Opinion: The opportunity to unleash farmers to fight climate change

Producing environmental benefits will become an important enterprise for American farmers, giving them the ability to monetize their response to climate change and other environmental challenges. But as these new enterprises get going, farmers, agribusiness professionals, researchers, policymakers, and rural leaders need to ask how these solutions can be created by farmers — not just be something that happens to farmers. 

Will ecosystem services, following the conventional model of agriculture, be driven by a top-down model prescribing how farmers will farm? Will it leave them holding the costs while those further up the supply chain reap the benefits? Or will ecosystem services be developed by farmers innovating on their land, with significant value staying on the farm? If so, farmers will be empowered to pursue the best innovations to accelerate the disruptive changes that the science clearly indicates need to happen.

Over the past 50 years, America minimized or excluded those innovations and that entrepreneurialism. Success was defined in terms of efficiency, with the aim being the highest crop yields and the most productive livestock systems. But there were also costs to these systems that have long been coming due, in water quality, soil health, and now climate change. 

This economic model has also been built on scale and consolidation, which means the bigger have only gotten bigger, driving others out. This vicious cycle works only if farmers adopt top-down technologies; it prevents farmers from innovating within these systems to try and improve them. But even for farmers who do manage to tinker within the system, innovations are often appropriated by the supply chain, and profits pulled upwards.

Just look at the equipment industry, where farmers used to fix their own tractors; now they are dependent on proprietary technology and software that only the manufacturer can use. The same could be said of seeds or chickens, where producers are locked into a system that requires them to follow prescribed steps — and if they fail, they are left holding the losses. 

Is this going to be the model for ecosystem services, too? We hope not, since the systematic removal of farmer creativity and problem-solving from modern agriculture systems has yielded shortcomings in soil health, water quality, agricultural labor, animal welfare, and greenhouse gas emissions that can no longer be ignored.

We can already see examples of where farmers innovated to buck this model, creating just the kind of environmental benefits we’re now celebrating. 

Take no-till farming, which helps reduce soil erosion. Agribusiness didn’t invent it, farmers did — by tinkering with equipment, welder in hand, and then doing trials in their fields. Equipment manufacturers weren’t exactly excited by the prospect of farmers no longer buying tillage machinery until they realized there was a market for new planting equipment.

Nor have the big three agrochemical companies been leading in the development of cover crops, which build soil health, improve water retention, and reduce runoff. Farmers working with Practical Farmers of Iowa have been doing that. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, farmers have been pioneers in developing and implementing “best management practices” that include keeping roots growing all year long, even as farm organizations and agribusiness fought the public policy efforts pushing farmers into action. New businesses, some developed by farmers themselves, are selling cover crops and expanding.

The dairy industry hasn’t thrown many parties for farmers developing managed grazing systems, but farmers keep creating more successful grazing strategies. An entire fencing industry has grown to empower farmer and rancher innovations. Premier1 in Iowa serves that growing industry. Organic Valley is another farmer-led dairy cooperative built by innovating farmers on the leading edge of alternative dairy operations. 

Although corn and soybeans are still king in Iowa — grown on a near-record 23 million acres — we still see innovation. Farmers are experimenting with new crops, extending rotations, and even planting less corn to get higher yields (with 60-inch corn rows that are twice as wide as normal rows but allow in more sunlight to turbocharge the crop). 

And because the biofuels industry no longer seems to be led by farmers themselves, it’s easy to forget that farmers built that industry with their own investments and dogged political efforts to shape public policy and support its birth. We’ve seen farmers lead the development of the wind industry in Iowa; they have also been instrumental in the emerging solar industry.

Now imagine if farmers were unleashed to help develop individual, field-specific solutions to the climate crisis rather than simply adopting a top-down approach. Not only would this approach win buy-in among farmers, but it would also be the fastest and most effective way to develop solutions to the crisis. Investing in farmer leadership and innovation isn’t just good for farmers; it’s actually critical to achieving the goals we must reach to sustain the global community of up to 10 billion souls.  

Historically, we have invested in approaches that dictate what farmers must do. Farm policy from state legislatures and Congress; regulating through the USDA and EPA; providing credit to farmers through private, cooperative, and public ag lenders; advocating by farm groups; negotiating and promoting trade policy — all of it has been in service to the top-down approach. We must do better.

As American agriculture celebrates the bipartisan passage of the Growing Climate Solutions Act encouraging farmer access to carbon markets, we must also ensure that we’re creating mechanisms to economically reward farmers for creative, disruptive solutions that don’t fit neatly into the systems being developed by these emerging markets. The billions of dollars and dozens of programs delivered and administered by the USDA are a great place to start paying farmers for the value of their own great ideas.

The advantages of focusing on and rewarding farmer innovation are many and include increased economic benefits for farming families and in their communities and dismantling the model of agribusiness as usual. Most important is accelerating ecosystem services in a way that shifts agriculture from being a polluting industry to being a regenerative one in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible.

This will disrupt vertically integrated global industries and the elected leaders across the political divide that enable them. However, those disruptions are exactly what the world needs for climate action, democracy, and new opportunities for farmers and rural communities.

Matt Russell is a co-owner of Coyote Run Farm, near Lacona, Iowa. Robert Leonard is the author of “Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations.”