December 15, 2022
The climate crisis is a current threat to effective agricultural production, and continued greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will substantially exacerbate these threats. However, agriculture also represents one avenue for solutions.
To prepare for a climate-challenged future and create on-farm climate solutions, we need to further develop agricultural systems in several key ways. Agricultural solutions should be farmer-driven and build upon the time-tested expertise of traditional and indigenous farmers of color, among others. Farming must be centered on building thriving communities, both urban and rural. Agricultural solutions to climate change should be holistic–addressing multiple intersecting social and ecological challenges rather than greenhouse gas emissions in isolation.
This blog post will address the ways in which federal conservation and research programs can contribute to such holistic solutions. Conservation programs can provide the resources farmers and ranchers need to continuously improve their land stewardship. They offer incentive-based support for a wide range of practices, many of which can contribute to reducing GHG emissions while simultaneously offering benefits for water quality and quantity, habitat improvement, and air quality. Such approaches create broad public benefit and therefore need public financial support.
Research programs are also vital for identifying the best paths forward to preparing for climate challenges as well as offering GHG mitigation solutions. Sustainable and organic systems inherently offer ecological benefits, like increased soil health and improved water quality, in addition to GHG emission reductions. However, continued research and evaluation are needed to further improve such systems and to understand their long-term effects relative to conventional systems. Research is also needed to understand the social and economic system changes that will best support farmers and communities as they continue their development of more sustainable agricultural systems.
Together, conservation programs and research that are centered on ecologically beneficial approaches can support farmers and their communities, contributing to a climate-resilient future. A 2023 Farm Bill modeled off of NSAC’s Farm Bill Platform will build climate resilience by advancing land stewardship, investing in sustainable and organic agriculture research, and prioritizing research that helps farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Advance land stewardship through conservation program funding and access
The benefits of on-farm conservation programs are widespread. They help farmers and ranchers keep drinking water clean for urban and rural communities, build soil resilience that limits the impacts of severe drought and flooding, provide healthy habitats for wildlife, mitigate agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, and support farm operations that are productive and sustainable long-term. Carie Starr, of Cherokee Valley Bison Ranch in Ohio, has implemented such climate-friendly practices on her ranch, with rotational grazing of bison.
“It has been amazing to see how the land has responded to these animals,” Carie says about the way that the bison have regenerated the landscape and ecosystem functioning on the farm.
Yet, many farmers find it increasingly difficult to access support from on-farm conservation programs. Funding shortages, insufficient emphasis on high-impact practices, and a lack of program coordination keep tens of thousands of farmers from achieving their resource conservation goals every year. Furthermore, historically underserved producers, including many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers and ranchers, have experienced systemic and institutional racism that has further hindered their access to conservation programs. Carie Starr, whose indigenous heritage informs her approach, has applied for Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding several years in a row and not received funding. She learned from a local NRCS agent that very few pasture programs were funded in Ohio.
Carie says, “In order to mitigate climate change, we need to financially incentivize small farmers growing healthy and safe food.” The 2023 Farm Bill presents an opportunity to improve program access through strategic investments in, and reforms to, existing conservation programs.“
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) represents one of the most comprehensive, incentive-based approaches to supporting farmers in whole-farm conservation. It is the only federal program that rewards farmers who systematically improve their conservation efforts over time, and therefore the only program targeted at the most high impact conservation farmers. As such, it is an important pillar to holistic climate solutions that address farm challenges like soil health and water infiltration even as it provides payments for a wide variety of practices that sequester carbon and reduce GHG emissions.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) also offers payments for many practices that are beneficial to resolving the climate crisis, including payments for practices that result in GHG emissions and reduce soil carbon. EQIP effectively supports farmers along their journeys toward ever-improved conservation, but it should not be used to subsidize ecologically damaging production practices or input-intensive systems. Instead, payments should prioritize those practices that build ecologically-sound systems and therefore offer the greatest public benefits.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) helps to protect land by enabling private landowners, land trusts, and other entities to preserve working farms and ranches and restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and grasslands through long-term easements. As a land protection tool, the program has substantial potential to create options for historically underserved farmers and ranchers to access land. It therefore represents one of the important tools to further build out the climate solutions that such farmers are especially interested in pursuing.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) conserves and improves soil, protects water quality, and provides wildlife habitat by establishing long-term cover on highly erodible land or land in need of conservation buffers that has previously been in row crop production. CRP also has significant potential to address climate mitigation and resilience by providing pathways to long-term, continuous plant cover and associated carbon sequestration.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) brings together the expertise of farmers, conservation and farm organizations, and state and local agencies to achieve shared conservation goals. Through these partnerships, NRCS and regional partners help producers install and maintain conservation activities like cover cropping and nutrient management in selected project areas. Co-benefits of many projects include climate mitigation and resilience.
NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform includes many recommendations to adjust these programs to further enhance their accessibility and impact. In addition to bolstering existing programs, including the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, NSAC’s Platform calls for a State Assistance for Soil Health Program, as well as an Alternative Manure Management Program. Both would provide opportunities and financial incentives for farmers to improve their soils and reduce their GHG emissions.
To build a resilient legion of farmers with a strong livelihood, the 2023 Farm Bill must invest in programs and policies that:
Invest in sustainable and organic agriculture research programs
Sustainable and organic agriculture are key parts of the path toward a more climate-resilient future. By approaching solutions through a systems lens, organic and sustainable agriculture offer better tools to combat climate change and address related challenges, including biodiversity loss, water pollution, water quantity challenges, pest pressures, and air pollution.
Research must robustly analyze the proposed solutions to such challenges. To best understand how organic and sustainable systems may offer pathways forward, researchers need to be able to track changes over a series of years. Long-term research on organic crop production, crop-livestock integration, pasture-based systems, and perennial systems can reveal their advantages, hurdles, and possible improvements.
In addition, research on the socio-ecological effects of farming systems, conservation practices, market changes, and factors that affect human health are all key to creating a food and agriculture ecosystem that best serves the people who grow our food, as well as all the stakeholders for whom an ecologically sustainable farm system matters.
To build a robust public research program that provides a deep understanding of sustainable and organic systems, the 2023 Farm Bill must invest in programs and policies that:
Prioritize research that helps farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change
Robust research programs are necessary to forge a path towards fully climate-friendly farming. In particular, we need substantial support to further understand agroecological systems that have great potential to solve multiple crises while contributing to climate solutions.
Climate change presents numerous, intersecting challenges. The increased volatility of weather means that those who manage agroecosystems must be prepared for widely varying extreme conditions and shifts in what used to be predictable annual events. It also means preparing for heat conditions that pose deep challenges to the health and well-being of those working outdoors. Fire, flood, and drought have all become far more significant threats during the last decade, and are only expected to increase. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced during the current decade, farmers can expect to deal with rapidly accelerating challenges.
However, agriculture and the food system represent a key leg to the table of solutions. Not only do they have potential to reduce their own emissions, but agricultural soils have the potential to act as a sink for carbon dioxide, drawing down the gas from the atmosphere. Agriculture cannot represent a remedy for non-farm fossil fuel emissions, but it can represent a return to a system where soils and deep-rooted and perennial plants are sequestering carbon that have been released during agriculture’s more recent history of dependence on annual, shallow-rooted crops grown in heavily tilled ground.
However, to find the best pathways forward to prepare farms and ranches for increased volatility and to identify the most effective solutions, research is needed: research that works directly with farmers and ranchers to build upon solutions they have created on the farm; research that identifies ways to protect agricultural workers; and research that pulls together the best ways for farmers to cope with increasing weather volatility–including the development of new public plant varieties and animal breeds that cope well with volatile weather conditions.
In addition to the programs and policies for sustainable and organic agriculture, research focused on climate solutions also needs a 2023 Farm Bill that invests in:
Support the Agriculture Resilience Act
Unpredictable, extreme weather patterns are creating challenges that threaten food production and jeopardize farmers’ livelihoods. The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) is a farmer-driven, science-based roadmap for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture and supporting farmers and ranchers in adapting to the impacts of change like drought and flooding. The provisions in the ARA include voluntary and incentive-driven measures to allow U.S. farmers to meet climate goals and dramatically improve our food system by directly engaging them in making the critical changes necessary for our future. The Agriculture Resilience Act will strengthen farms with research, extension, conservation, and energy investments and put choice back into the hands of the people.
The ARA is one of the ways that NSAC is advancing its goals for the 2023 Farm Bill to build a climate resilient future. For a more detailed overview, see ARA blog posts one, two, three, four, and five.
Additionally, NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform contains more details on each of the policy proposals discussed above. We invite you to read NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform and take action to endorse it here.