Agriculture in the spotlight

Feb 06, 2023

No matter the farming community's stance on climate change, there is no question that agriculture is now in the sights of those who believe the industry plays a significant role in climate change and that modifying on-farm behavior can have an impact.

As evidence of this, you need look no further than the massive amounts of money allocated to the cause via the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August 2022. The impact these dollars will have on farmers and agriculture is real and offers opportunity for those in the industry to advocate for agriculture and educate the public on the sustainable practices and stewardship already in place. 

“Despite the different opinions around climate change, one of the biggest things I think we can all agree on is the importance of increasing the production and economic resiliency of the practices we use,” says Aaron Smith, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA). “As Tennessee’s population grows, we must be willing to make changes to our operations to continue to produce the same, if not more, quantity with less resources to ensure the long-term success of agriculture in an environmentally sustainable way.”

In December, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced an additional $325 million investment for 71 projects under the second funding pool of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities effort, bringing the total investment from both funding pools to over $3.1 billion for 141 tentatively selected projects. Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities is working to expand markets for American producers who produce climate-smart commodities, leverage greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart production, and provide meaningful benefits to producers.

UTIA recently received a $30 million grant from the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities to help farmers across a nine-state region in the Eastern U.S. to adopt practices that are good for the environment. Project Lead Patrick Keyser, director for the Center for Native Grasslands Management and professor in the UT Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, says that UTIA’s partnership with farmers has the potential to unlock strategic insight into the future of agriculture.

“This grant from USDA is a great opportunity to contribute to improved management of our state’s and region’s grasslands, our pastures, and hayfields,” says Keyser. “Just as importantly, it provides a path forward that can link our family farms throughout the Mid-South to emerging agricultural carbon markets. To me, that adds up to healthier grasslands and more profitable farms.”

Grassland management is one of the most promising types of natural climate solutions. According to UTIA, grasslands are the single largest agricultural land use in the U.S., as well as agriculture’s largest and most effective carbon-storage system. Crops and pasture grasses pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.

The USDA grant will allow UTIA to test innovative grassland strategies and evaluate trade-offs for agricultural producers related to climate-smart farming, the results of which will be shared with farmers through aggressive outreach and education programs. Organizations such as USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, UT Extension, and Farm Bureau currently host grower meetings and workshops that educate farmers on the latest innovations in sustainable agriculture and give them a chance to discuss what is and is not working on their operations, as well as to share ideas.

Although concerns have been raised over the years as to the validity of climate change, one thing can be agreed upon — regenerative agricultural practices are good for both farmers’ business and the environment. Upon first glance, the concept of climate-smart farming may seem disruptive; however, many livestock and row cropping operations in Tennessee already engage in regenerative practices encouraged by the USDA.

Some of the most popular practices include:

• Cover crops — planting alternative crops such as legumes between rotation of income-producing crops helps to reduce erosion, improve soil fertility, and restore carbon and nitrogen to the soil.
• Zero tillage — eliminating tillage reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and increases moisture in the soil. Zero-tillage farming can also impact farmers’ bottom line by reducing input and labor costs associated with tilling a field.
• Crop rotation — planting different crops across a sequence of growing seasons lowers greenhouse gas emissions by drastically reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which further reduces water pollution caused by nitrogen.
• Agroforestry — integrating trees and shrubs into crop and livestock operations, such as on the edge of fields, offers the potential to sequester five to 10 times more carbon than land of the same size that is treeless.
• Dry manure management — managing manure in dry, aerobic conditions such as through composting reduces methane emissions and aids significantly in parasite control. Management-intensive grazing can also reduce the need for dry manure management.
• Buffer strips — planting rows of natural vegetation on the edges of fields helps prevent soil runoff such as fertilizer into nearby streams and ditches. This not only preserves nutrients in the soil, but also improves water quality. 

As stewards of the land, farmers play a special role in helping keep farmland viable for future generations by protecting their most important natural resources and reducing carbon emissions through improved management practices.

“Farmers carry a lot of responsibility, feeding the world while providing for our own families,” says Keith Fowler, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Zone 1 Director. “The land is our livelihood, and we have to be committed to taking care of it and preserving it for future generations.”

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