While there are opportunities that could be realized with sound climate change policies for agriculture, lawmakers do not need to start from scratch. Universities, research organizations, and state and federal governments are developing and investing in the creation of new land management techniques, technologies, and other best practices farmers and ranchers can employ to improve their soil, reduce their energy usage and emissions, and generate new markets—all tools that will be helpful in addressing the climate crisis. Many of these programs stem from the 2018 farm bill, which maintained and improved tools for family farmers and ranchers to increase soil health and address the effects of climate change.
This site provides a general overview of some of these management and other practices and links to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Sustainable Agriculture Education and Research (SARE) resources to access more detailed information.
Currently, when U.S. farmers and ranchers look to implement practices and infrastructure on their land in response to climate change, they often start with the following steps:
Determine which climate service practices that may benefit the farm: Farmers and ranchers raising row crops, livestock, and diverse agricultural products all have opportunities to improve the sustainability of their land and their bottom line by taking action to mitigate or adapt to climate change. As each farm is different so are the management and efficiency practices that will work best for a given operation.
Seek out other farmers who have already made changes to their land: Early adopters to these practices can provide guidance on implementation and potential markets that support climate-focused management efforts. Sharing best practices and knowledge gained among peers is a key way that farmers have maximized the benefits of innovative practices and market opportunities.
Review USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service resources and those from local and state soil health and conservation organizations and universities. NRCS has resources and information for farmers and ranchers looking to implement climate-focused changes to their operations. Local NRCS offices may also provide information events focused on soil health, energy efficiency, and other climate related practices. Similarly, national organizations like the Soil Health Institute, Noble Research Institute, and state land grant universities have state and regional specific resources.
Farm management decisions and practices that encourage soil health can enhance profitability by reducing input costs and increasing an operation’s resilience to extreme weather events. Healthy soils store more water when it floods, make water available when the weather is dry, better control pests and weeds, increase wildlife, and store atmospheric carbon in organic matter.
Soil health is enhanced by the following activities:
- Cover the soil
- Minimize soil disturbance
- Increase plant diversity
- Keep living roots in the ground year round
- Integrate livestock grazing
Farmers and ranchers can apply these principles on cropland, rangeland, and pastureland. In addition to building the soil, land management practices can help to reduce the need for inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, saving farmers money and reducing GHG emissions from agriculture.
Cover crops: Cover crops are grasses, legumes, and other plants that are used to protect the soil. They can be planted along with a main crop, used in between crops to keep the soil covered and roots in the ground year-round, or applied to pastureland to keep a mixture of forage available for livestock. Cover crops are used to control erosion, add fertility and organic material to the soil, improve soil tilth, increase infiltration and aeration of the soil, and improve overall soil health. They can also help to control pests and weeds and provide forage for livestock.
Conservation tillage: Conservation tillage looks to reduce or minimize disruptions to the soil, which helps to prevent erosion and runoff, and protects microbial life in the soil. Conservation tillage includes a range of options for farmers based on the best choice for their land, including eliminating tillage altogether, tilling in strips rather than the whole field, mulch tillage, or reduced tillage. In addition to the environmental benefits, conservation tillage can help to reduce input costs as farmers can take fewer passes over a field and curb fertilizer and herbicide use.
Crop rotation: Increasing the variety of crops grown in rotation helps to increasing nutrients in soil, allowing farmers to apply less fertilizer and other inputs. More diverse crop rotations also help farmers manage pests, weeds, and pathogens as different plants attract different pests. Conservation rotations may also be managed to serve increasing consumer demand for more diverse grains.
Managed grazing: Livestock can play a key role in promoting soil health. When correctly managed, herds can be used to eat down cover crops and apply fertilizer in the form of manure. Farmers and ranchers can reduce feed costs while keeping the land covered and root systems in place. Certain mixes of cover crops and planting trees on pasture and range land can also increase carbon sequestration and reduce net emissions from livestock.
Nutrient and pest management, water management, marginal lands, and other best practices: In addition to focusing on improving soil health, farmers and ranchers can take steps to reduce their environmental footprint by implementing more efficient irrigation systems that curb water needs; implement a nutrient management plan and integrated pest management practices to limit fertilizer and pesticide needs, saving money on input costs and potentially limiting emissions; and reduce planting on marginal lands such as field boarders and against waterways.
