If you believe that people — by burning fossil fuels — are changing the world’s climate by spilling more and more carbon dioxide into the air ... and if you believe that farmers can capture that carbon and put it into plant matter ... and if the plant matter goes into the bellies of humans and their animals and the soil and trees ... and if farmers can keep their soils healthy ... and if they can consume less carbon than they produce in the very act of farming ... and if they can hold onto their land ... and if they can make money farming ...
... then sure, farmers can play a big role in saving the world from catastrophic climate change.
This is far from an exact summation of the remarks American Farmland Trust President John Piotti gave to the March 4 virtual meeting of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. But it is this reporter’s takeaway of the highlights.
Piotti began his remarks with a three-minute recap of nearly two centuries of American agricultural history. He began with the 1837 introduction of John Deere’s polished steel moldboard plow, which fostered the Dust Bowl disaster a century later, followed by the World War II industrialization of agriculture, the Green Revolution, “Silent Spring,” and the passage of the 1981 Farm Bill — subtitled the Farmland Protection Policy Act — the purpose of which was to “minimize the extent to which federal programs contribute to the unnecessary conversion of farmland to nonagricultural uses.”
That legislation was an important milestone in the protection of farmland, arguably this country’s most valuable and most endangered resource. American Farmland Trust has been witness to, and an active participant in, the work to protect farmland.
AFT was formed in 1980 through, in large measure, the enthusiasm and financing of Peggy Rockefeller, an actual farm girl whose husband, David, was one of the world’s richest men.
She was on the board of the Nature Conservancy in the late 1970s. Farm and environmental organizations weren’t exactly on speaking terms at the time, even though their interests have much in common.
Rockefeller couldn’t persuade her conservancy friends to buddy up to farmers. And she couldn’t get farm groups to the table with environmentalists, so she sought people who would help her recognize and promote the common interests.
The trust was formed to bring environmentalists and farmers together.
“It is actually a conservation agriculture organization,” Piotti said. “Many people know AFT just as a conservation organization. Many people know of us just as an agriculture organization. But we actually operate in the space between the two.”
Protecting Farmland is Just the Start
Since its beginning, the trust has played an active role in farmland preservation. In 1980 there were fewer than 10,000 acres of permanently protected agricultural land.
“Today that number is close to 7 million acres,” Piotti said. “And in 1980 there were about the same number of acres in agricultural use taxation programs.”
Today about 300 million acres are taxed based on their value as farmland rather than on their market value as developable real estate. Pennsylvania’s 1974 Clean and Green law was one of the country’s first to give farmers this choice.
But protecting farmland just with favorable tax treatment and conservation/preservation easements “is somewhat short-sighted,” Piotti said, “if in the next 50 years all that land’s good topsoil washes into a stream that’s running through it. Preservation and conservation have to work hand in hand.”
The 1985 Farm Bill, also known as the Food Security Act of 1985, included conservation provisions that had been lobbied for by farm groups such as the trust and the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
For the first time, nonagricultural groups like the Audubon Society played a significant role in formulating farm policies.
The 1985 bill included a conservation title to address farming on highly erodible land, wetlands destruction and the Conservation Reserve Program.
Other measures that grew out of that bill included the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
Piotti said there’s been a sea change in the past four decades in the relationship between the farm community and environmentalists. But challenges remain.
“The biggest challenge is the climate crisis. Agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” he said, “but it’s also potentially one of the ways we in the U.S. can combat climate change. Agriculture produces about 10% of all CO2 emissions in the U.S.”
Piotti said agriculture needs to first become carbon neutral, then it needs to develop better methods to actually draw carbon from the air and put it into the ground.
We already have many of the necessary tools, he said. No-till, cover crops, silvopasture, alley cropping and other practices — all of which can fit under the regenerative agriculture label — can help farmers become part of a climate change solution.
In August of last year, the AFT board developed a set of goals to guide the organization’s work for the next two decades. Those goals are:
• Double the amount of permanently protected farmland.
• Reduce current annual loss of farmland by 75%.
• Adopt regenerative practices at scale so that agriculture captures more carbon than it emits.
• Support 600,000 new farmers and ranchers as they begin their ag careers.
• Help those new farmers and ranchers succeed.
Piotti knows it’s an ambitious agenda. “But,” he said, “I’m an optimist.”