Input from a Small Farmer on the VT Climate Caucus: To Solve the Climate Crisis We Need Healthy Soil
BY STEPHEN LESLIE
VT HEALTHY SOIL PROTECTION & RESTORATION ACT
To meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as established under the passage of the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act, we need to elevate healthy soil as an essential ingredient to solve the climate emergency. Simply reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG) won’t be enough to halt climate change. We need to maximize the sequestration capacity of our farms and forests. More importantly, we need to focus on habitat restoration.
In this time of societal reckoning, farming is fundamental reparation. Not only does the dominant society need to address the historical and contemporary wrongs committed against BIPOC communities, we also need to repair and restore the natural world. Land managers need to be trained and supported to do this work. We must decouple organic-regenerative farming from the capitalist system, or at least provide sufficient safety nets to guarantee a living wage for all farmers and farm workers engaged in organic regenerative land management.
Irreversible abrupt climate change is the symptom of the fundamental rupture from settlement and colonialist culture. We can’t expect farmers to focus on ecological services while they have to compete to survive in the industrial global food market. We need many more young people to work in regenerative organic land management. We must provide training and a viable career path for this fundamentally vital work of healing land and feeding local communities. The state has a fiduciary responsibility to protect and restore our soil resources by providing a base income to land managers who can regenerate soil while producing food, fuel, fiber, building materials, and medicine. In this era of ecological collapse, regenerative land managers are our frontline essential workers.
In 1972, under pressure from a burgeoning environmental movement, the Nixon administration passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Protection Acts. Although this was a landmark victory for the environment, it was also a clear case of putting the cart before the horse: until we pass a Healthy Soil Protection and Restoration Act, we cannot have clean air and water. It is not possible without healthy soil. We need progressive soil health policy reflective of a radical shift in societal priorities where soil is recognized as “basic infrastructure”.
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
Context is the recognition that each farm organism is unique and that this must be reflected in the application of the soil health principles in order for them to be effective. Context will need to be central to any Payment for Environmental Services (PES) program if it is to be sensible and equitable. For instance, if we consider the physical context of a farm, each will have a distinct soil type and land-use history. A farm with sandy loam will likely start out at a lower base level of SOM (soil organic matter) compared to a farm with silt loam, and even if the sandy loam farmer implements regenerative practices it could take years to bring up the SOM in that context. Conversely, a silt loam farmer implementing regenerative practices may quickly reach a plateau in which high SOM levels are stable but no longer see a dramatic increase. In either case, we would still want to reward these farmers for the continued implementation of regenerative practices.
We typically think of farmers and forest managers in terms of the output of their operations–yields of corn or so many board feet harvested. We need to match expectations for production with management aimed at the restoration of the carbon cycle. Restoration of the carbon cycle leads to restoration of hydrologic cycles, which is critical to landscape function and climate change impact mitigation.
Going forward, we need policymakers and land managers to understand that biology is the driver of soil health and carbon sequestration. In natural systems, carbon inputs continuously come in through living roots, animal activity, and deposition of plant residue. In a cropping system, the farmer is removing carbon. Through cover cropping and crop rotations, composting and mulching, perennial crops and agroforestry, adaptive multi-species grazing and organic reduced tillage and no-till, farmers can restore and augment the carbon bank.
SOIL HEALTH MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
We can begin a phased transition for agriculture and forestry by implementing Soil Health Management Systems (SHMS). This is a model that was first developed by NRCS agents and farmers in North Dakota. Here in Vermont, we could begin by using Nutrient Management Plans as a model. Technical Service Providers can assist land managers in developing soil health plans. The aim is for long-term adoption of practices with commensurate long-term financial incentives and technical assistance. Field agents can do yearly site visits to monitor and assist in implementation. The strategy is to build on already existing programs of federal and state government and the NGO’s, in order to coordinate and amplify the collective impact of all these efforts exponentially. We can build out the regional Conservation District offices to coordinate the delivery of technical assistance in each major watershed. The six principles of soil health developed by the NRCS provide a rubric for the adoption of healthy soil practices; Know Your Context, Cover the Soil, Minimize Soil Disturbance, Increase Diversity, Maintain Continuous Living Plants/Roots, Integrate Livestock.
Each land manager would have a “team” of experts to help implement and troubleshoot. This team could coordinate with the Farm Viability Program to strive for successful outcomes at every level. Site characteristics and social context will be taken into account to ensure an equitable and just transition.
All practices should be seen as comprising a synergy of effects to restore the totality of the farm ecosystem. Incentives will no longer be granted piecemeal for specific practices, rather participants are aided to develop comprehensive plans. SHMS would allow for the land manager to apply for assistance on a variety of practices under a single contract. This would increase enrollment and voluntary compliance with Required Agricultural Practices. Incentives are a favorable approach over regulations. Successful pilot projects and farmer-to-farmer training are proven methods for accelerating the adoption of healthy soils practices among the legacy farming community.
