FDR once said that a “nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Almost 90 years later, his words couldn’t be more apt because the future of America’s climate and economy can literally lie in our soil.
The sad fact is that, just like our roads and bridges, most soils in the United States are now officially classified as degraded. And as Congress deals with infrastructure and post-pandemic recovery, we must not forget the American farmer and support his task of rebuilding the country’s soil infrastructure. Tackling soil infrastructure means supporting farmers and rural economies particularly affected by two major economic crises: climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we enter a period of rising commodity prices, destruction caused by extreme weather events linked to climate change, unpredictable growing seasons and global logistical challenges generated by a pandemic, our young farmers have almost impossible to settle down. At the same time, our seasoned farmers are being pushed out of the industry.
Even before the pandemic, American farms struggled to make a profit. Growing national farm debt – topping $ 430 billion in 2020, a historic high – has forced tens of thousands of multigenerational farm families, dating back to the 1800s, to leave family farms. COVID-19 only made things more difficult as revenues dried up when restaurants, sporting events, tourist destinations and schools closed or were canceled.
Falling profits and increasing debt on American farms pose more than just an economic threat. Food insecurity increases when more of our national food supply is produced by fewer and fewer producers, making key production chains even more vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change.
We propose that there is a way forward that provides more stability for farmers, improves our economy, and protects our climate: pay American farmers to repair degraded soil infrastructure by using it to capture and store billions of tons. atmospheric carbon – simultaneously improving soil health and crop yields.
By using traditional but largely abandoned cultivation practices that sequester carbon in the soil, farmers can reduce their risk of crop failure while producing a whole new income-generating commodity: carbon removal. Practices such as cover crops, no-till or no-till cultivation, and crop rotation not only remove carbon from the atmosphere, but also make the soil more fertile, resilient and productive.
Climate-smart agriculture is a win-win solution, leading to higher agricultural profits and economic stability while creating rural jobs and providing a host of environmental benefits. However, adoption is slow and farmers are struggling to make this transition. The reason? It’s about resources.
1) The 50% of U.S. farms that have been in the red every year since 2013 can’t afford to adopt new practices that come with upfront costs, such as seeds for cover crops or adjustments to machinery for planting. in an untilled field, all for the potential to improve profits in the future.
2) The funding to launch these new farming methods is a multi-year investment, while the loans often available to farmers are mostly short-term or carry high interest rates, which discourages a deviation from past practices.
But by supporting carbon agriculture 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 closed the partisan divide with the inclusion of the soil health demonstration trial in the 2018 farm bill. It can do it again if Congress and the Biden administration are building on this success and investing in research, increasing funding, and providing technical support to farmers making the transition to climate-friendly practices, as detailed in the Healthy Soils for a Healthy Climate Act 2020 (S. 4850).
It is essential that we reform federal crop insurance to reward cover crops that reduce risk and advance regenerative agriculture. And we should take advantage of USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation to offer low interest or no interest loans to farmers looking to transition or finance more expensive projects like composting infrastructure.
COVID-19 recovery investments in Washington must include upgrading our nation’s soil infrastructure. It’s an opportunity to rebuild America’s rural economy today while alleviating the challenges of tomorrow.
Congress should help turn American agriculture into a negative carbon industry – for farmers, for the economy, and for the environment.
Lieutenant General John Castellaw USMC (retired) is a third generation farmer on his family farm near Crockett Mills, Tennessee. He remains involved in national security issues, sits on several boards and advocates for strong national defense.
Nicole Lederer is president and co-founder of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), an advocacy and communication platform for business leaders to promote strong environmental policy to grow the economy.