Climate change can be a scary topic, conjuring up images of extreme weather for some and extremely big government solutions for others. But if we use the knowledge provided by science, we can replace the fear with optimism and action. Fighting climate change provides an incredible opportunity to make the world safer and cleaner, while sensible climate policy provides an opportunity for farmers to operate more profitably.
My optimism has been bolstered by the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to global warming. The IPCC recently released a major report that details how our land and food systems have been contributing to the warming of the earth's atmosphere, but also shows how production agriculture can be a leader in addressing the problem.
I propose we provide the resources farmers need to empower them to address this very urgent matter of climate change.
My husband and I both grew up on grain and dairy farms and now live on our own family farm, which includes row crops and managed forests. My husband's wedding gift to me was 2,000 Indiana Department of Natural Resources nursery trees for us to plant at the edge of the woods behind our home. It was the perfect gift.
We know all too well the hard work it takes to turn a profit and the importance of maximizing resources. We also know the value of using conservation practices to keep the farmland healthy and resilient to wet, warm and wild weather conditions.
I've also seen first-hand how public policy can work for farmers. While serving as board chair and CEO of the U.S. Farm Credit Administration, I had the responsibility and privilege of ensuring that financial institutions of the Farm Credit System treated farmers and ranchers fairly while properly serving the agriculture sector. When farmers are facing harsh weather and uncertain international trade agreements, these institutions can be critical for getting the financing needed for a successful farm operation.
These Farm Credit System institutions were vital to helping farmers recover from the dual impacts of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, a crisis caused by severe drought and the plowing of grasslands. Misguided agricultural practices contributed to the Dust Bowl, just as our fossil fuel addiction is causing climate change. But problems that people cause are problems people can fix.
The IPCC's new report makes it clear that by offering incentives for farmers to make some generally common-sense changes – like using cover crops that sequester carbon while helping to keep soil from washing out during heavy rains – agricultural communities can cultivate some serious climate solutions.
On the flip side, the report shows that conventional tilling erodes soil 10 to 100 times faster than soil replenishes, running up a deficit that all too many farmers know all too well.
A new climate credit program that provides resources for farmers to make climate-smart changes would provide ample benefits for agricultural communities, and the global climate. While there are current U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that provide incentives for farmers to use carbon sequestration techniques, the programs are small relative to the need, and now is the time to scale them up to match the size of the climate crisis.
By empowering farmers to take up climate solutions, we can clean up the climate, protect farm communities and make agricultural communities more prosperous. Who could argue with that?
In responding to the Dust Bowl, President Franklin Roosevelt said “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself,” and he could not have been more correct. Now, we need to take it one step further to heal our soil in order to heal our world. And American farmers hold the key to making this happen.
Jill Long Thompson represented northeast Indiana in the U.S. House (1989-1995) and was undersecretary of agriculture for rural development (1995-2001).