Can Iowa farmers help climate change? Biden's agriculture plan says yes

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

It’s hard for Kristi Heffelmeier to see her family’s conservation practices on hundreds of acres in northeast Iowa as part of a global effort to mitigate climate change.

“For me, it’s about the soil and the water. It’s what I can do here to improve the land,” Heffelmeier says. “I’m not saying that climate change isn’t something to be concerned about, but it feels very far removed from what one farmer can do.”

Yet in a seismic shift, the federal government under new President Joe Biden is turning to farmers like Heffelmeier to take a leading role in the fight to mitigate climate change.

Collectively, agriculture is the source of about 10% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, under recently confirmed Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, sees an emerging opportunity for farmers to develop a new source of revenue centered on adopting practices that reduce carbon emissions — then selling those carbon offsets to businesses unable to reduce their own emissions.

So far, though, the discussion about farmers’ role in battling climate change has been a hodgepodge of congressional hearings, think-tank symposiums and competing private initiatives. Farmers remain far from sold on the idea that they can make a difference in climate change — let alone that they can make money by doing it.

“Farmers are smart to be a little skeptical,” says Callie Eideberg, Environmental Defense Fund’s government relations director. “It’s a little bit of the Wild West out there.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked farmers, ranchers and others to pitch their ideas on the best way to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The department is asking what government’s role should be in guiding and financing climate efforts, how that fits with private initiatives, and how to support emerging markets where farmers can sell their carbon credits. It also asks about the role of another agricultural product — biofuels — in climate mitigation.

Heffelmeier and her father, Chris Foss, are already doing a lot of the kind of work scientists say contributes to climate mitigation: They don’t till their fields, and they plant cereal rye, oats and radish cover crops each fall, boosting the soil’s organic matter and health.

The root networks help hold carbon in the soil, preventing it from combining with oxygen and becoming a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. The family is getting paid for its efforts through a program in which the Iowa Soybean Association is a partner.

Heffelmeier said the money covers the cost of buying cover crop seed and having an airplane spread the seed over fields before they’re harvested. “It’s mostly a wash,” she said, adding that the family came out about $300 ahead.

But the increased financial support has let the family expand conservation practices to more acres. “We’re making a pretty small impact on the climate,” Heffelmeier said, but “we’re improving the land. ... We’ll leave the farm better than we found it.”

Biden administration looks at how to create a carbon market

The Biden administration is looking at ways to broaden support for farmers like Heffelmeier and her father. Vilsack wants the Commodity Credit Corp., a stand-alone Depression-era agency designed to support farm income, to play a central role in ensuring farmers can cover the costs of carbon sequestration practices — and potentially underpin a market where they can sell those carbon credits.

The Trump administration used the Commodity Credit Corp. to provide $23 billion to farmers to offset losses they suffered in trade disputes with China and other countries. Vilsack, who also served as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, said that step broke “new ground” in how the agency could be used to support farm income.

Now, Vilsack’s looking at the Commodity Credit Corp.’s legal and fiscal capacity to be used as a “carbon bank,” which would help pay for farm practices that sequester carbon.

“It creates a vehicle, potentially, from which you could learn what works, what doesn’t work and how to set it up, so it’s verifiable and people have trust in it,” Vilsack told the Des Moines Register in February.

That model could garner congressional support for a broader initiative, he said.

The Agriculture Department also will look at aligning — and potentially boosting spending for — its existing crop insurance and conservation programs so they better support Biden’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a group of leading national farm and environmental groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy, support the department creating a carbon bank, which it says would set a price floor for carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions.

Vilsack said at a March farm conference he doesn’t believe the agency needs congressional approval to fund climate mitigation efforts through the Commodity Credit Corp.’s $30 billion spending authority. But, he added, he would consider seeking greater spending power if existing programs were squeezed, according to the Food and Environmental Reporting Network.

Can science measure benefits accurately enough?

Anne Weir Schechinger, an Environmental Working Group senior analyst, said it’s unclear how a Commodity Credit Corp. carbon bank would interact with budding private initiatives. Startups include Nori, Indigo Ag, the Iowa-based Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, and Ecosystem Services Market Consortium.

More importantly, Schechinger also questions how much carbon can be sequestered through practices such as reduced tillage or cover crops.

Experts can measure carbon levels in soil through field testing and complex modeling that look at soil types, farming practices and other factors.

But Schechinger said field testing is expensive, and the level of information from modeling may not be good enough when carbon credits are sold to companies trying to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

“The science just isn’t there yet,” she said.

Vilsack said the administration must restore “the science mission at USDA” to assess agriculture’s climate benefits. He pointed to a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress in June that would require the Agriculture Department to create a program that measures and certifies agricultural practices’ impact on climate.

“Part of the challenge for any ecosystem market is how can you be sure that the result that you’re paying for is the result that you’re getting,” Vilsack said.

Eideberg, the Environmental Defense Fund’s government relations director, agreed. “We’ll need someone to play that referee role.”

“We want to make sure we’re doing this right,” she said. “There’s a ton of potential for farmers, and we need to make sure there’s some smart thinking behind it.”

‘Enormous pool of capital’ could be tapped to pay farmers

The opportunity for Iowa and U.S. farmers to harvest environmental benefits is enormous, says Mark Lambert, CEO of ReHarvest Partners, a group that manages the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund with AgOutcomes, an Iowa Soybean Association subsidiary.

