An unlikely climate crusade in Trump country

Smithfield Farms is pushing its grain farmers to cut back on fertilizer use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — but will it shrink the pork giant's carbon footprint?

It was a quarter after eight on a steamy August morning when Rachel Grantham rumbled up in a big black pickup truck. The 26-year-old, six-foot-three agronomist sported a pink top, a purple miniskirt, camouflage muck boots and a single blonde braid draped over one shoulder. I hoisted myself into the cab of the truck, and we sped down I-95 through eastern North Carolina’s “Swine Alley” — a land of industrial-scale hog farms, expansive vistas of soybeans and enormous confederate flags — on an unlikely climate crusade.

Grantham worked for Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. Once a regional meatpacker based in Smithfield, Virginia, the company is now a vertically integrated multinational powerhouse owned by a Chinese conglomerate, with 50,000 employees and $15 billion in annual revenue. Smithfield holds the distinction of being one of the most reviled agribusinesses among environmentalists, perhaps second only to Monsanto.

So when Walmart, Smithfield’s biggest retail outlet, announced a plan in November 2016 to cut one gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by 2030, the pork company’s executives leapt at the opportunity to be part of a high-profile corporate greening. A month later, they launched their own plan to reduce emissions, from seed to sausage, 25 percent by 2025.

Smithfield is passing much of the burden of reaching that goal onto the farmers who produce the grain needed to fatten the 31 million swine the company slaughters annually, even though the biggest chunk of emissions comes not from what the animals eat, but from their manure. Tilling and fertilizing with nitrogen contribute significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, however, and Grantham’s job was to persuade Smithfield’s grain suppliers to cut back on both. It was a delicate negotiation.

“How recently did you fertilize those sorghum fields?” she asked Donnie Barefoot, a jowly redhead who farms 2,500 acres of grains in Harnett County, where 60 percent of residents voted to install Donald Trump, a climate change denialist, in the Oval Office.

“Well … yesterday?” he offered, rather sheepishly. “Was I too late?”

“Kind of,” said Grantham, with a wry grin.

A corn field in Warsaw, N.C., destined to be harvested for livestock feed.

Barefoot’s sorghum was in seed stage, nearly ready for harvest, which meant it was too late for the nitrogen fertilizer to be absorbed by the roots. Some of the unused nitrogen would leach into the nearest waterway the next time it rained, and some would evaporate into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Applying just the right amount of nitrogen at just the right time is, in theory, a simple way that farmers can green their operations while also saving green: fertilizer is one of the costliest inputs for most growers.

Grantham had enrolled upwards of 125 farmers in Smithfield’s “agronomy” program ­— that’s roughly half of the company’s grain-sourcing acreage in the southeast. She deliberately avoided linking her mission with climate change, an eyeroll-engendering topic in this deeply conservative region. The program is a hard enough sell as it is, especially for a woman in a male-dominated profession.

“Farmers have told me when they saw ‘this blonde girl’ get out of the truck, they expected me to be stupid,” she said. “Sometimes guys start whistling and making inappropriate gestures. I feel like I have to be 10-times faster and know 10-times as much to gain the same amount of trust.” Her long-term goal? “I want to be the best damn agronomist in the country,” she said, without hesitation. “I want to do what no one else has done.”

A combine idles in a field of soybeans in Warsaw, N.C.

It’s surprising how little has been done to address the carbon footprint of food production, given its immense size. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as the combined total for electricity and heating, and well above the transportation sector, which contributes just 14 percent. Add emissions from refrigeration, shipping and other activities required to get your dinner from farm to plate, and the food system’s share of global greenhouse gases climbs to roughly a third, making it easily the most climate-unfriendly sector of the global economy.

Yet just 2 percent of United Nations funding for climate change mitigation goes toward agricultural projects. The Paris climate agreement, when it mentions agriculture at all, focuses on how food systems are threatened by climate change, not their contribution to it.

There are glimmers of progress, however. Thirty-five countries have signed a non-binding pledge to manage agricultural soils in ways that better mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The United States was not among those, though carbon-conserving farmers across North America have been eligible to receive payments through California’s carbon market since 2011. The USDA even has an online tool to help farmers calculate their carbon footprint and plan ways to reduce it. But given the depth of climate denialism in U.S. politics, federal regulations limiting agricultural emissions are not exactly on the horizon.

