How Iowans Drove The National Debate On Carbon Farming

Photo via Matt Russell

It began with an unexpected phone call from Beto O’Rourke.

Radio reporter Bob Leonard of Knoxville, Iowa said he was in his office last March when he received the call, from a then-unknown number.

“On the other end I heard, ‘Hi Bob, this is Beto O’Rourke,’” Leonard said. “He said, ‘I really enjoyed your piece in the New York Times, do you have a minute to talk about it?’ Of course, I had a minute to talk about it.”

O’Rourke had read a guest op-ed by Leonard and Matt Russell, executive director of Interfaith Power and Light — a group that pushes for faith-based solutions to climate change — in the New York Times about how to win rural America. O’Rourke wanted to learn more about a practice the two climate advocates had written about: how farmers could use environmental services like carbon sequestration and get paid for it.

They didn’t know it at the time, but that phone call would contribute to the plan being mentioned by multiple candidates on national debate stages, included in most 2020 policy proposals and get introduced in a bill in the Senate.

O’Rourke and Leonard talked for a while and set up a meeting for when the candidate was back in Iowa. So, when the former Texas congressman announced his bid for the presidency a few weeks later, Leonard wasn’t surprised when the idea was included in his rural plan.

“And those farmers, like anyone else, want to make sure that we are meeting the challenge of climate change before it is too late.” O’Rourke said in El Paso on March 30, at the launch of his presidential campaign. “Let’s open up technologies and markets to them that provide an incentive for capturing the carbon that we’re currently emitting in the air.”

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

Now, nearly all the Democratic hopefuls are privy to the concept of paying farmers for their conservation efforts and most have included the idea in their agricultural, rural or climate policies. It’s featured often in several candidates’ stump speeches when the topic turns rural, often used as a way to prove the campaign has done their homework on unique Iowa ideas.

Iowa’s influence on certain 2020 plans, Leonard said, demonstrates how candidates listen as the caucus shines a light on issues affecting the nation’s heartland.

“Given the power of the Iowa caucuses, a good idea, the New York Times and a couple of ‘rural hicks’ willing to bend the ears of the candidates — with the access to the candidates that we have, it’s just a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “The beauty of this is it isn’t our idea anymore. They’ve bought in. It’s a simple idea; it’s a great idea.”

Incentivizing Farmers To Capture Carbon

The world will not get to its necessary, net-zero emission status on time unless food production and land management is drastically reformed, according to The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Agriculture is unique in that it is the one sector with an ability to transform from a net emitter of carbon to a net carbon-catcher, claims the Carbon Cycle Institute. There is no other human-managed realm with this potential.

Members of climate mitigation and agriculture circles have said carbon sequestration, or carbon farming — the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide — is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get farmers involved in the reformation process.

“These can be extremely potent ways for Iowa to really be a leader in minimizing its net carbon emissions,” James Boulter, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said. “In addition to reducing fossil fuel burning by investing in more wind, as they’ve been such great leaders already.”

The practice will help farmers and the rural economy, too. Reducing carbon emission production leads to improved water quality and better soil health, and greater, more bountiful yields, Russell explained.

Carbon farming can happen naturally when farmers implement conservation efforts, including planting cover crops such as small grains or legumes during winter when fields are normally barren, leaving the organic matter in fields after harvest and adding additional crops such as alfalfa, oats, wheat or rye to a soybean corn rotation.

These conservation efforts seem like an obvious next step for agriculture production, but the market and public policy are not currently rewarding investments.

National agriculture policy rewards overproduction, which lowers prices for farmers but depletes soil health and its ability to capture carbon, said Russell. National farm policies, including past and current Farm Bills, work against any economic incentive to do carbon farming.

Since December, Russell has led statewide discussions in church basements with farmers across the political spectrum. The farmers have affirmed, in these small group meetings, that a change in economics is necessary before integrating conservation efforts.

“They’re ready, they’re ready to take climate action on their farms, but they recognize that the economics don’t work for them, and we need to change those economics,” he said.

This lack of incentives is why Iowans are appealing directly to the candidates in order to initiate change.

How Iowans Drove The Debate

Leonard said that now, nearly every candidate or their campaigns have met with him or Russell to learn more about the idea. Russell also hosted O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris on his farm.

And while candidates’ policies to incentivize farmers differ, Leonard said all the 2020 hopefuls understand the need to implement this practice.

“I think the candidates that we’ve spoken with, that have engaged with us on this, understand it and understand what needs to be done,” he said. “Their policies are different; I would never criticize any of them because they’re working forward and they’re trying to figure it out. I think it’s wonderful.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden proposed expanding a voluntary USDA conservation program that pays farmers, under five-year contracts, to adopt certain practices. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would pour $15 billion annually into the same voluntary program, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar also supports expanding USDA’s conservation efforts.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he supported creating tax incentives, a carbon sequestration market and expanding voluntary conservation programs, and Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to provide grants, technical assistance and debt relief to support farmers’ transition to more sustainable practices, among other candidate plans. 

But beyond the candidates including the idea in rural, agricultural or climate policies, Leonard said he was pleased the concept was gaining more national attention.

“In the third debate, you had Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg say ‘pay farmers for environmental services to stop global warming,’” Leonard said. “If you would have told me that we would have been able to influence most of the top candidates’ ag/climate/rural policies, that they’d be talking about it on the national debate stage, I wouldn’t believe it.”

Russell also has worked to connect farmers to the candidates, garnering national media attention, to help spread the idea.

“We’ve connected farmers now with CNN, Time magazine, we’ve had pieces in the New York Times, NBC Today and Mother Jones,” he said. “We’re very intentional about identifying farmers and bringing them into the conversation that is across the production spectrum … We’ve created messaging which is, farmers need to get paid for the environmental services they provide to help solve climate change.”

The idea is pushed even further, Leonard said, when candidates move around the state and farmers reaffirm the need to incentivize environmental services.

Boone farmer Keith Puntenney said he spoke with most of the presidential candidates about his struggle as a farmer during the climate crisis.

“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 told Starting Line at a Cory Booker event in October. “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.

“I’m looking forward to talking to Cory now, too,” Puntenney said.

Booker has also demonstrated how this practice has gone beyond the presidential horserace, seeping into current proposed legislation.

In September, the New Jersey senator introduced a climate change bill, “The Climate Stewardship Act of 2019,” focused on voluntary farm and ranch conservation practices, massive reforestation, and wetlands restoration.

If passed, the legislation will provide tens of billions of dollars in supplemental funding for USDA conservation programs, with new funding dedicated to stewardship practices such as rotational grazing, improved fertilizer efficiency, and planting tens of millions of new acres of cover crops.

“This is beyond our control now, and it’s wonderful,” Leonard said. “There’s a solution that came out of the Iowa caucuses to help fight global warming, to help stabilize our soil, to help make our water purer, to help dead zones in the ocean, that once we implement it, could help solve the international climate crisis.”

 

By Isabella Murray
Posted 11/12/19

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