What if We Paid Farmers to Fight Global Warming?

Jun 24, 2019 by

For pennies a meal, the federal government can incentivize better environmental services.

By Robert Leonard and Matt Russell

Mr. Leonard is the news director for the Iowa radio stations KNIA and KRLS. Mr. Russell is a co-owner of Coyote Run Farm and the executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light.

A farmer checking a corn field for flooding near Grand Junction, Iowa, last July.
Credit Scott Morgan/Reuters

How we address an expanding list of crises related to global warming is the most demanding question of our day. So far, our approaches have been piecemeal, enormously costly and largely unsuccessful.

A common denominator for many of these crises is in how we use the land, and that is where we will find the solution. A simple, cheap and relatively quick fix is to pay farmers and ranchers for environmental services. Not traditional government cost-share programs; we mean cut them a check when they provide measurable environmental services. It would cost Americans pennies per meal.

We already provide enormous taxpayer support for farmers to stabilize our food supply. The Trump administration’s trade bailouts for farmers to the tune of $28 billion in 2018 and 2019 are examples. Unfortunately, right now, farmers who invest in conservation practices are at a competitive disadvantage to those who don’t. Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer’s bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariffs.

But even a small percentage of the billions in play can be directed to incentivize capturing carbon, among other environmental services. Farmers would focus on five categories of practices to do this and generate collateral environmental and social benefits: conservation tillage; keeping roots in the ground all year (like using cover crops); using livestock for environmental services like managed grazing; adding crops into rotations; and producing renewable energy.


Such a program might work like this. The Department of Agriculture could partner with the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (generally the land grant institutions) to set up the mechanisms to measure and reward carbon capture on farms. A small farmer in, say, Iowa would enroll with the Agriculture Department, which would offer payments for carbon pulled from the atmosphere and locked up by being put to work in the soil.

The value of that carbon would be determined in real time by governments and markets. But the carbon markets on their own aren’t enough. Markets are risky, and should they no longer bring profit to farmers, other payments need to fill the gap to profitability to keep the farmer in business and serving the public.

It will take agricultural economists, government officials and farmers to knock out a budget for a successful program, but we suggest $16 billion a year — which matches President Trump’s most recent tariff bailout. It will scale over time. The Environmental Defense Fund says the current social cost of carbonis about $40 per ton.

Credit Eamon Queeney for The New York Times

The more that Iowa farm innovates by stacking the production-based conservation practices, the more carbon it is likely to store. And if it adds renewable energy, that’s an additional bonus. So let’s say it raised soybeans. Instead of just growing that one crop, it grows three additional crops: corn, oats and hay. It adds cover crops during the fallow season and integrated livestock for grazing back the cover, feeding the hay and adding nutrients to the soil. By focusing on the biological activity in the soil, it can increase organic matter and thus store carbon. It’s an exponential feedback loop.

In its least productive areas, farmers could shift acres from growing a crop to storing carbon by establishing a wetland, planting trees or creating pollinator habitat.

We think small and midsize farms should be compensated at a higher level. Larger farms are important because of scale and because they are great at adapting technology for efficiency, but smaller farms are more capable of innovation, as groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa have proved. Provide smaller, midsize family farms incentives that reward innovation, and they will creatively stack multiple practices in ways larger farms are not capable of doing.

Nearly all of these smaller farms have both on-farm and off-farm income — i.e., someone has a job in town. These multiple income streams create resilience and an ability to innovate. These farms exist in nearly every county in America.

By utilizing public policy to reward innovation focused on ecological solutions, we create an additional source of income for farmers. Our small and midsize farms in particular are disappearing from rural America, and with them our small towns are toppling like dominoes.

Paying farmers like this would create numerous collateral benefits: improved water quality, increased biological diversity, the need to use fewer pesticides and herbicides, and rural economic development (carbon farming requires higher levels of management and labor).

We’re not the first to bring this up. A small but growing number of farmers, agriculture scientists and farm organizations believe a voluntary solution where farmers are compensated is the key. Once incentivized, American farmers will lead the way in protecting ecosystems as they produce our food and fiber. It might also offer a global model as the world develops land management strategies to fight the climate crisis.

Current federal efforts are just the opposite of what’s needed, like bailouts instead of investments. Several of the Democratic presidential candidates we have spoken with recognize that paying farmers is a key to the solution. In a recent visit to Coyote Run Farm, Beto O’Rourke advocated paying farmers for environmental services. We have also discussed the idea with Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Tim Ryan.

But we don’t see this as a partisan proposal. We want everyone — Democrats, Republicans and independents — to see it as a realistic and pragmatic solution to a daunting global challenge. It’s an idea that cuts against old narratives about rural America that no longer serve family farmers, rural communities and the needs of our country.

Critics will argue that government isn’t the answer, and that markets are better at solving problems. Markets will play an important role, as will private investment. But government is already a big part of American agriculture. We have the opportunity to use smart public policy to empower farmers to be a critical part of the solution to our climate challenge.

The New York Times

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