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It pays to go carbon negative on America's soil infrastructure

It pays to go carbon negative on America's soil infrastructure
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FDR once said that a “nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Nearly 90 years later, his words could not be more appropriate as the future of America’s climate and economy may literally lie in our soil. 

The sad fact is, just like our roads and bridges, most soil in the U.S. is now officially classified as degraded. And as Congress takes on infrastructure and recovery from the pandemic, we must not forget the American farmer and support his or her task to rebuild the nation’s soil infrastructure. Addressing soil infrastructure means support for farmers and the rural economies hit especially hard by two major economic crises — climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we enter a period of rising commodity prices, the destruction from climate change-related extreme weather events, unpredictable growing seasons and pandemic-generated global logistical challenges, our young farmers are finding it almost impossible to get established. At the same time our seasoned farmers are being squeezed out of the industry. 

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Even before the pandemic, American farms were struggling to make a profit. Growing nationwide farm debt — exceeding $430 billion in 2020, an all-time high — has forced tens of thousands of multi-generational farm families, dating back to the 1800s, off family farms. COVID-19 only made things harder as revenue dried up when restaurants, sporting events, tourist destinations and schools closed doors or were canceled.

Falling profits and rising debt in America’s farms represent more than just an economic threat. Food insecurity grows when more of our domestic food supply is produced by fewer and fewer producers — leaving key production chains even more vulnerable to climate change’s expanding impacts.

We propose that there is a way forward that provides more stability for farmers, improves our economy and protects our climate: Pay U.S. farmers to fix degraded soil infrastructure by using it to capture and store billions of tons of atmospheric carbon — simultaneously improving the soil health and crop yields.

By using traditional but largely abandoned cultivation practices that sequester carbon in the soil, farmers can lower their risk of crop failure while producing a brand-new revenue-producing commodity — carbon removal. Practices like cover cropping, low- or no-till cultivation and crop rotation not only pull carbon out of the atmosphere but also make the soil more fertile, resilient and productive.

Climate-smart agriculture is a win-win-win, leading to higher farm profits and economic stability while producing rural jobs and delivering a host of environmental benefits. Nevertheless, adoption is slow and farmers struggle to make this transition. The reason? It comes down to resources. 

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1) The 50 percent of American farms that have been in the red every single year since 2013 can ill afford to take on new practices that come with up-front costs, such as seed for cover crops or machinery adjustments to plant in an untilled field, all for the potential to improve profits in the future.

2) Funding to launch these new farming methods is a multi-year investment, while the loans often available to farmers are predominantly short-term or come with high-interest rates — discouraging a deviation from past practices.

But by supporting carbon farming with smart action in Washington, we can help advance these common-sense practices — and make tens of thousands of American farmers profitable for decades.

Support for carbon sequestration in agriculture recently bridged the partisan divide with the inclusion of the Soil Health Demonstration Trial in the 2018 farm bill. It can do so again if Congress and the Biden administration build on that success and invest in research, scale up funding, and provide technical support to farmers making the transition to climate-friendly practices, as detailed in the Healthy Soils Healthy Climate Act of 2020 (S. 4850)

It is vital that we reform Federal Crop Insurance to reward risk-reducing cover cropping and advance regenerative agriculture. And we should leverage USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation to offer low- and no-interest loans to farmers looking to transition or finance higher-cost projects such as compost infrastructure.

COVID-19 recovery investments in Washington need to include upgrading our nation’s soil infrastructure. This is an opportunity to build back America’s rural economy today while mitigating the challenges of tomorrow.

Congress should help transform American agriculture into a carbon-negative sector — for farmers, for the economy and for the environment.

Lt. Gen. John Castellaw USMC (Retired) is a third-generation farmer on his family farm near Crockett Mills, Tennessee. He remains involved in national security issues, serves on several boards and advocates for a strong national defense.

Nicole Lederer is chair and co-founder of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), an advocacy and communications platform for business leaders to advance strong environmental policy to grow the economy.