It is not practical to measure carbon sequestration, water quality and other enhanced functions on every farm every year. Therefore UVM should continue to conduct trials and monitor pilot farms to establish median averages. Farmers will be expected to document practices.
Let’s ensure that payments for ecological services are aimed not only at incentives for the adoption of practices but to sustain them over the long haul, and to equally reward those who are already practicing them. Ecological services should not be restricted to cleaner water and carbon sequestration. We need a holistic measure of the ecological and economic benefits farmers contribute to society. We need to take into account all of the landscape functions of a farm or forest and how restoring these contributes to the health of the bioregion. Not only do local organic regenerative farms sequester carbon and restore habitat, but they also reduce the overall carbon footprint associated with food production by eliminating chemical inputs, reducing tractor use, and reducing transportation through local distribution.
ECOLOGICAL FOREST MANAGEMENT
A starting point for “context” as our first soil health principle is to consider what was here before humans altered it (in our context that would mean before European settlement, as the Indigenous people were practicing what we now refer to as Agroecology). We need to take the soil health of the old-growth forests as a measure for soil health in our region. Here in Vermont, that means understanding the ecology of the primary forests, where soil carbon accrued through centuries in a forest system that tended to experience localized and relatively minor disturbances. For all the tons of carbon held in the trunks and branches, the real long-term stable carbon was built up over centuries in this substrata of deep humus. That legacy is the carbon bank we are still farming on.
Beginning in 2010, for the first time in over one hundred years, Vermont is again losing forest to the tune of 1500 acres a year. Unchecked development, clear-cutting and fragmentation all threaten the health of woodlands.
80% of our forest is in family ownership. We need to understand the forest as a system and grant incentives to woodland owners who manage for long-term health and adaptability. This doesn’t have to entail the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome. We can sustain a local harvest while managing for enhanced complexity. In fact, the promotion of ecological forest management could help jump-start a “localvore” movement in the timber and wood products industries. If we really care about our own forests we need to reduce consumption and waste. The current prevalent practices of shelterwood and clear cuts may have made sense in our region in the 20th century but with the advent of climate change, with flash droughts, extreme precipitation events, wind shears, invasive pathogens and pests, we have no guarantee that regeneration will occur on such sites as it once could reasonably be expected to do.
Worldwide 50% of the carbon stored in a forest is held by the top 1% of the biggest trees. New findings show that, although it is not as rapid as in young trees, sequestration is greatest from the growth period of 50 years to 150 years of age and is continuous after that. The soil biome of an old-growth forest is so robust that an estimated 60% of the carbon is stored below the ground. There are innumerable benefits accruing to old forests in terms of healthy landscape function and biodiversity. We can unite with the international “30×30” initiative and call for the establishment of 30% “forever wild” designation of forest lands in this state by 2030. And aim for “half-wild” by 2050. We should also ask our legislators to place a moratorium on new biomass projects for heat and energy. Weatherization of homes and subsidies for thermal heat pumps could bring us better gains without further environmental destruction.
Small diversified and intensively managed farms have the flexibility and resilience to best withstand the shocks and disruptions that are coming our way. According to the United Nation’s FAO, small farmers (25 acres or less) are still providing 70% of the world’s food.
Our current economic system does not reward small diversified farmers whose focus is building soil health. Nor does it reward large commodity producers whose focus is on yields and mechanical efficiency. With unstable markets and rising operational costs, all farmers are hurting. The purveyors of agricultural inputs and machinery are the only ones reaping record profits in this game.
Despite the well-deserved hype about Vermont’s burgeoning local food movement-those of us who have been on the ground building the local food system for decades are engaged in a labor of love. Most of us pay our employees more than we pay ourselves but still can’t pay a living wage. It’s hard to find a dairy farmer who does not have long-term debt. Many of us have a family member with an off-farm income. Prior to the Affordable Health Care Act, most farmers were without health insurance, and you’ll find many aging farmers with no retirement or succession plan. This is a hard sell for attracting new and young farmers-and the prospects look even worse when you factor in skyrocketing land prices.
PES should take into account that carbon farming is a long-term proposition. Land managers willing and able to practice regenerative practices will require a steady guaranteed income. Every farm will experience ebbs and flows in sequestration, but there is not a farm in Vermont that can’t build more soil organic matter. It is this cumulative effect that is exponentially important and why payment should be equitable across the board for all land managers participating in soil health management regardless of acreage.
