Farmers ‘understand that the climate is changing and we have to adapt’

Fred Yoder, a fourth-generation Ohio farmer, has served on President Trump’s agriculture committee and chairs the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance. He raises corn, soybeans, and wheat on about 1,500 acres, and has a seed and consulting business called Yoder Ag Services. Although the climate conversation is divisive in farm country, more farmers are talking about ways to address the issue.

We reached Yoder, who has been outspoken on climate change, while he was on his tractor. He was planting a cover crop — a crop that is eventually killed off, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil and sequestering carbon. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

Farmers had a tough spring, with unprecedented rains. Are they connecting that to climate stress?

We had 150 acres that could not get planted, although we planted more than most farmers. I will tell you I have spent the last couple of weeks talking with farmers throughout Ohio and Michigan, where they are suffering even more, because it’s still wet, it never stopped raining. We had a perfect storm here with the rains, a trade fight with China, and the EPA waivers on biofuels for oil refineries. This is a pretty trying time for farmers. We’re burning through capital we spent years putting away for retirement just to survive. Bankers are calling in loans, and the young folks who are highly leveraged are really in trouble. 

In terms of climate, are farmers worried that this could be the pattern going forward?

We’ve had two wet years in a row. This year, we have heard of early harvesting going on that’s quite disappointing. It’s not even close to average, probably 20 to 30 percent below an average crop. The silver lining is that finally farmers are thinking, “Is this the new normal?” My philosophy is, let’s forget if climate change is man-made or natural. The climate is changing, and it’s time to put aside all the politics and say, “How do I adapt and remain profitable?” So at least we’re talking about it, even the far right wing, the ones who claim climate change is a hoax. They are realizing something is happening on their farm. 

Here’s my own example. Growing up, we had two months to get our crops in, from May all the way until the end of June. Today, if you don’t get your crops planted in 10 days to two weeks, you don’t plant at all. The window is so small. So let’s talk about adaptation to this new norm, because there’s things we can do to mitigate risk. 

What measures are you taking? 

I’m a big proponent of cover crops, because when you have something growing in the field, you keep the soil microbiology alive and well. It’s amazing how much more water your field can hold, too. The silver lining is that farmers are looking at cover crops, soil health, conservation tillage, just as a matter of surviving. That’s also good for the long term.

We’re learning an amazing amount. One farmer I know has gotten to the point where he is growing soybeans without any herbicides whatsoever. He let his cover crop get big and tall, and used a crimper-roller [a roller attached to a tractor] to knock it down. He didn’t have to put any herbicide down at all to kill it. In fact, now he’s converting some acreage to organic, even though he didn’t mean to. The big stigma about organic farming is that you need tillage to control weeds, but as soon as you till, you release carbon. But this example shows you don’t need to till. I’m not certified organic, but I can sure plagiarize their cropping practices to work on a conventional farm. 

There are nascent programs to pay farmers for these practices of building carbon in the soil as a way of fighting climate change. What’s your view of these incentives?

In Ohio, the governor has incentivized cover crops, but it stemmed from water-quality issues, because nutrients were leaking into the Lake Erie basin. In Ohio, the public has kind of turned on us, saying, “You guys need to clean up your act!”

We want to get back on the solution side, but the climate is out of our control. For instance, on my farm, we designed our grass waterways, filter strips, and drainage ditches (all of which are used to prevent fertilizer runoff) based on a two-inch rain. But what happens when you get a four-inch rain? All bets are off. The nutrients that end up in our rivers and streams — if you do the math, it could add up to $100 an acre. But a cover crop can scavenge those excess nutrients, and once the cover crop decays, it’ll add nutrients for the next crop. The whole idea of a cost-share from the government is to get your toe in the water and learn what these practices do for your soil. But eventually these things should be done on every farm and every acre.

Have your input costs gone down?

Yes, our herbicide costs are down, and we save on fertilizer because we scavenge nitrates, phosphates, and potassium. When the cover crop decays, it’s available to the next crop.

You talked about state incentives. Do you see these incentives coming at the federal level?

I do. Why couldn’t you get a discount on your crop insurance if you can prove you’re a better risk? But we also have to convince the absentee landowner that continuous cover crops and no-till farming will aid in the development of organic matter and make your farm more valuable over time; you could demand a premium over time for the organic matter in your soil. We also have to convince bankers, because we’re seeing banks put pressure on farmers to skip cover crops because of the money involved. That’s a big mistake because your soil’s like your 401(k): You’ll cash in on it eventually but not today. Banks want to see a return in six months. But it’ll take five years to see a huge improvement in your soil. So maybe you should get a tax credit if you’re in continuous cover crops.

I’m convinced that if the American public can see value in these ecosystem services, like sequestering carbon in the soil, then they should help farmers do that, because it could be a long-term gain for humankind.

What do you believe should be at the top of the climate-agriculture agenda?

The bottom line is, the only way farmers will agree to change what they’re doing is if there is an economic incentive to do it. They’re interested in surviving, because so many things are going against them right now. That said, farmers are finally willing to talk about climate change in a new way. They understand that the climate is changing and we have to adapt to whatever the climate is going to be.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.