This article is a part of Climate Action at Penn State, a blog highlighting climate solutions, research, and other efforts at Penn State.
Throughout my career in ecosystem science, I have learned an important truth: Farmers are key players in determining our future climate. They have much at stake in a changing climate and real opportunities to affect drivers of climate change.
This summer I have been part of Charles White's research team in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences in the Department of Plant Sciences. Our work on Penn State’s research farm—as well as with farmers across Pennsylvania—is helping us understand which soil types are really good at storing carbon and which soil management and fertilization methods work best. Additionally, digital tools are being developed that can quickly show which fertilization and tillage methods will work the best under a specific farm’s conditions.
The fact is that carbon-rich, healthy soils hold water and nutrients better, and farmers can then spend less money and time on fertilizers and other inputs while growing as much—or even more food. It is a win-win situation when we can help make it a little easier for farmers to maintain a profitable farm that is also mitigating climate challenges.
Farmers control the potential for agriculture to store carbon on a huge scale, which happily coincides with other major advantages. As just one example, using leguminous cover crops in rotation with grain crops can reduce fertilizer-based emissions, soften the effects of drought, improve yields, and put carbon back into the soil in most rainfed systems around the world. But its implementation requires farmers learning how to successfully and profitably use cover crops within their own operation.
Location-based, climate-smart agriculture research, knowledge-exchange networks, and local-to-global policy improvements with clear incentives for agriculture managers will help transform the climate stewardship role of farmers.
In my role as a research fellow for Project Drawdown, I helped quantify the enormous power farmers hold in terms of returning carbon to the soil through plants. We model this potential in the Drawdown Solutions, including Conservation Agriculture, Regenerative Agriculture, Farmland Restoration, Improved Rice, and Nutrient Management.
We have seen some of these solutions being implemented in Pennsylvania, but it is not always climate that drives that decision. The solution Conservation Agriculture involves minimizing tillage and using crop rotation—for example alternating years of corn and soybean production. These are practices that many Pennsylvania farmers already use because it saves fuel and fertilizer, and often results in a yield boost. Regenerative Agriculture puts even more carbon back underground by annual crops through the additional benefit from cover cropping, or by following organic production standards, which avoids emissions associated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Again, Pennsylvania farmers are ahead of the curve as a leading state in terms of numbers of USDA Organic certified farms, which numbers more than 800.
The world needs farmers as enthusiastic partners in the transformations needed for addressing—and eventually reversing—global warming. We need research and outreach that engages farmers to be agents of transformation while providing both sustenance and a livelihood that entices rather than discourages future farmers because better farming means a better climate.