By offering incentives and technical assistance the 80% of VT Ag acres currently devoted to dairy can be transitioned to produce a wide diversity of annual and perennial crops. It’s not a matter of getting rid of cows, it’s a matter of adding back in everything else. Sure, this kind of farming is management-intensive but that can translate into an era of opportunity for future farmers. This transition must happen as swiftly as possible in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity and to ensure regional food sovereignty as macro supply chains become more unreliable.
A regenerative farm renaissance could boost Vermont’s tourism industry. Imagine our hills and valleys graced with a tapestry of organic regenerative diversified farms and regional food hubs. Tourists could travel hub-to-hub in electric buses charged by on-farm renewables to experience the specialty products of each region. We could become the “Napa Valley” of the organic regenerative movement. New and young farmers would flock here to attend Ag schools and intern on our farms, dairy plants & abattoirs. At the same time, we could create opportunities to resettle climate refugees by offering access to land for farming and good-paying jobs in the growing foodservice sector. We could establish “new commons” through partnerships between government, nonprofits and landowners to grant land access to climate refugees, young and new farmers, Indigenous populations, People of Color, women farmers, and others historically and still excluded from land tenure.
Healthy soil practices are applicable in suburban and urban settings too. Cities, towns and villages may implement healthy soil plans by creating more green spaces, community gardens and food parks. Water infiltration can be improved by establishing riparian buffers and replacing asphalt and concrete with permeable surfaces. Urban greywater and run-off can be filtered through living filtration systems. Property managers and homeowners who practice organic regenerative yard care have an important role. Grass lawns taken as a crop make up the greatest percentage of irrigated acres in the US. On-farm and municipal composting can put us on track toward a circular economy and a zero-waste society.
But for any of this to happen we need to elevate healthy soil as the essential ingredient to solving the climate and ecological crisis. Soil is such a critical resource that we can no longer leave its management unregulated. Ownership, leasehold or any other form of land tenure can no longer mean a free license to degenerate or destroy soil. Government must protect and offer transformational incentives for the adoption and maintenance of Soil Health Management Systems.
The roots of all social injustice are bound up with the exploitation of land, water and air. The colonial-capitalist system that historically and currently inflicts so much cruelty especially upon Indigenous people and People of Color, but also on small farmers globally, is the same system that exploits and degrades the natural world. Reparations to one without the other will be meaningless. Progressive soil health policy can be a first step to re-establishing the commons and recognizing the rights of all living beings.
Climate scientists the world over have declared that this transition to organic regenerative land management and habitat restoration must begin now in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Soil health protection and restoration is our last best chance to pass on a livable planet to the next generation. The first step for the legislature is to define healthy soil and enshrine the healthy soil principles into statutory language. This would establish true north for all farmers, agencies and advocates.
Vermonters can lead the way.
HOW TO PAY FOR PES?
All farmers and forest land managers who are willing to adopt SHMS should be offered a base income. This would be a simplified way of compensating for ecological services. It would rely on mean averages for measurement on comparable pilot operations. It would ensure that small farmers don’t get left behind by carbon trading schemes. Industrial agriculture in the US is already fully subsidized to the tune of $4.2 billion paid out in 2019 to farmers through Risk Management Assessment (RMA) program, aka crop insurance. There are currently 2 million farms in the US. The problem is the way RMAs get paid out: Corn $2.6 billion – 60% of annual RMA payments. Soy $1.1 billion – 25%. Corn and soy are grown chiefly for animal feed. 40% of corn goes to ethanol, 30% goes to livestock feed and high fructose corn syrup, the rest is sold to China so their growing middle class can eat more meat. Crop insurance measures from the farm’s previous history of yields. It rewards over-production. It discourages soil building practices that might have a negative impact on maximum yields. The majority of the $4.2 billion spent on crop insurance in 2019 was for delayed planting payments due to the extreme flooding events along the Missouri River. These kinds of events will only increase in duration and intensity.
Reforming crop insurance is critical to saving soil in the US. A good Whole Farm Insurance package — where the farm’s previous history of total revenue is the baseline for compensation — would be a first step. Support to farmers could include programs to create equity in the market, such as: price parity for local farm products, regional supply management of milk and other commodities, and whole-farm revenue insurance.
We cannot expect farmers with annual operating debt and long-term debt to be innovators and risk-takers. Dairy farmers invest enormous amounts of capital in equipment, infrastructure, inputs, and labor. They have seen profit margins flat-lined going on for almost on 50 years, while operating costs have sky-rocketed. To those who say we cannot afford to subsidize land managers just so they’ll do the right thing, consider that the annual budget for Pentagon for 2022 was $770 billion (that means the daily budget averaged out at $2 billion) while the average farm income is negative $1200. Doesn’t a resilient and healthy agriculture have a part to play in our national security future?
We protect what we love.
Stephen Leslie is a co-owner of Cedar Mountain Farm and Cobb Hill Cheese located at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT. Stephen is an author with Chelsea Green Publishing.