Consumers may ultimately possess leverage in prodding farmers to change their ways. “Unfortunately, you can’t yet go to the store and choose the bread with the lower carbon footprint,” said Eric Toensmeier, who teaches climate-friendly farming practices at Yale.

Toensmeier saw one obvious reason why the concept has been so slow to permeate the conversation about climate change: compared to tailpipe and smokestack emissions, agricultural emissions are mostly invisible. They are also difficult to measure.

What is known is that when a farmer tills the soil to prepare for planting in spring, the nutrient-rich remains of plants, insects and other decomposed organisms — collectively referred to as organic matter, which is nearly 60 percent carbon by dry weight — are brought to the surface, and a portion of those carbon molecules combine with oxygen and drift skyward as carbon dioxide. Clearing forests to plant food and burning crop residues also contribute heavily to the carbon footprint of our pantries.

Synthetic fertilizer use accounts for the vast majority of nitrous oxide emissions on the planet, though it amounts to just 13 percent of total agricultural emissions. Farms also contribute more than their share of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide, which burbles out of flooded rice paddies, billows from the belching mouths of livestock and steams up from the manure lagoons of factory farms.

Vegans can pat themselves on the back knowing that the lion’s share of agricultural emissions — roughly two-thirds — comes directly from livestock (being emitted from one end of the animal or the other). Manure accounts for 25 percent of agricultural emissions. Forty percent comes from the methane in the burps of ruminants — mammals that digest food by fermenting it in specialized stomachs, like cattle and goats.

At Smithfield, 32 percent of emissions come from the Pepto-Bismol-colored manure lagoons behind every hog barn, while only 7.5 percent is associated with fertilizer application, and an even tinier percentage is due to tillage (hogs are not ruminants, so they don’t belch methane). The company has installed biogas digesters at some of its hog farms, which trap methane from manure and convert it to electricity, but it claims that the technology is not yet cost-effective to implement at scale. Paying Grantham to smooth talk the farmers who produce the hog feed into changing their practices was more affordable than dealing with the excrement.

Not all agriculture produces greenhouse gas emissions, however. Quite the contrary. Like a healthy forest or grassland, the plants and soil of a farm are capable of sequestering large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. Climate scientists differ on just how much carbon storage is possible on the planet’s agricultural lands, though some models suggest that farms have the capacity to absorb as much as the carbon equivalent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions annually — roughly 36 gigatons. Agricultural land currently absorbs about .03 gigatons.

“Carbon farming” has emerged as a term of art among those who see a future where farmland is not a carbon source but a carbon-capturing “sink.” Traditional agricultural systems, which function much like natural ecosystems, behaved this way. Nomadic herders didn’t shovel their livestock’s feces into slimy pools of methane-producing manure; as the animals moved about, the poop was spread out on the landscape where it decomposed into fertile and carbon-rich organic compounds. The gardens of early horticulturalists were essentially half-wild forests of edible and medicinal plants, not barren fields on which a single crop is grown for a few months of the year.

Some hybrid between ancient and modern forms of agriculture — modeled on natural ecosystems, yet productive enough to feed 7.5 billion people and counting — could pave the way toward a carbon-neutral global economy. It may sound like a pipe dream, but carbon farming proponents argue that it is vastly more realistic than carbon capture and storage schemes or geoengineering the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

Toensmeier has spent more than a decade sifting through all the data he can find on the carbon balance of different food production systems, which he details in his 2016 manifesto, “The Carbon Farming Solution.” The good news, he said, is that what’s healthy for the climate is healthy for the soil: “Soil conservation and carbon sequestration are basically the same thing.”

It is well understood that tillage and synthetic fertilizer, though they may boost yields in the short term, degrade the soil in the long term and make farmers more dependent on costly chemical inputs. Conservation agriculture — commonly defined as a combination of no-till cultivation, crop rotation and growing cover crops to replenish soil fertility naturally — emerged in the Dust Bowl era as a means to reduce soil erosion and maintain yields. Now practiced on an estimated 9 percent of farmland globally (more than 125 million hectares), Toensmeier said that employing this trio of interrelated practices usually sequesters enough carbon to cancel out other on-farm emissions and potentially results in a net gain of up to 20 metric tons of soil carbon per hectare.

A related set of practices, collectively known as enhanced nutrient management, aims to prevent nitrogen fertilizer from oxidizing into the atmosphere and is already employed on more than 70 million hectares, or about 5 percent of farmland globally.

