Farmers don’t like being told how to run their operation. But like it or not, there’s more scrutiny of U.S. farms than ever by state and federal lawmakers, the mainstream media and the public.
Farmers were once again called on the carpet recently. This time, it wasn’t about hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico or seed treatments or herbicide use… but climate change.
Even though the USDA concedes that U.S. agricultural emissions are lower than the global average, they aren’t leaving well enough alone. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and advisors for President Obama recently announced a number of measures geared toward developing “partnerships” with farmers and ranchers to address climate change.
This will include “voluntary, incentive-based” efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration, expand renewable energy production and “help producers boost their operations and grow the economy,” Vilsack says.
The USDA wants to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year — about 2% of economy-wide net greenhouse emissions — by 2025. According to federal data, agriculture contributes to 9% of U.S. carbon emissions and 40% of U.S. methane gas emissions.
Soil health, interestingly, is one of 10 “building blocks” the USDA plans to use to reach climate-change goals.
The USDA says this means “improving soil resilience and increasing productivity” by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops and perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction.
The USDA also announced a goal to increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.
The most recent Census of Agriculture (2012) pegs current no-till acres at 96.4 million acres, which is about 25% of total U.S. crop aces. In 1972, no-till made up less than 2% of the total tilled acreage. So we have about a decade to convert another 3.6 million farm acres to no-till.
Is that attainable? Some 38 years ago, USDA staff predicted we’d see more than half of all U.S. cropland being no-tilled by 2010. The 1975 report also indicated that by 2010, 41% of the ground would be minimum tilled and only 5% conventionally tilled. Obviously, that report was too optimistic.
You could also take the view that adding 3.6 million more no-till acres in a decade isn’t a high enough goal. Might that happen without any effort at all?
What about adding 1 million acres of no-till per year, which would get us to 120 million acres by 2025?
Our publication certainly welcomes efforts to increase no-till adoption. But the problem, as I see it, is using a controversial issue like climate change to inspire farmers to adopt no-till.
From what I’ve seen, most farmers make changes to their farming systems because it makes economic sense: it saves them fuel, labor and machinery costs, increases soil productivity and the like.
Many no-tillers also have a deep sense of responsibility to the environment, but with all the variables they must deal with to make a buck these days — input prices, commodity prices, land rent, weed and disease pressures, anti-drift regulations — is climate change really going to move the needle?
Click here and you can read an analysis No-Till Farmer editor Frank Lessiter penned about the current barriers to no-till adoption.
If the USDA is serious about getting to 100 million acres of no-till, or more, they must focus on the tangible economic benefits. When farmers see a neighbor trying no-till on the back 40 and sticking with it, that’s how the movement grows.