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Specialty crops and soil conservation


WIRED has recently posted an informative article on greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.

“Agriculture is a big source of emissions,” writes Matt Reynolds. “In the U.S., about 10 percent of greenhouse gases come from livestock or crops—and for a long time, agriculture has lagged behind other sectors when it comes to cutting its carbon footprint. Since 1990, total emissions from agriculture have risen by 7 percent, while emissions from sectors like electricity generation and buildings have declined.”

Headshot of Richard Smoley

The reason? “Cutting emissions from agriculture is really hard,” Reynolds continues.

A principal issue is making sure that “carbon stays in the ground rather than being released into the atmosphere.”

One problem has to do with cover crops, widely touted as a means of locking carbon into plants and soil instead of the atmosphere. Except that when the cover crops are harvested or left to decay, most of the carbon goes right back into the atmosphere. Some research indicates that fields with cover crops didn’t accumulate any more soil carbon than fields without them.

A far bigger issue, the article suggests, is nitrous oxide, which constitutes about half of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere when soil microbes break down nitrogen fertilizers. In short, the culprit is excess nitrogen fertilization, which also causes algal blooms when it enters waterways. The answer here would lie in more precise, and less wasteful, applications of nitrogen.

In light of these issues, it’s interesting to turn to soil conservation policy recommendations for the coming farm bill that were issued by Western Growers (WG) BB #:144734 in January.

“Climate change is here, and affects the economic sustainability of farming, just as the Dust Bowl did in the thirties,” says the WG report. “It is the role of the NRCS [National Resources Conservation Service] to help U.S. agriculture adapt to climate change—to ensure the economic sustainability of farming in the U.S. in a changing climate.”

The WG recommendations don’t say much or anything about greenhouse gas emissions. They focus on issues such as government cost sharing: climate-change risk practices “should be cost-shared at the maximum allowable rate to incentivize” producers.

Another major issue is adjusted gross income (AGI) limitations for program participation, which, WG claims, are shaped by commodity crop production and fail to consider the unique circumstances and conditions faced by specialty crop growers.

Another issue: “Producers find excessive paperwork a barrier to participation in NRCS programs.” Although recently “physical paper seems to have been reduced, the paperwork has been replaced by numerous electronic screens.”

Probably the most important point in the WG recommendations: “Conservation programs should remain voluntary, and climate change should not be used to mandate conservation production practices.”

Although the WG recommendations and Reynolds’ story don’t overlap that much, in one key respect they do: “The USDA scheme is stuck in an awkward place,” Reynolds writes. “It is supposed to reduce emissions but seeks to achieve that in a way that keeps farmers on board.”

In short, getting agriculture—including specialty crops—to go along with climate change provisions will work to the extent that it relies on incentives rather than penalties. Excessive work on paper (or computer screens) is a deterrent, although bureaucrats never seem to grasp this fact.

At this point, it is no longer a matter of persuading agriculture that climate change is real. It is a matter of enabling it to deal with the problem in ways that producers can live with.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 13 books.