Over lunch at Cracker Barrel, as I eyed the bacon cheeseburger in front of me while trying to imagine the carbon emissions involved in producing it, Grantham preached on the need to “translate these ideas about sustainability into the real world. It’s like a pyramid: I help farmers put the basic building blocks into place that will make them more efficient economically but also environmentally. Once we get the foundations done — simple things like better soil sampling methods or calibrating their sprayer so the amount of fertilizer they think they’re applying is actually what goes onto the field — then things like sequestering carbon will be possible.”

A Confederate flag hangs from a house in Goldsboro, N.C.

It’s been said that the solutions to climate change are more political than practical. Grantham made it clear that she would prefer not to talk about the politics of her job, and when she consulted with farmers, the conversation was never about climate change or environmentalism.

We stopped to see Lee Oxendine, a Native American farmer affiliated with the Lumbee tribe, near the South Carolina border. Oxendine grows 350 acres of soybeans, wheat, corn and sorghum. The 69-year-old ambled over to a stack of pallets outside the welding shop his cousin runs on the farm, took a seat and, without any prompting, began a lengthy monologue about the economic woes of being a small farmer — a minority one at that — in a business where transnational conglomerates hold nearly all the power.

Within 30 seconds I saw the gulf between popular notions about sustainable agriculture and the reality of farmers, the one who sat before me at least, and the deep sadness of that abyss.

“I’m tired,” he kept saying, his face visibly strained. “It’s really hard being small.”

But he brightened a bit when the conversation turned to the soil. Oxendine practices no-till cultivation on about half of his acreage and is adamant about the powers of cover crops, which he plants religiously each fall. “It makes the soil mellow,” he said.

“Mellow” means more organic matter and thus carbon in the soil. The organic matter, in turn, helps the soil hold onto nutrients, which means less fertilizer is needed and a higher percentage of the nitrogen goes into the plants rather than the atmosphere.

A grain truck departs the silo at Smithfield’s Warsaw Feed Mill.

Even though the farmers I met were, for the most part, indifferent toward grand notions of sustainability, Smithfield has at least one ally in the environmental movement. At the southeastern headquarters of the Environmental Defense Fund, a suite of offices in a glassy business park on the outskirts of Raleigh, I met with Maggie Monast, an environmental economist who specializes in agricultural supply chains, and Kraig Westerbeek, Grantham’s boss and the senior director of Smithfield Renewables, the company’s newly founded sustainability initiative. The trio was the brains behind Smithfield’s plan to rope their grain suppliers into reducing emissions: Monast recommends solutions, and Grantham and Westerbeek figured out how to make them palatable to farmers.

“There are things we don’t agree on,” said Monast, as we sat down at a long conference table. “Kraig and I couldn’t even talk about manure management when we first started working together.”

“We are in different places on the political spectrum,” admitted Westerbeek. “When it comes to current events, her and I ain’t gonna agree on everything. We will get in a car together and argue about 10 subjects in a row.”

Monast is a vegetarian from New Hampshire who lives outside of town in a home she and her husband built by hand, where they raise vegetables and tend bees. Westerbeek grew up on a North Carolina tobacco farm and has spent his career in the pork industry, much of it figuring out how to bring industrial hog farms into compliance with EPA regulations.

Westerbeek acknowledged that Smithfield’s carbon emissions pledge is not so much a choice based on ethics but on market demand and optics. “We understand that this is important to consumers, and we want to make sure that we maintain their confidence,” he said.

Several years ago, Smithfield underwent a major rebranding, introducing a new website with foodie-esque aesthetics and the tagline “Good Food. Responsibly.” One of the first things you find on their website is a corporate sustainability report, with large icons for sections on “animal care” and “environment.”

Monast didn’t care where Smithfield’s motivation came from. Her job was to hold the company to it and make sure the emissions are accounted for in a legitimate, scientifically valid way. No, the Environmental Defense Fund doesn’t accept donations from Smithfield or any corporation it partners with, she said. And no, EDF didn’t sign a non-disparagement agreement with the company.

I asked her if it was strange, as a tofu-loving environmentalist, to devote her waking hours to helping the world’s largest pork producer become slightly more environmentally friendly, when for Smithfield it was mainly a marketing move. “I realize the whole world is not giving up its bacon,” she replied. “They exist, so why not help them mitigate their impacts?”

Westerbeek, Grantham and Monast have endured many long car rides and airport layovers en route to meetings and sustainability conferences, during which personal politics have boiled over and vegetarian dining options were slim. But being cooped up in a rental car has a way of blending ideologies and growing bonds.