“There’s a lot of cropland to be impacted,” Lambert said, with 26 million corn and soybean acres in Iowa and nearly 900 million crop acres nationally. Only 4% to 5% of that land is being managed with ongoing water quality and climate practices, he said.

And “there’s an enormous pool of capital looking for these outcomes,” he said. The groups behind the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund are expanding this year from a 10,000-acre Iowa pilot program to 100,000 acres in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio.

The fund pays farmers up to $40 an acre for adopting practices that help protect water and sequester carbon. If the fund reaches 100,000 acres, it could generate up to $4 million in climate payments for farmers this year, Lambert said.

The fund is unusual because it pays farmers who cut levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that run into the state’s lakes, rivers and streams as well as sequester carbon, said Adam Kiel, vice president of AgOutcomes.

National corporations and city, county and state governments are the program’s customers, paying for the environmental benefits verified in the program, Kiel said. Iowa struggles to lower nitrogen and phosphorus levels in its streams, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture plans to pay up to $1.5 million for soil and water improvements through the fund.

The Soil and Water Outcomes Fund is one of about a dozen initiatives that agricultural giant Cargill Inc. is working with across about 300,000 acres, said Ryan Sirolli, Cargill’s global row crop sustainability director. The Minneapolis-based company’s goal is to reduce its supply chain carbon footprint 30% by 2030. “For us, it’s a big deal,” Sirolli said.

“We’ve made a commitment to really drive 10 million acres of soil health and regenerative agriculture adoption over the next 10 years in North America, so we really are looking at how do you scale this up” for farmers who are raising livestock and growing crops, he said.

‘There’s a cost and a risk’ for taking on conservation practices

Iowa farmers Mike Paustian and Gayle Olson have something in common: Their families have been working a long time on conservation practices that sequester carbon and protect water.

They also share a concern that the drive to bring other farmers aboard may fall short of its goal unless it is backed with sufficient and lasting incentives.

In their own case, it’s unlikely their work will be rewarded under the emerging carbon markets. While some private initiatives provide limited payment for past work, many count only the new environmental benefits that farmers are adding to their farms.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Olson, who farms with her husband, Jeff, in southeast Iowa, raising organic and conventional row crops along with raising cattle. They use cover crops, limit tilling and are experimenting with raising other crops beyond corn and soybeans.

Including only farmers’ new benefits “puts the emphasis on short-term practices” that can get easily reversed, Olson said, especially with commodity prices recently climbing to highs not seen in seven years. “All of a sudden there’s good prices, and farmers aren’t interested in going through the hoops of government programs,” Olson said.

“A farmer might have put in buffer strips, but now all of a sudden, he wants to get those 5 acres back, and there goes all your progress,” she said.

While that’s disappointing, Paustian said he understands the difficulty of measuring carbon sequestered through years of conservation practices and assigning a cash value to the work.

“We’re taking a long view on this,” said the Walcott farmer, whose family grows corn and soybeans and raises pigs. “We’re doing this because we want our ground to be resilient, to minimize our impact on the environment, to increase our soil health so it can better support our crops through weird weather — when it’s too wet, it’s too dry,” he said.

He likes the idea of a national initiative to address climate mitigation in agriculture, especially if it comes with technical support to help growers as they adopt new practices.

“It’s better than them saying, ‘Here farmers, figure something out,’” Paustian said. “There’s a cost and a risk.

“You’ve only got one chance to get it right when you’re raising crops,” he said. “You don’t want a disaster on your hands. The farm might not survive it.”

How two Iowa farms have stepped up conservation practices

Paustian’s family has moved most of its aces to no-till, as well as added cover crops that hold the fertilizer in place and increase the ability of the soil to absorb rain instead of letting it run off, carrying nutrients from the fields into waterways.

“We’re still five or six weeks away from planting,” Paustian said, “so those cover crops will grow and scavenge any nutrients that are out there.”

After the cover crops die and decompose, he said, they’ll release “the nutrients back into ground so the crops can use it.”

The farm also uses manure from its hog operation to fertilize the corn that’s fed to its animals, mostly eliminating the need for commercial fertilizer, which requires large amounts of fossil fuel in its production.

The family has installed solar panels on three of its pig farms, a move that Paustian said “lowers our reliance on fossil fuels, but it’s also a hedge against rising energy prices.”

“There are economic incentive to do some of these things,” he said.

Heffelmeier said her father began using cover crops a decade ago when raising seed corn, which was harvested earlier than other crops. He felt it was too long for soil to be bare, she said.

Since then, her family has experimented with different types of cover crops, expanded its no-till acres and installed a bioreactor, an underground trench filled with woodchips. It provides a home for microbes that eat nitrates in water that moves through underground drainage tiles.

Heffelmeier said talking about climate change won’t get farmers on board with conservation practices. But adding revenue and improving soil health will.

Paustian agreed. “I think everyone agrees that climate is changing,” he said. “The arguments are about the cause. ... I want to focus on doing anything I can to fortify my soil and make it more resilient.”

Walcott farmer Mike Paustin checks on his young pigs at his farm on Friday, March 19, 2021.
Walcott farmer Mike Paustin checks on his young pigs at his farm. He’s added conservation practices to his farming methods, but he remains unsure what the payoff will be, aside from keeping his soil healthier and water cleaner.
Walcott farmer Mike Paustin checks on the progress of his cover crops at his farm on Friday, March 19, 2021.