by Jane Zelikova, chief scientist
From the first time I stepped off the plane in Billings, I felt the pull of Montana. I thought I was immune, having lived in the west for almost 20 years. But there is something about Montana, its golden fields, rugged mountains, and never-ending sky. Home to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, it’s a state where ranching and farming and coal-mining are ways of life for many.
My first trip to Montana was in 2016 on Department of Energy business to visit Colstrip, a small community in the eastern part of the state. Squeezed into a school auditorium, farmers and ranchers from around Colstrip joined the folks working at the local power plant to talk about the future of their town, their community and their way of life. After the meeting wrapped up, a small crowd formed around me and peppered me with questions about climate change. I didn’t expect so much interest — the dominant narrative is that rural communities don’t care about climate change or don’t believe its happening. After that trip to Colstrip, I knew I had to find my way back to working with agricultural communities in the West.
Less than a year later, I was back in Montana, talking to farmers and ranchers about soils and climate change. There was burgeoning interest in the soil — climate connection across the Rocky Mountain states. After months of talking to folks in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, I was learning that the people who grow our food, fuel, and fiber feel the impacts of climate change firsthand and are already talking about it, but using different words.
I wasn’t totally new to soils and agriculture — for the last 15 years, I have studied how climate and land use change impact soils and plants in grazed ecosystems. Cows are an especially familiar feature of wide open western landscapes and a lot of land across the US is grazed, so what happens in these ecosystems has large implications for people and climate.
During my short stint in Washington DC working on climate change policy, I saw that agricultural interests were largely excluded from climate policy conversations even though we use a lot of land across the U.S. to grow food, fuel, and fiber. It was clear to me that if we want to address climate change, we have to think about agriculture.
The Soil Health — Soil Carbon Connection
Carbon in soils is an essential resource. It helps regulate nutrient cycles and make more nutrients available for plants. It allows soil to retain more water and is a buffer against variable weather. Soils hold three times more carbon than plants, animals and the atmosphere and that carbon can be stored for long periods of time. Unfortunately, a lot of soil carbon has been lost as a result of conventional agricultural activities, especially the prevalent ways of growing food today. There are huge opportunities to restore agricultural soils’ lost carbon and at the same time, build more resilient agriculture systems, support agricultural communities, and ensure the continuation of their way of life.
“Soils hold three times more carbon than plants, animals and the atmosphere and that carbon can be stored for long periods of time.”
This idea isn’t new: The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) was formed more than 80 years ago to address catastrophic soil erosion, help farmers and ranchers manage their soil resources, and embed conservation into agriculture. The NRCS–and other local agencies and organizations–have been providing technical assistance to farmers and ranchers ever since, to ensure agricultural legacies can survive in our rapidly changing world. They are still in agricultural communities today, providing financial and technical assistance. But budgets for these services are on the decline while interest is increasing, leaving large gaps in access to education and resources.
When I first started thinking about the soil health — soil carbon connection, I dug into the science. Turns out, ag practices that help improve soil health — like cover crops, reduced tillage, and diverse crop rotations — also improve soil carbon sequestration. The issue is that the same practices do not yield the same soil C sequestration results in all geographies and contexts. That makes it hard to guide decisions around which soil health practices should be applied where to get the best soil health and carbon sequestration results. Without demonstration projects, it’s hard to guide decisions with evidence. There are relatively few demonstration projects across the Rocky Mountain west, so this gave me a place to start.
Every Farm and Ranch Has a Story
Armed with some science and some practical knowledge, I reached out to local organizations in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico to learn as much as I could about what they were seeing on the ground in terms of implementing agricultural practices that improve soil health and carbon storage. I met a lot of farmers and ranchers, folks who were skeptical of me (a climate change scientist and activist) but who still invited me into their homes and shared their love for the land they cultivate and the animals they care for. They shared their worries, the challenges of trying to take care of their cows while having to fight fires on their property because there are no fire-fighting services in their rural corner of the state. They shared their dreams of passing on the land to their kids and grandkids, knowing the land they once inherited is not the same as the land they will be leaving behind. As much as those were tough conversations, things felt more productive when the conversation turned to soil health. In the climate solutions landscape, soil health has emerged as a solution that most people can agree on.
“In the climate solutions landscape, soil health has emerged as a solution that most people can agree on.”
Over countless cups of coffee, I heard the same things over and over. Farmers and ranchers want healthy soils, but there are structural barriers that keep them from doing all they can to build back soil health. Producers don’t have consistent access to education and technical support, so they are learning about soil health on the internet, and many are figuring out how to change their operations without technical assistance from experts. Producers also want to know what’s happening in their soils and they want to be able to measure their soil health. The tools to track soil health and carbon outcomes are inaccessible — either too expensive, too cumbersome or both. And because there are so few demonstration projects to help derisk new practices across different operations and geographies, producers have to make decisions without good examples of how things would work in their corner of the world.
Beyond education and science, there is a confusing landscape of incentives and disincentives. There is a growing number of incentives that support soil health practices — on-farm demonstration trials, EQIP grants — but they are insufficient to meet the growing interest and need. The policies that do exist can make it really hard for folks to try new things. For example, a policy like crop insurance defines which practices are considered “good farming practices” and leaves out things like cover crops and reduced tillage. There is ample room in the policy space to simplify things and improve access to technical assistance, science, and incentives, all with the goal of ensuring every farmer and rancher can implement soil health practices on their land.
Soil Health Gets its Day in the Sun
In the last three years, soil health has transformed from a fringe regenerative ag movement championed by a few passionate converts to the mainstream. This enormous opportunity to support the people that literally put food on our tables also helps remove carbon from the atmosphere. While there are many details to work out, i’s to dot and t’s to cross, enhancing soil carbon sequestration is largely a no-regrets climate solution that is ready for primetime today. But reaching its full potential will require government support.
“This enormous opportunity to support the people that literally put food on our tables also helps remove carbon from the atmosphere.”
Leading with Soil
That’s what the Leading with Soil report is about. It lays out a suite of policies that help address the barriers farmers and ranchers face — policies that reinforce each other and help marshal a system of change. It’s the result of three years of listening and learning from people who are experiencing climate change right outside their front door and who have so much at stake in addressing it.
Lots of producers are interested in rebuilding healthy carbon-rich soils, are already trying new practices, or are interested in trying them soon. But they need to understand the nuts and bolts of how things will work, especially the finances. Soil health education, originally aimed at combating issues like soil erosion, needs an update to meet a whole new suite of challenges. Likewise, the way we translate and apply soil science is in need of an update too. Soil scientists and experts know a lot, but our knowledge is not accessible to the people who need it.
When it comes to the policy landscape, much has shifted in the last few years. But the shifts are not yet robust enough to create a reinforcing system of support. State policy is a critical piece of the puzzle because states can innovate more quickly and provide lessons for what works and what doesn’t. Despite a lot of progress at the state level, the big levers of change are still in federal hands. Making soil health possible for every farmer and rancher in the U.S. will take ingenuity, incentives, policy support, and leadership from producers.
Though I have gained immense appreciation for the challenges farmers face, I look ahead with a healthy dose of hope. There are so many people who are deeply invested in soil health and are willing to try things to find solutions. There is a real thirst for data and understanding, absolute need for support to keep the family farm going, and so much passion in the people who steward our land and grow our food.