“The more we communicate on these issues, the more we figure out that we are not that far apart,” said Westerbeek, who sees this sort of bridge-building as the key to harnessing agriculture as a climate change solution. Nationally, Smithfield’s grain suppliers have adopted conservation and nutrient management practices on about 300,000 acres since 2014, which represents roughly 45 percent of the company’s grain-sourcing acreage.

A cotton field in North Carolina’s “Swine Alley.”

I had made plans to visit one last farm before departing North Carolina. I’d seen the agribusiness approach to climate-friendly meat. But I also wanted to see what a livestock farmer who modeled his practices on natural systems, rather than factories, could do about greenhouse gas emissions.

The first thing I noticed when I got out of the car at Piney Woods Farm was the almost deafening sound of crickets and cicadas, which were absent from the chemically treated fields of corn and soybeans I’d been traipsing around in with Grantham. Also missing: the stench of manure.

Buron Lanier, the third generation in his family to farm this land, raises 150 head of cattle here. They are grass-fed, but it wasn’t the cattle that drew me. It was the trees.

The majestic forest of loblolly pines I stood in while waiting for Lanier to finish midwifing a calf was not only pleasantly scented but sublimely beautiful. “Given the choice, cows will always head for the trees when it’s 90 degrees. A cow in full sun all day is stressed and starts losing weight,” he said.

Other than a bit of grain used to “finish” the cows prior to slaughter, Lanier’s 400 acres provide all the food his animals need. The thin-canopied pines, positioned 40 to 50 feet apart, allow enough sun to pass through for the grass to thrive. The cool, shady conditions enable him to forgo irrigation in summer; in winter, the canopy provides a measure of frost protection, keeping the grass green.

In ecological terms, a forested grassland is considered a savanna. This one is modeled on the pine savanna that was once the dominant ecosystem across 90 million acres of the southeast. In agricultural terms, Lanier’s approach is considered silvopasture, a mashup of forestry and grazing. He produces two crops instead of one: lumber and beef.

According to Toensmeier, silvopasture has the highest carbon sequestration potential of any temperate climate food production system — about 250 tons per hectare, on par with most naturally-occurring forests in the U.S., even when factoring in the emissions from methane burps.

Recently, Toensmeier was part of a team of experts assembled by Paul Hawken, the business-minded environmentalist who co-authored the 1999 bestseller “Natural Capitalism,” to identify and rank the top 100 solutions to climate change. Of the top 25 solutions, 11 are related to food systems, seven to energy systems and none to transportation systems. Electric vehicles are #26, while “tree intercropping” — planting strips of apple trees throughout a corn field, for example — is #17. The top food-related practices — reducing food waste (#3) and switching to a plant-rich diet (#4) — are largely consumer-driven solutions. Silvopasture (#9) is the highest-ranked agricultural solution.

Conservation agriculture and enhanced nutrient management, the practices championed by Grantham, were #16 and #65. Most livestock, including pigs, can also be employed in silvopasture systems, but such a paradigm shift would throw Smithfield’s vertically integrated business model out the window and drastically reduce its production of 19 million hogs.

In Lanier’s view, Smithfield’s approach was great for corporate profits but put farmers in a state of near-servitude. Regaining control over feed, fertilizer and market access was the key to profitability, he said. And to peace of mind.

“I am one of the few farmers in the area that is not the result of an integrated hog system,” he said. “Those guys have to borrow at least $1 million a year in operating loans. John Deere, Monsanto — you’re working for the man. And it’s hard to get off that train once you’re on it.”

Lanier said his income per acre was easily as much as his neighbors who grow corn and soybeans, especially considering their debt. So why weren’t more farmers converting their fields to pine groves? “They don’t know about it.”

Lanier is by no means a climate change activist, though he does make the connection between his trees and the warming world. He believes in climate science, though he also believes that “God created the Earth and is in control of it, not man.” But “man is abusing the Earth,” he acquiesced. Feeling guilty about my bacon cheeseburger habit, I thanked him for being one man who was not.

Correction: This story previously misstated the number of hogs Smithfield slaughters annually. It is 31 million, not 19 million.

Lead image: Rachel Grantham, an agronomist at Smithfield Foods, stands in a field of corn.

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a non-profit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

Produced with FERN, this article first appeared in The WorldPost, which is a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected].