Climate Friendly Farming Policy Considerations for the Inland Pacific Northwest

By Doug Finkelnburg, Area Extension Educator – Dryland Cropping Systems, University of Idaho Extension

Quote: America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”  - President Biden’s Executive Order on  Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad
https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/

Efforts are underway at the federal level to combat climate change on the agriculture front. USDA has just finished a “listening period” to help develop and refine actions they may implement to accomplish this. Just what those actions may be and what effects they may have on the day-to-day operation of Pacific Northwest farmers is an understandable cause of some uncertainty and trepidation.

Farmer and NRCS soil conservationist looking at a shovelful of soil in a harvested wheat field with standing residue
No-till farming near The Dalles, Oregon, a practice to improve soil health to increase water infiltration and retention, that also sequesters carbon. Photo: NRCS/Ron Nichols under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Recently I spoke with a farmers’ coop manager who asked what programs or policies are likely to be put into effect and whether long time direct-seeders would stand to benefit or lose out. Our discussion (summarized and edited) highlights a few important questions: “If the greatest gains in carbon sequestration are going to be made in the most organic matter-depleted fields, how will those who have already stockpiled organic mater to near a maximum point benefit?” and, “Will there need to be a system of soil carbon auditing or compliance enforcement?” and the inevitable big one, “Inland Pacific Northwest agriculture is very different from Midwest agriculture, will these new policies unfairly benefit some farmers over others?”

Since no policy has been written and put into effect to date, we can only speculate about answers to these questions, but I think they serve as good points of discussion when considering what climate-friendly government policy may look like, and how it may affect rainfed wheat producers in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and eastern Oregon.

Conventional farming depletes soil organic matter. Plowing to control weeds, promote crop residue breakdown, and prepare seed beds for planting exposes stable soil organic carbon to oxygen and bacteria that use it as a food source. Even with the additional carbon from the previous crop, over time, net carbon is lost from the soil as CO2 gas, which is why our rainfed soils under conventional production have considerably less organic matter than comparative undisturbed native soils. Direct-seeding, which disturbs soils minimally, promotes the accumulation of stable organic matter. Organic matter contents of soils farmed over decades with direct-seeding are more closely aligned with native undisturbed soils. While direct-seeding, or no-till/minimal-tillage, practices have been used in the inland Pacific Northwest since the seventies, it wasn’t until the nineties that wider adoption took place. Now, many fields have been direct-seeded for multiple decades and have achieved not only the original goal, the dramatic reduction of soil erosion, but also have built back up soil organic matter levels to nearer original levels.

If ag-climate incentives prioritize additional net carbon sequestration moving forward above practices that promote sustainable soil-carbon management, no-till or direct-seed farmers in the Pacific Northwest may indeed “lose out.” Here is a hypothetical scenario:  A typical conventionally tilled operation with soils at 2% soil organic matter converts to direct-seeding to take advantage of new climate friendly farming incentives. They have a lot more capacity for accumulating carbon than their long-term direct-seeding neighbor, whose soils have recovered to 5-6% organic matter. Therefore, they stand to gain more (dollars) from carbon sequestration incentives than their early-adopting neighbor. This scenario may not cause enough hard feelings to drive a no-tiller to pull out the plow out of spite, but it is hardly a recipe for building a harmonious approach to combating climate change.

Our conventional operation may also be better positioned to participate in carbon offset trading. This leads to the second question, “Will there need to be a system of soil carbon auditing or compliance enforcement?” Logically, the answer is yes. Practically, it is still the wild west when it comes to standardized measurements or projected rates of carbon sequestration by agricultural practice. This is largely due to the complexity of the carbon cycle, where spatially variable soil characteristics (dependent on topographic position, slope and aspect), local environmental factors (precipitation, temperature and humidity) and management practices (such as our conventional vs direct-seeding neighbors and their chosen crop rotations) intersect.

“Inland Pacific Northwest agriculture is very different from Midwest agriculture, will these new policies unfairly benefit some farmers over others?” Leaving aside the debate over whether corn-ethanol subsidization is a net benefit or not from an environmental health and climate change standpoint, let’s talk cover crops. Much of the Midwest receives heat units and precipitation which allow for inserting cover crops without interrupting the cash-crop planting cycle. For much of the rainfed acres in the Pacific Northwest, we do not. We can plant covers after fall harvest, but the amount of above and below ground vegetative growth when it comes time to plant spring cash crops—and therefore the cover crop’s contribution to the soil’s carbon sequestration potential—is minimal in comparison to other parts of the country (Figures 1). There are still benefits to having living roots growing when and where they would not typically grow, but the scale of that benefit is limited by our environment. Given that every farm is a potential carbon sink, policy makers need to carefully consider how to avoid disincentivizing participation in these new programs.  I argue the perception of inequity is a powerful disincentive.

Left photo showing lots of bare soil with small green plants growing among crop residue. Right, fully covered plant vegetation with tractor and equipment in background
Figure 1. Fall planted cover crop on May 11, 2016 near Nezperce, Idaho (left). Fall planted cover crop in Iowa being terminated on June 1, 2016 (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/newsroom/features/?cid=nrcseprd1340625) (right). Photos: Doug Finkelnburg, UI Extension, and Jason Johnson, NRCS Iowa.

In summary, climate friendly agricultural policy may take many shapes. Likely, there will be a multi-faceted approach involving free-market incentives and supportive government programs. I appreciate those who argue atmospheric carbon removal needs to be done as quickly as possible. However, agricultural systems, be they grazed, farmed, or forested are dynamic and require dynamic and flexible policy. Once carbon is sequestered, it must be managed to keep it in the ground. Sequestration is critical, but only the first step in the process of atmospheric carbon reduction. If sustainable soil-carbon management practices are incentivized, all who participate in reducing erosion, maximizing residue retention, and building biologically dynamic, healthy ag-soils would benefit. To me, this seems a more equitable approach which moves everyone toward the goal of having resilient, sustainable agricultural systems that contribute to carbon sequestration across the country.