Farmers have to be part of climate solutions

Farmers have to be part of climate solutions
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There is a lot of buzz right now about how agriculture and climate change are connected, due to a major new report out of the United Nations. The issue of tackling greenhouse gas emissions has been met with skepticism by the farming community, but speaking as a farmer in Iowa, I’m not worried.

Agriculture is one of the few industries that can put carbon back into the ground and reap economic and quality of life benefits in the process. Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosHouse Democratic campaign arm raises .4 million in third quarter Pelosi tells Democrats to focus on Constitution, not Trump GOP ratchets up 2020 attacks as impeachment storm grows MORE (D-Ill.)  just announced a Rural Green Partnership to address climate change while reviving rural communities, and I hope more leaders in D.C. and in the farming sector will recognize that these issues must be tackled together. This is more than a question of policy — it’s a question of legacy.

Our legacy is built on what we do today. As farmers and ranchers, shaping our soil in a manner which allows crops and livestock to thrive, we also shape the environment our children will grow up in. My grandmother founded the youth engagement  4-H movement, leaving behind a proud legacy of engaging youth to develop a strong work ethic and an appreciation for the environment. The 4-H motto is “making our best better,” and that’s the heart of sustainability too. We all have a responsibility to find a balance between what we take and what we give, and to leave things better than we found them.

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Bringing farmers to the table on climate change solutions sets the stage for just that. Our communities could see new resources to expand proven farming solutions as a way to remove greenhouse gas pollution, restore natural ecosystems and increase soil carbon storage. Farming-driven solutions also offer the promise of cleaner air, cleaner water and more and better jobs. If we’re smart about it, we can solve many problems at once by putting our communities to work fighting climate change.

National agriculture policy was set up to encourage farmers to grow as much as possible, even if it meant expanding onto land not suitable for crops. With the vast majority of farm production costs related to fossil fuels, this frankly makes no sense for our climate or the sustainability of my profession. Despite good intentions to increase security for farmers, the outcome of agriculture policy has been the opposite — destabilizing farm incomes, rural communities, and the resources we rely on to raise our nation’s food and fiber.

Farmers know how to take care of their land and their communities, but it takes time and money to put beneficial practices into place. We need some smart system-wide changes to make resource stewardship the default with policies like a carbon credits program.

On our ranch in Page County, Iowa, we’ve implemented ecologically-sound practices like keeping livestock away from riverbanks and protecting areas to build up carbon-rich soil. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits to our bottom-line and our quality of life, but I could do a lot more a lot faster with a carbon credits program.  

Keeping land covered helps keep carbon and nutrients in the ground, keeps habitats healthy, and keeps pollutants from getting into our drinking water. Right now, however, only 2 percent of midwestern farmland is protected with cover crops, which is a huge missed opportunity. You can bet that wouldn’t be the case if climate policy made it profitable to farm carbon-rich soil.

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As a fourth-generation Iowa rancher, I’m grateful every day for the decisions my grandmother made on our family farm and I can see what a big difference those decisions made. Fifty years from now, our descendants may be sitting around the kitchen table thinking about the decisions we make today. Will they be thankful that we used technology and common sense to keep our natural resources thriving and abundant? Or, faced with scarcity and conflict, will they wonder what on earth we were thinking? 

We’ve got to address climate change one way or another – it’s costing us more by the day. We must do so in a way that includes farmers in the solution, makes sure working people earn a decent wage, and help us make our best better to protect our communities, our livelihoods and our natural resources. Let’s make our legacy be about stewardship and leave our children a planet they can be proud of.

Seth Watkins is a fourth-generation farmer and rancher. He runs Pinhook Farm, an integrated beef cow-calf and crop enterprise, in southwest Iowa.