Working land must maintain its agricultural purpose and farms must be profitable for agriculture to lessen the negative impacts of climate change. Climate benefits achieved by protecting productive agricultural land will vary, but may include:
- storage of atmospheric carbon
- flood mitigation and water quality improvements
- buffering sprawl development that leads to greater greenhouse gas emissions
- maintaining local or regional food security as more frequent and destructive weather disasters jeopardize community access to larger food systems
Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Production
U.S. farm and pastureland holds great opportunities for energy production. Farmers and ranchers can use solar and wind energy production, as well as methane digestors, to produce energy to power their operations or generate revenue by selling electricity back into the grid. They can also grow feedstock for ethanol, other biofuels, and biomass—sustainable renewable fuel sources that can power America and provide stable markets for farmers. The options available to farmers for installing and financing the needed infrastructure and the ability to sell electricity to the grid varies state to state. State officials and Farmers Unions are resources for information on local rules.
USDA resources for on-farm energy production and energy efficiency include:
- Rural Energy for America Program (REAP): grants for farmers and ranchers to make energy efficient or renewable energy improvements to their operations.
- EQIP On-Farm Energy Initiative: assists farmers with an energy audit and the development of an Agriculture Energy Management Plan (AgEMP) to reduce baseline energy needs and identify potential reductions and savings.
Crops and other biomass can be used to make renewable energy in the form of biofuels that help to meet transportation needs. Corn-based ethanol and biodiesel are the two most common forms of biofuels, which serve as a key market for farmers and are a major domestic use for U.S. corn. Currently, 98 percent of gasoline sold in the United States contains 10 percent ethanol, due in large part to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a 2005 law (modified in 2007) that requires the use of biofuels in the fuel supply. The RFS has been a boon to the U.S. economy and is projected to add more than $1.7 trillion to our GDP between 2008 and 2022, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, and saves consumers money at the pump.
In addition to being a renewable fuel source, ethanol reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent as compared to traditional oil-based gasoline and can help to meet low carbon fuel needs.
The growth of renewable energy use in transportation fuels through the RFS will be a key component of America’s clean energy future. However, to achieve this, the United States must remove arbitrary legislative and regulatory barriers to higher blends of ethanol, including E30, and protect demand for new and advanced biofuels.
Biofuels development and new supply and processing systems will bring billions of dollars of capital investment, millions of dollars of new tax base, and many thousands of new, well-paying jobs with benefits to struggling rural communities.
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USDA offers farmers and ranchers technical and financial support to make conservation improvements that improve soil health, mitigate the effects of climate change on working lands, and make farms and ranches more resilient to extreme weather. Programs that provide technical and financial assistance include:
- NRCS conservation planning assistance: technical assistance for assessing the potential conservation activities of a farm or ranch.
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): funding and technical assistance for the installation of physical features and the application of management practices that provides conservation benefits, as well as other energy efficiency and conservation-related activities.
- Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP): funding and technical assistance to address natural resource issues and implement greater long-term stewardship efforts on the land.
In some cases, farmers and ranchers may be deterred from implementing climate-smart practices if there are insufficient marketing opportunities for products raised in that manner. These programs may help farmers and ranchers work together to assess or increase marketing opportunities for these projects:
- Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP): funding for farmers, ranchers and their representatives to reach consumers through farmers markets and other direct sales and provides grants for producers to process and market value-added agricultural goods.
- Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program (B&I): guaranteed loans to rural businesses, cooperatives, non-profits, tribes, and public bodies to purchase land, buildings, and equipment to expand their operation.
As interest in agriculture’s ability to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change increases, there are increasing opportunities for farmers to measure and model their conservation performance. Here are a few examples of tools farmers can use to gauge the conservation benefits of their ongoing, or prospective, conservation efforts.
- RSET: The Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool (RSET) allows participating farmers and ranchers to evaluate the impact of existing conservation efforts on their operations, and to identify management changes or installations that could help them achieve their conservation goals. NFU offers RSET evaluations free of charge to Iowa farmers and ranchers.
- COMET-Farm: COMET-Farm is a tool from USDA and Colorado State University that assesses the effects of current and future management practices on a farm’s greenhouse gas emissions.
- Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator: The Fieldprint Calculator allows companies to work with farmers to measure the environmental impact of crop production for their products and supply chains and identify areas for improvement. Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, which includes NFU and other grower organizations; agribusinesses; food, beverage, apparel, restaurant and retail companies; conservation groups; universities; and public sector partners, created the calculator as part of its efforts to promote sustainable food, fiber and fuel production.
Participating in agricultural research projects allows farmers access to expert analysis and advice that is specific to their operation while they further the development of new management practices and other needed technologies. Universities, USDA, and other agricultural research centers such as Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education are often looking for participants for trials and demonstration projects.