New farming practices in middle of global warming debate

Tending the field
Carmen Fernholz chops corn stalks in a field he and his family farm together Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. Fernholz was certified as an organic farmer in 1975, and produces a variety of crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and flax.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

America's vast stretches of farmland are a big resource in the fight against global warming because their soil traps carbon. But not all farmers believe changing their ways to help in that fight would be profitable.

The global warming bill the House passed last summer gives farmers incentives to manage their soil to trap carbon, one of the main factors in global warming.

"The less we can have a carbon footprint, I think the better we are."

Carmen Fernholz, an organic farmer in western Minnesota, does things a little differently from most other farmers. For instance, he plants radishes in the late summer after his main crop harvest, but the radishes will never be harvested for food. Instead, he leaves them in the ground all winter long.

"In the spring as the temperatures warm up, [the radishes] start decaying and disappearing," Fernholz said. "And in this decay process it's slowly releasing the nutrients that it scavenged the previous fall."

Those nutrients will help fertilize next year's crop. But the radishes also help fight global warming. Through photosynthesis, the radishes convert carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into organic plant matter.

When the radish dies and decomposes, the carbon in the plant also remains stored in the soil. Fernholz said the nutrient benefits are his main objective in planting the radishes, but he also likes knowing they help reduce greenhouse gases.

Carmen Fernholz
Carmen Fernholz takes a call from a vendor at his Madison, Minn. farm Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. Fernholz was certified as an organic farmer in 1975, and produces a variety of crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and flax.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"The less we can have a carbon footprint, I think the better we are," said Fernholz. "So yes, there's no question that's where I'm looking at, in those directions."

If the U.S. House has its way, there could be a lot more farms like Fernholz's in the future. The House passed a bill last summer aimed at reducing global warming, and the Senate will take up the legislation soon.

The House bill would pay farmers to manage their land to store carbon -- the carbon is "sequestered," in agricultural parlance. Fernholz said the legislation signals a change in the world of farming.

"I think the fact that it did pass is definitely a positive," said Fernholz.

Some say legislation doesn't go far enough

Tillage radish
Carmen Fernholz holds a tillage radish on his brother's farmstead in Madison, Minn. Fernholz was certified as an organic farmer in 1975, and produces a variety of crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and flax.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Some farmers worry the bill will raise the cost of agriculture and possibly put them out of business. Others, like James Dontje, say the House bill doesn't go far enough.

"It was really an attempt to limit how much agriculture had to change," Dontje said. "It conveys the message of, 'Leave us alone, we don't want to change.'"

Dontje manages the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and is part owner of a farm just across the Minnesota border in northern Iowa. Dontje said a big part of the "leave us alone" message in the legislation concerned protective measures for ethanol made from corn.

"Outside of farm country, the ethanol industry is seen as a political pork barrel project," Dontje said.

But for many farm-state House members, including their leader, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ethanol is a success story. Although supporters say that ethanol helps reduce greenhouse gases, Dontje said it may actually contribute to global warming.

Snow-covered radish
One of the tillage radish plants covered in snow on Carmen Fernholz's brother's farmstead in Madison, Minn.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

He said that's because the fuel helped boost corn prices, causing farmers in other parts of the world to plow up virgin land to grow the suddenly very profitable grain. That land breaking releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

The House bill prohibits using the land issue in calculating ethanol's carbon footprint. Dontje said those sorts of protective measure are the wrong position for farmers to take.

"Carbon sequestration will have some value and that becomes an income stream," said Dontje. "By adopting an oppositional, 'keep your hands off approach,' agriculture might miss some of the opportunities."

He said those opportunities include expanding production of farm-based energy, ones that are more efficient than corn ethanol. He said that includes biofuels made from grasses and other farm produce. The grasses store carbon in the soil, and the fuel would help reduce gasoline use, a major source of greenhouse emissions.

Dontje said another opportunity is to use gas collectors which capture livestock methane emissions, a contributor to global warming. Dontje also said more wind energy production should be built, reducing the nation's reliance on coal-based electricity.

"Carbon legislation can really affect that," said Dontje. "Because those kinds of efforts will become very valuable if we truly account for the cost of carbon in the system."

"I am not sold that this will make money for the farmers."

Lawrence Sukalski
Southern Minnesota farmer Lawrence Sukalski, seen here on his farm near Fairmont, Minn., said the global warming bill in Congress will cause energy prices to rise, hurting farmers and other segments of the U.S. economy.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

But many farmers say the proposed climate legislation will increase their cost of doing business. Among them is southern Minnesota farmer Lawrence Sukalski.

Sukalski checked on the corn he has stored in one of his bins, to make sure there's no mold growing on it. Sukalski keeps close track of the corn because it's one of his major moneymakers. He's worried the global warming legislation could change that.

"If it passes we're going to have Europe-style food prices and Europe-style fuel prices," said Sukalski. "Everything will be so high you won't be able to do anything."

Including making a profit on the farm. Sukalski said the climate bill will force petroleum refiners, the electricity industry and others to spend money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He said those costs will be passed on to consumers, including farmers, in the form of higher energy prices.

Sukalski doubts that farmers will be able to offset those higher costs with money made from sequestering carbon on their land.

"I am not sold that this will make money for the farmers later on down the road," said Sukalski. "There's just too many things to it; it's too complex."

Recent research

Recent research shows just how uncertain the economics of carbon sequestering are. Many people thought "no-till" farming would trap large amounts of carbon in the soil. In no-till, farmers open a thin furrow for the seed but leave the rest of the surface unplowed. The theory was the practice reduces the amount of soil-based carbon escaping into the air compared to conventional plowing.

Deborah Allan, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota, said her research fails to show that's true.

"I feel pretty confident that for Minnesota it's not going to be a net gain in carbon in a no-till situation," said Allan.

But even if no-till does not pay off, Allan said there are plenty of other ways farmers can hold carbon. Planting trees or perennial crops, like alfalfa, or Carmen Fernholz's tillage radishes, could be additional components to reduce carbon and prevent the consequences of a too-warm plant.

"It's on my mind all the time," said Fernholz. "It's just sometimes you feel a little bit frustrated that you can't do more."

That frustration is something both sides of the farm debate over global warming are feeling. For some, like Fernholz, the fight against global warming is moving too slowly. For others, the pace is too rapid, and they fear it will do long-term damage to the job of producing food.