How Al Gore Is Influencing The Climate Conversation In Iowa

Photo by Julie Fleming

Al Gore still cares about climate change — now he’s meeting with Iowa farmers about environmentally-friendly farming practices.

The former vice president gained international attention after his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” brought global warming more into focus as a concept into the American psyche.

Eastern Iowa cattle farmer Seth Watkins this past week met with Gore at his farm in Tennessee to talk about what those in climate mitigation circles see as an obvious next step in tackling the issue: bringing agriculturalists to the table.

“He has used his own family’s farm that he’s converted back to what I would call a very good example of a regenerative farm,” Watkins said.

He, along with other farmers and some policymakers, went to Gore’s Caney Forks Farm to see advances in ecological agriculture.

“[Gore’s] got the resources and he’s a lot further ahead than even I am, but I love it because I get to learn some of these things,” Watkins said.

A self-proclaimed “poster boy” for the agribusiness industry until the 1990s, Watkins runs his fourth-generation Clarinda farm using environmentally-friendly farming practices. Despite his past use of conventional farming practices and having a brother in the oil industry, Watkins has joined a growing number of Iowans who have pushed away from agribusiness in the face of climate change.

“I want to make sure that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, that they live on the same comfort we’ve had as far as a warm, comfortable home,” Watkins said. “Making sure that we’re not just wasting these resources on, for example, nitrogen production that takes a tremendous amount of oil produced in Iowa.”

Conventional To Regenerative Practices

Until 20 years ago, Watkins ran Pinhook farm as the agribusiness industry instructed. He calved cows in February and March, used a lot of tillage to prepare the soil for crops and relied heavily on fossil fuels, chemicals and antibiotics.

But in 1998, when the state saw a massive blizzard in March, Watkins realized how conventional farming practices negatively impacted his own livelihood and the well-being of his cattle. Despite industry standards, he said his cows were incredibly stressed giving birth in near 22-inches of snow. He grew tired of working “against Mother Nature.”

“When the blizzard was done, I said, ‘I’m tired of not trusting my instincts and my gut, and from this point on, I’m going to go with a system that gives me happy cows, clean water and healthy soil,’” he said. “And if I go broke using that system, I can still sleep at night because I feel I’ve done right by the cows and land.”

Watkins now employs a large variety of conservation practices, including rotational grazing, no-till, cover crops and late-season calving. He’s seen tangible results from these changes.

“By taking the stress out of the system, you’ll see a bump of over 10% in your performance, because the cows are happy, more cows get bred, and you increase weight by about 50 pounds a calf,” Watkins said. “It is safe to say that you can reduce costs by at least $200 a cow, by following Mother Nature’s lead.”

Watkins said his brother, a retired oil industry employee, even recognizes positive aspects of the cattle farmer’s push away from fossil fuels.

“My brother in the oil business says, all we do is move carbon around,” Watkins said. “It’s a good point, how do we move carbon, how do we influence the carbon cycle and the reality, nature and agriculture are a tremendous tool in this whole issue.”

Watkins said Gore is in the process of collecting data on how much carbon he is beginning to sequester— and after planting a number of chestnut trees on his property, he’s found even more carbon for sequestration.

“This is one of the greatest rays of hope. We have something to actually be proud of with the current agriculture holes. And when he started showing his carbon level increases, It shows us the value of reintegrating livestock,” Watkins said.

Despite the economic success he’s experienced switching to environmentally-friendly farming practices, Watkins still said not all of his peers are on board. The nation’s current farm bill incentivizes traditional farming practices.

Wrong Kinds Of Incentives

Katherine Paul is U.S. director of the Organic Consumers Association, a sustainable farming nonprofit backing the Farmers and Ranchers for a Green New Deal coalition. Paul also said that in a marketplace “geared toward large industrial agriculture,” small farmers aren’t incentivized to use environmentally friendly practices.

“The system is so rigged against the farmers who are ready and willing to transition to these practices, if only they were playing in a level marketplace,” she said. “The problem is industrial agribusiness has tremendous power — I believe they spend as much, if not more, on the defense industry on lobbying in D.C. Small farmers and ranchers don’t have that kind of representation on their own.”

For incentives to go to the right producers, Paul said the voices of smaller farmers and ranchers need to be heard. Their new deal coalition is meant to help unify their voices against large agribusiness.

“You just can’t justify agribusiness anymore with a climate crisis, a water pollution crisis, a hunger crisis, despite their myth that they’re feeding the world,” Paul said. “We need to get farmers in there as part of the constituency that [members of Congress are] listening to.”

Iowans Want Their Voices To Be Heard

Keith Puntenney owns Puntenny Farms in Boone. He has spoken with a number of presidential candidates as they come through the state about bringing farmers into the climate change discussion.

“I’ve followed the campaigns of probably the top 10. I’ve talked to Tom Steyer myself. I’ve talked to Kamala Harris’ people — a lot of people even before the top 10 were chosen,” he said. “I’ve tried to approach the candidates through their staff, and personally, with some ideas of where I think they should go. Helping up and down the ticket, nationally and locally for policy changes.”

Puntenney has managed his 500-acre grain farm since 1974 and is also a Gore trainee — he’s part of a group who taught by the former vice president to take action to address the climate crisis.

This year, the farmer said he’s lost more than 20 acres due to heavy rains, equating to more than $16,000 in losses.

“As a farmer, I’m concerned,” Puntenney said. “We can see our yields decline by 30% by 2050 and obviously effects my bottom line, but it affects the revenues of our state as a result of climate change.”

Most candidates have rural policy proposals with some climate components. At a campaign event Sunday in Indianola, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren responded to a media question about how she’d include farmers in the climate discussion.

“We need for farmers to be part of the climate solution in this country, and I want to make that possible by putting enough revenue in for farmers who want to engage in sustainable farming practices that will help us clean up our air, clean up our water and reinvigorate our soil … so we have a truly sustainable farm culture here in Iowa,” Warren said.

The senator said she’s talked with many agriculture experts and farmers on the ground in Iowa who have explained the changes they could implement if they had help from the federal government.

But Puntenney said he hasn’t heard the issue talked about at many events around the state.

“I’m not hearing anybody talk about this,” he said. “Why isn’t Washington not getting the message that we need to do something from a climate perspective?”


By Isabella Murray
Posted 10/23/19

2 Comments on "How Al Gore Is Influencing The Climate Conversation In Iowa"

  • September 22, Bull Head Farms, just south of Jefferson, Chris Henning and Greene County Democrats, hosted Julian Castro for a small farm tour, looking at soybeans planted into standing cover crop and on no-till ground. Harvest is now underway.

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