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Agriculture can be climate friendly, but will take time and money, scientists say

Agriculture can become more climate change friendly, but the lack of information and resources for farmers is hurting that transition.

(CN) — Panelists on a webinar Friday largely agreed that more outreach and coordination by local, state and federal agencies needs to occur to help farmers align their agricultural practices with achieving long-term climate change goals.

There is a perception that agriculture is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. While agriculture does contribute, like every other segment of the economy, there are steps that can be taken to limit the impacts and even remove greenhouse gases from the environment. Those steps, though, will take buy-in from the farmers and money to help them transition over to new ideas and ways of doing things.

Most of the climate change emissions in agriculture is through nitrous oxide — when soil is tilled or fertilizer is used — and methane emissions from cattle; in the United States, farming has a net positive impact on carbon dioxide as a small amount of carbon is sunk into the ground, though panelists noted with more no till or cover crops, the amount of carbon sunk into the soil could increase by 100 times.

Mitchell Hora, chief executive officer of Continuum Ag, said many farmers view themselves as conservationists, making sure the farm is still viable for the next generation. He noted that the time is now to begin looking at the large scale picture and beyond just one family's farm.

“There is a mindset in farmers that what worked in previous generations can continue to work today,” said Hora. “It can be difficult for farmers to adapt to different ways of doing things. The goal has to be changing the mindset of the farmer and show that these opportunities to offset carbon and other emissions can also be profitable.”

Many of the panelists said getting the information out about the different local, state and federal programs to promote carbon friendly agriculture is important; but the lack of staff in state and federal agencies is not helping to spread the word. There is also the need to go from large scale overview of carbon sinks and agriculture and begin to focus on individual plots.

Keith Paustian, university distinguished professor in Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University, emphasized the point that scientists like himself and others at land-grant universities have an excellent picture of the carbon footprint and sinks across a broad landscape, but struggle when it comes to an individual field.

“There is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to local fields and how much carbon they could store. There is more information on a broader scale. I could walk across Horas’ property and there would be a variety of different soils that would require different inputs and outputs to know what to do for that piece of land,” said Paustian.

Deepthi Kolady, associate professor in the Ness School of Management and Economics at South Dakota State University, said there is the need for an integrated approach between land management practices that help reduce carbon emissions and financial support for farmers who undertake such practices.

There are a variety of state and federal level programs for farmers to undertake a number of different conservation and cover crop practices. They can range from direct subsidies or cost share agreements. She highlighted the importance of getting the information out about the different programs to farmers, but noted that change will often come from farmers talking to each other. Hora and Kolady agreed with each other about the need to show that moving to new techniques and doing things in a new way will not negatively impact farmers financially.

“When I am talking to farmers they are always talking about yield and how to increase yield,” said Hora. “Many farmers are hesitant to take a risky bet if they believe they are going to lose money in the first year or two. Once you tell farmers that these programs will improve their profitability, that will increase the adoption of these different conservation programs.”

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