The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently issued a report that underscores the urgency to implement climate solutions and explains the gravity of the situation if action is delayed or limited. The urgency of climate change is not something that needs to be explained to Nebraska producers—they are at the forefront, seeing its impact every year.
But what struck me was that the main theme of the report was hopeful. While more needs to be done to tackle climate change, there are still hopeful paths to address emissions, and carbon capture is a key element of that strategy.
This message resonates with me in light of the investments the United States Department of Agriculture is making in voluntary conservation efforts on private and work land that can help build soil health, increase crop yields, sequester more carbon, and have a number of other environmental benefits to help meet those goals. In other words, conservation and production go hand in hand in the working area.
It is fitting that this report and these recommendations were issued a few weeks before Earth Day. Celebrated globally since 1970, it is a day when people reflect on the status of the environment and commit to work to improve it. An old t-shirt slogan was used to demand “Make Every Day Earth Day.” With more than two-thirds of the total land area of the United States privately owned, with 914 million acres on farms and ranches and 300 million acres in private forests, farmers, ranchers, and foresters make Earth Day every day through careful and deliberate management. from their work area. Their actions are designed to ensure maximum yields with minimum inputs while protecting the natural resources on which we all depend.
More recently, the Biden-Harris administration sought the help of farmers and ranchers in fighting climate change in a manner reflected in the IPCC report. Through leveraging existing and new, voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs administered by the Agricultural Services Agency, among other agencies, rural America not only has a seat at the table in fighting climate change through carbon capture, it is at the head of the table. . Implementing programs as diverse as the Conservation Reserve Program and incentivizing ground cover planting practices allow for maximum carbon capture, but carbon capture is not the only result. These programs, and many others, improve water quantity and quality; improve wildlife habitats; improve air quality; reduce erosion potential; and provide a more beautiful space to live in.
Last May, President Biden announced the America the Beautiful initiative, which includes a goal to conserve at least 30% of our land and waters by 2030. Much has been made of the word conservation operative. There are suggestions that there will be forced conservation or domains to be pursued soon to achieve this goal. In fact, last week at Lincoln a group from out of state came here to present an event designed to misrepresent the goals of the America the Beautiful Initiative and mislead you into thinking it’s a “land grab.” That’s not what the President’s climate executive order says or does. Put simply, this initiative will center on voluntary, locally led and locally driven efforts. As part of that, the USDA and other federal agencies will leverage existing programs and seek to increase funding and potentially build additional programs for private landowners to use to improve and expand their land management. This is not a top-down conservation approach, but a partnership in which program participation is voluntary, does not require conservation facilitation and is incentive-based. This initiative seeks to build locally-led conservation initiatives at scales starting as small as individual fields. It respects private land rights and engages with farmers and ranchers as partners seeking to improve their own operations while providing climate mitigation. While the goal is higher in terms of participation in these important programs, the role of the federal government as a partner, collaborator and investor in conservation hasn’t really changed at all.
This expanded investment in farmers and ranchers to help tackle the climate crisis through conservation is a great opportunity for hardworking men and women in rural America to continue to “make every day Earth Day.”
—John Berge is the state executive director of the Nebraska USDA Farm Service Agency.