Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
THE ROUND UP
Speaking at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last October, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue effectively wrote off our nation’s small farmers, paraphrasing Earl Butz’s infamous dictum: “In America,” Perdue said, “the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Perdue obviously hasn’t spent any time talking with the regenerative farmers we profile in our series “Farmers on the Front Lines of Climate Change.” If he had he might have been surprised by the resilience they are demonstrating operating under a Federal agriculture policy system, with a few exceptions, pretty much stacked against them. Certainly he would have been impressed by their resourcefulness as they navigate the increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events of the Anthropocene Age.
The farmers we spoke with called on policymakers and legislators at every level of government to acknowledge and justly compensate all farmers for the investments they need to make to deliver not only nutrient-rich food but a whole range of ecosystem services to a climate-stressed world.
They quickly turned the conversations beyond the climate crisis, inviting us to a more holistic reckoning with the roadblocks in the way of the transition we must make to a regenerative agriculture economy—including lack of access to affordable farmland (particularly for BIPOC farmers), the burden of student loans, the plight of farm workers, grant terms misaligned with the financial realities of newbie farmers, the need for better trained technical services providers, and so much more.
Here are highlights from those discussions.
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Matt Sheffer, Managing Director of Hudson Carbon, shared how this ambitious project is implementing and scientifically measuring the outcomes of a set of complementary regenerative agriculture practices at Stone House Farm in Hudson NY. Matt reported that Hudson Carbon’s e-carbon market, which will debut in September, is expected to address the deficiencies of current carbon markets that fail to recognize the full value of regenerative agriculture practices. Just as inspiring is Hudson Carbons’ vision for a bioregional agricultural economy where small farmers can afford to implement ever deeper regenerative practices through land and resource sharing, and by building tightly knit local supply and demand networks.
Larisa Jacobsen, co-director of Soul Fire Farm, explained how BIPOC farmers, steeped in a heritage of regenerative agricultural practices, “have a central and powerful role to play in addressing the current climate crisis." She called on policymakers and the general public to recognize the inextricable link between access to land for Black and Brown farmers, and the healing and resilient farming practices that are necessary to adapt to and mitigate climate change. She shared Soul Fire Farm’s statement to the New York State’s Joint Legislative Roundtable on Soil Health, detailing specific policies and funding resources that will give BIPOC farmers land access and the ability to make the investment in soil health, to pay their workers a living page, and to access technical assistance.
Sandy Gordon described how he transitioned ownership of his grass-fed beef farm to Josh Rockwood of West Acres Farm through the Hudson Valley Farm Finder Farmlink program. Looking back on a lifetime of farming, Sandy shared stories of how climate change challenged his farming practice over the years, as frost dates became more and more unpredictable and the ravages of extended periods of drought followed by severe storms wrecked havoc on the land. Today he continues to advocate for small farmers—offering creative ideas for bringing farmland within the financial reach of young farmers. Sandy also has a plan for utilizing underutilized assets for the greater good of the regional food system that we hope policymakers will take notice of.
Larry Tse, farm manager of Dig Acres located at the Chester Agricultural Center in Orange County’s Black Dirt country, talked about the challenges newly minted graduates of regional farmer training programs face in accessing land to apply the regenerative agricultural practices they have learned. “This is at the absolute core of the problem,” he told us: “people cannot afford to buy or lease land even when they have the knowledge and skills to farm sustainably.” He also noted—echoing other farmers with whom we spoke—that New York State’s farmer assistance grants need to be restructured to be more accessible to first-generation farmers. Although he praised the new NYS programs for promoting soil health, he asked for new programs to invest in technical service provider education. “You can have all the best tools, but you don't know how to swing the tools, then what's the point?” A young old soul, Larry said he would love to have more opportunities to connect with an older generation of farmers, including conventional ones. (Retired farmer Sandy Gordon expressed the same hope!)
Jenna Kincaid, reported on how Four Winds, the no-till farm she managed in Ulster County, is addressing climate change by building out tree lines, seed saving, on-site composing, and minimizing the use of petroleum-based machinery. “I think no-till, low-till, small-scale operations are able to adapt quickly because they are often super-diversified,” she noted, “and they have a lot of flexibility in terms of what they grow and when they grow.” Like all the farmers we spoke to Jenna is calling on policymakers to find more ways to help farmers transition degraded land through regenerative practices. Ideally this would be through direct payouts. To illustrate her point, she told us that she had recently purchased farmland that has long been overgrazed. “I’m not comfortable producing anything except cover crops for the next five years,” she said, “so we’ll have minimal income until the soil is ready. It would be great to have policies in place to offset this investment while the soil is being improved for farming over the long term.”
SFF BIPOC Farming Immersion Program participants standing in front of a high tunnel.
Bari Zeiger, President of the Greater Catskills Young Farmers Coalition and manager of Frost Valley YMCA Farm in Craryville, talked about how healthy soil is key to the climate resilience puzzle in its ability to handle drought, heavy rainfalls, and temperature fluctuations.
Like Larry, she reports that as farmers are rapidly making the connection between soil health, biological diversity, and climate resilience, technical service providers need to play catch-up. She calls for more farmer-led research grants and putting farmers front and center at the policymaking table: “Farmers are the ones with the boots on the ground. They understand the nuances and complexities of their challenges and they're best equipped to find those solutions to meet them.” Bari also believes farmers need to be monetarily compensated for the knowledge they impart to interns and to service providers. “Many farmers are incredible teachers,” she says. “They run apprenticeship programs, internship programs, farm-based learning opportunities and they are paying their apprentices and their interns.”
Elizabeth is a biologist with the USDA’s NRCS and owner of Making the Turn Farm. Answering the call we heard for better technical service provider training, she developed a training program for USDA staff to prepare them to help farmers improve the natural resources on their farms and to be more climate-change resilient.
In her work with farmers she focuses on climate resiliency rather than mitigation: “When I speak to farmers I don't want to put another burden, another expectation, on them. I want to empower them to protect their farm first."
Despite the challenges of the climate crisis, Elizabeth remains optimistic that farmers will succeed if given the support they need. “Farmers can improve their soil now to increase their resiliency, which will improve their productivity and reduce greenhouse gases, “she says. “It’s a win-win solution. It will mean abandoning business as usual but I think we are all ready for that.”