Farming Carbon: Farm Bill Presents Opportunity to Unite Farmers, Climate Activists

On the rolling plains southwest of Chamberlain, South Dakota, lies a 30-square-mile farm and ranch that serves as a testament to the power of soil health practices.

Bryan Jorgensen has devoted his life to nurturing the soil and maintaining the ecological balance on his family’s land.

Jorgensen said the practices not only improve his yields at harvest time but also cut back on the need for pesticides and fertilizers, and drive more carbon into his soil – which is good for the plants.

“Carbon is not an enemy,” he said. “We have an ecosystem problem, not a carbon problem.”

However, Jorgensen said centering farm policy on the health of the ecosystem is an uphill battle against the forces supporting more traditional practices.

“There’s too much politics in it,” he said. “You have a few powerful lobbying groups walking into a room with people that know nothing about agriculture, and telling them, ‘This is the best way to do it.’”

Jorgensen said the government should encourage more farmers and ranchers to adopt practices like his, perhaps by including incentives in the farm bill that Congress is drafting now. Such incentives hold the potential to unite farmers and ranchers like Jorgensen — who may be skeptical of climate science, but convinced of the value of driving more carbon into their soil — with climate activists who want to pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Carbon and healthy soil

Gripping some grass near a barbed-wire fence on his farm recently, Jorgensen pulled a clod of soil from the earth and explained how healthy soil works.

“Wherever there is a root, there is colonization of biology around it,” Jorgensen said. “There are fungi, bacteria, and billions of other one-celled creatures that colonize this. And it’s those that are exuding acids and etching away at the silt, sand and rock particles in the soil, breaking them down to create nutrients for the plants.”

At the heart of Jorgensen’s philosophy lies the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s five principles of soil health: minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing biodiversity, maintaining living roots year-round, keeping the soil covered and integrating livestock.

Recognizing the importance of minimizing soil disturbance, Jorgensen does not use a plow. That’s a technique called “no-till” farming, a method to plant seeds with minimal disturbance.

“When you till up that ground and expose the soil to the elements, it’s like a nuclear holocaust to those microorganisms,” Jorgensen said.

Another of Jorgensen’s practices is trying to maintain living roots in the soil year-round. By integrating “cover crops” –  plants grown primarily to cover the soil during winter or between cash crops – he minimizes the soil’s exposure to the elements.

This continuous cover helps the soil absorb water, prevents wind and flood erosion, reduces areas for weeds to spread (resulting in less need for pesticides), and keeps plants actively driving carbon into the soil all year long. Climate scientists call that “carbon sequestration” – putting carbon into a place, such as the ground, where it can’t trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

Jorgensen also uses crop residues (such as leaves, stalks and husks) as mulch on his fields. By insulating the soil from harsh weather conditions, he maintains a better moisture content, temperature and nutrient balance.

And by planting a diverse rotation of crops and even letting fields turn to grass every few years, Jorgensen is feeding his soil microbiome a more diverse diet of nutrients.

With his livestock, Jorgensen rotates among pastures to ensure the grass is never over-eaten and the soil is not exposed. As the animals graze, their manure replenishes the soil with nutrients, further enhancing the soil’s fertility and minimizing the need for chemical fertilizers.

While Jorgensen said he’s skeptical of the science regarding climate change, he is certain of the benefits of storing more carbon in his soils.

“This resource could be lost in a heartbeat,” Jorgensen said. “It shouldn’t just be greenhouse gases we worry about. It should be our soil.”

Jorgensen started implementing soil health practices in 1991 when his son, Nick, was born. Nick Jorgensen said their chemical input costs have been cut in half and continue to decline. He points to a chart indicating the amount of carbon-based organic matter stored in their land has grown from 3% in 2014 to 5.2% in 2021.

“We are storing about an additional one and a half tons of carbon in the soil per acre, every year,” he said.

Putting a value on carbon sequestration

David Clay, a distinguished professor of agriculture at South Dakota State University, said a study that took millions of soil samples in multiple states from 2000 to 2020 found the average acre of cropland in South Dakota sequestered 0.22 tons of carbon per year.

Nick Jorgensen took soil samples and deduced that with his family’s soil-friendly farming practices, they’re sequestering a total of about 15,730 more tons per year on their farmland, at 1.5 tons of carbon per acre. That’s after he subtracted an estimated 108 tons emitted by tractors and other aspects of the family’s farming operations, and 30.4 tons emitted by the natural digestion of grazing livestock.

“That is only on our 10,000 acres of farm ground,” he said. “Not our pastures,” which the Jorgensens have yet to measure.

Yet Nick Jorgensen said there is currently no pricing formula for rewarding a farm or ranch that is sequestering more carbon. He advocates that measuring the carbon-based organic matter in the soil is the best way to do it.

For example, if the federal government gave farmers and ranchers $85 per ton (what the federal government is offering for carbon sequestration via pipelines) of carbon sequestered based on the change in organic matter, Jorgensen’s farm ground would earn about $1.34 million each year.

Jim Faulstich and his son-in-law ranch and farm about 10,000 acres near Highmore. He said by recognizing native grasses as a “carbon sink”– an area that absorbs more carbon than it releases – lawmakers could do a lot for the state’s ranching community, too.

“We need to keep some grasslands out there and we need to have some incentives to do it,” Faulstich said.

He said cattle prices are too low to act as that incentive, and so are payments from existing government initiatives such as the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to keep marginal agricultural land out of production and instead preserve it in a natural condition.

Conservation or crop insurance

Many farmers benefit from crop insurance and government subsidies that support traditional commodities such as corn and soybeans.

However, with spending on those programs outpacing spending on conservation programs and soil health practices, Bryan Jorgensen thinks a reallocation is in order.

From 1995 to 2020, South Dakota farmers received $9.8 billion in corn and soybean subsidies and $1.9 billion for grassland conservation. In 2020, nearly 40 percent of an average U.S. farmers’ net income came directly from the government.

“Our current agricultural industry is driven by too few crops,” Jorgensen said. “Because of this, we’re losing our organic matter in our soils.”

Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, agrees.

“The USDA controls the purse strings for conservation and crop insurance,” Sombke said. “And they have made crop insurance so good that a few crops out-compete things like grassland conservation.”

Robert Bonnie is the undersecretary for farm production and conservation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said that’s a misunderstanding of federal ag policy.

“We’re not tilting the scale one way or the other,” Bonnie said. “We’re allowing producers to make their own decisions.”

Bonnie said the Biden administration is using $300 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for research and initiatives to incentivize farmers to adopt soil health practices – like testing what soil health practices work best in different regions.

Additionally, he said the administration’s America the Beautiful initiative includes $3 billion to incentivize more landowners to voluntarily conserve some of their working lands – like grasslands used for grazing livestock.

“We have got to keep a lot of our working lands working,” Bonnie said. “And working lands have a really important role to play in climate-smart solutions.”

A farm bill & lobbies

Bonnie said another opportunity for more implementation of soil health programs is this year’s farm bill. The farm bill is congressional legislation that determines the country’s agricultural policies and funding priorities for several years.

He said the primary goal for the USDA is delivering a bill that “maintains robust crop insurance programs and conserves marginal ground.”

Sustainable agriculture groups have a number of changes they would like to see in the farm bill. Proposed changes include authorizing permanent easements for land taken out of production, and raising the rental rates the government pays for conserving land. Proposals also include paying farmers more for soil health practices, and eliminating loopholes that allow farmers to avoid crop insurance payment limits and receive multiple payments – such as when multiple family farm members receive payments. Additionally, some groups have proposed improving the insurance programs for specialty crops, like oats and millet, to compete with corn and soybeans.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, sits on the House Agriculture Committee. He said it’s important to note America already spends more on conservation than any other country. And he said the most substantial environmental solutions will not come from the government.

“We are always going to see the real innovation come from leaders in the private sector, producers who are willing to innovate and find better ways,” Johnson said. “And a lot of South Dakotans converted to no-till, not because anyone paid them, but because it provided real and tangible benefits to their operation.”

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He recently introduced legislation to discourage the conversion of undisturbed grasslands to cropland. The bill would expand a program that already exists in a handful of states, including South Dakota. The program would make crop insurance less lucrative on marginal lands.

Thune said despite crop insurance and safety net programs being an essential “foundation of our farm policy,” tides are shifting as interest in climate change grows.

“I do think you’re going to see that,” Thune said. “Because I think the emphasis on carbon storage, carbon utilization, looking for options that would pull more of that out of the atmosphere, I think those types of policies are going to increasingly gain favor as we focus on trying to make sure we’re doing our part to reduce emissions in the atmosphere.”

However, Thune said it takes time to turn an idea into policy.

“Should that be the USDA coming up with a program that’s top-down?” Thune said. “Or, should it be more of a voluntary, incentive-based, bottom-up program? And I think that’s the model most of the farm groups are supportive of.”

This article first appeared in the South Dakota Searchlight, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom network.

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