come. We don’t have to choose one over the other, all three can be accomplished with the right policies and the right leadership.”
Earlier this year, Representative Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA; H.R. 5861) to offer a vision for how agriculture can be part of the climate solution. The ARA has six building blocks that form the basis of the most comprehensive piece of climate and agriculture legislation introduced in this Congress:
Many of the provisions in the ARA would expand and improve already existing research and conservation programs, as well increasing technical assistance. The ARA proposes to:
These are just a few of the many provisions included in the ARA. The Select Committee’s report released in June this year reflects many of the provisions included in the ARA. Congresswoman Brownley’s (D-CA) COMPOST Act builds upon the ARA. If enacted into law, the bill would require USDA to recognize composting as a beneficial conservation practice, which is already recognized in California’s Healthy Soils Program. The policy solutions in the ARA and the Select Committee’s report place farmers and ranchers at the center of climate change mitigation and adaptation, ensuring they have the tools and resources they need to meet this challenge head on.
Any climate legislation package will be incomplete without the recognition and inclusion of farmers and ranchers as vital partners in our efforts to combat the climate crisis.
While there is often a focus on the negative climate impacts of agriculture, farmers and ranchers across the country are adopting regenerative and sustainable practices that sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve soil health. By implementing climate stewardship practices, like diverse crop rotations, advanced grazing management, cover crops, and conservation tillage, farmers are mitigating the climate crisis and improving the resilience of their operations. This letter showcases that many farmers and ranchers are committed to be part of the solution to this existential crisis.
In the words of Matt Russell –
“If you want to move the hearts of farmers and ranchers in rural America, don’t focus on our suffering. Partner with us to increase our success. That’s what this committee has embraced, and you recognize that farmers, ranchers, and rural Americans are essential as we transition to a world where we use fossil fuels to work against nature and into a world where we partner with nature for our lives. American farmers and ranchers are ready to lead.”
Now, Congress must ensure that farmers and ranchers have the tools and resources they need to be active leaders in our climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. NSAC thanks the farmers who spoke about their challenges they face because of climate change and for the Congresswomen who listened carefully and heard their voices. We encourage legislators to use the Select Committee’s report and the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) as roadmaps to develop comprehensive climate legislation. Both the Select Committee report and the ARA place farmers at the center of policy proposals and focus on directly supporting farmers and ranchers in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate.
Visit our Take Action page to learn more about what you can do to ensure that future climate legislation includes support for farmers and ranchers production food and fiber in climate-friendly ways.