Farmers need Congress to chip in on climate-smart agriculture

October 15, 2021 2:30 pm

A Kansas Rural Center staff member educates students about healthy local foods. (Kansas Rural Center)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Zack Pistora is the interim executive director for the Kansas Rural Center and longtime environmental lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of Sierra Club.

Farmers are used to fixing things on their own. From fences to tractors to spigots, they’re well-versed in the art of the do-it-yourself repair. While there is a lot that farmers can do to help mitigate the effects of climate change, addressing the climate emergency as a whole will require help from our friends in Congress.

Farming isn’t easy in the first place, but extreme winds, heavy downpours, 100-year and 500-year flooding, volatile temperature swings, extended drought, new pest pressures, wildfires and more don’t make it easier. Stanford University recently estimated $27 billion in crop losses from rising temperatures over the past three decades in the United States, with anticipated greater financial damages to come (the U.S. Crop Insurance Program already costs taxpayers around $9 billion annually). 

Climate change is costing both farmers and taxpayers, and it’s only going to get worse unless we take this bull by the horns. 

Fortunately, there’s still enough sunshine to make hay. Congress is working up a monumental reconciliation budget that offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the Dust Bowl of today. Kansans are lucky to have Sen. Roger Marshall and Rep. Tracey Mann on the agriculture committees, as well as Sen. Jerry Moran on the Appropriations Committee. All three are intimately familiar with invaluable USDA farm programs and research that can aid farmers in adopting real solutions to mitigate environmental extremes.

Working lands conservation efforts such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Programs and more all help farmers utilize smart conservation practices on their land. Practices such as keeping living plants in the ground all year, planting perennial crops and grazing animals in carefully managed systems are all means of effectively sequestering carbon in the soil.

The numbers are good: converting marginal cropland or poorly managed pasture to managed intensive rotational grazing, perennial conservation buffers or agroforestry can sequester 1,000 to 3,000 pounds of carbon per acre, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Similarly, upgrades to conventional farming such as little or no tillage, high plant diversity, cover crops, judicious use of agrochemicals and organic practices can sequester up 400 to 600 pounds of carbon per acre. 

Well-managed farmland can return excess carbon in the air back to a productive use in the ground. These practices also decrease soil erosion and polluting run-off, increase farm biodiversity and better prepare farms to deal with the impacts of climate change. Conservation programs promote tested climate solutions that many farmers have already adopted, realizing both environmental and financial success.

Several farmers in Kansas can attest to this. It would be highly beneficial to bulk up these programs and make them more widely accessible, especially to young farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers who have been traditionally underserved by government programs. 

As a lifelong Kansan and budding young farmer, I know how important farming is to our state, the country, and world. In my role of directing a Kansas-based food and farm organization, I see how Kansas farmers strive for better practices to be more resilient, attempting to overcome challenges to the environment, market economy, and rural infrastructure.  Yet, if we – including Congress – do not do more to support farmers in prevailing amid these challenges, then our food and farming system is more likely to falter than flourish.

Chipping in on climate-smart agriculture  ̶  $30 billion for working lands programs, $5 billion for resiliency-focused sustainable and organic agriculture research, and $3 billion for value-added producer grants, local meat processing, on-farm renewable energy systems and more  ̶  will equip and empower farmers to do what’s necessary to shut the barn door on climate change before the horse bolts. Such an investment will pay for itself in terms of better yields and economic output, as well as easing costs from crop losses, erosion and agrochemical pollution.

In the way that we all depend upon farmers for food, we’re depending on congressional leadership for action with a down payment for our society’s well-being. Congress, please bring home the bacon.

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Zack Pistora
Zack Pistora

Zack Pistora is president of the Kansas Rural Center's board of directors and longtime environmental lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of Sierra Club. He resides near Tonganoxie, Kansas, where he has a small-scale vegetable farm.