Sustainable Agriculture: Growing a Row of Climate Change

The complexity of climate change — difficult science, short-term action versus long-term implications, a confusing public debate — is neither difficult nor complex in the hands of a farmer. It is as simple as dirt, seeds, water, and sun.

At least that’s how it appears at Ben Burkett’s farm just north of the Louisiana border in Petal, Mississippi, nearly 300 acres of farm and timber that his family has owned and cultivated for five generations.


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Deep Roots: Ben Burkett, and his daughter, Darnella Burkett Winston, farm land homesteaded by their family in 1886.

Striding past a scraggly field of okra, green missile-like pods pointing to a bright blue October sky, Burkett stops at an acre of dry, lumpy dirt. This, he says, is the climate change field. Earlier in the fall, he had planted crimson clover and cereal rye, part of a climate change and agriculture research project in partnership with Auburn and Alcorn State Universities. Nothing sprouted, perhaps because it is too hot, he thinks.

A few days later, the continued hot weather and lack of rain will officially be called a drought. He’ll reseed this field, he says, and once the experiment is under way — growing grasses that sequester carbon — he’ll invite local farmers to have a look so they can integrate climate change practices into their farms. The idea, he said, is to provide insurance for their crops in the near-term and protect their land ownership in the long-run.

Farms are particularly prone to climate variability, changes in weather patterns that may include an increased potential for drought, floods, heat waves, and pest outbreaks, all of which can drive down farm production. Because farming contributes to climate change and is affected by it, agriculture offers rich opportunities to incorporate new practices that offset greenhouse gas contributions from local to national scales.

And because we all eat, the common disconnect between the science of climate change and practices to manage its impacts is greatly diminished when the results of climate research become the practical tools for farmers and ranchers.

High Interest … Low Understanding

At the annual Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) meeting in New Orleans this fall, a seminar on climate change and agriculture illustrated two points: the high level of interest in climate change and the low level of understanding of climate science and what can be done to adapt farms to changing climate. The CFSC annual conference drew more than 1,000 participants to workshops, seminars, and lectures focused on food access, food security, and food systems change, such as sustainable agriculture. CFSC is a nonprofit with more than 300 member organizations, several of which met to discuss climate change in relation to their communities.

Vicky Karhu, projects manager of the Mvskoke (pronounced mahs-coh key) Food Sovereignty Initiative, a nonprofit organization working with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, said that their tribal members want to understand climate change, but it is not easy to interpret complex science and understand how to adapt their farming practices accordingly. This fall, the Food Sovereignty group was awarded a $250,000 grant from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to establish programs through a food policy council with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the first food policy council established by tribal law in the U.S. Health care is a critical issue for many Indian tribes. For the Mvskoke, incorporating farming practices that take into account climate change is critical to safeguarding the health of their land and managing their crops in the context of a warming world.

Protecting their land — a precious investment — is the same issue for immigrant farmers in Hereford, Texas, said Lydia Villaneuva, executive director of CASA de Llano, whose grandparents migrated from Mexico to work as farm laborers. If climate change looked like a place, said Villanueva, it might be Hereford, Texas, population 15,000. Hereford is called the Cattle Capitol of the world with an estimated 3 million head of cattle. The confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) take a heavy toll on the environment, said Villanueva, from erosion and contaminated water to poor air quality and an increase in respiratory disease.

“To have their 5, 10, 15-acre farm, a large investment of money, disappear in 20 years because of erosion and drought is not acceptable,” Villanueva said.

Despite the environmental degradation, Hereford is home to many immigrant people who came here, like her grandparents, to earn a living as farm laborers or to work in feed lots, slaughter houses, and rendering plants. The median income in Hereford is $30,000 per year and more than 60 percent of the population is Latino and Hispanic. Often, Villanueva said, immigrants come from agrarian backgrounds and invest in land to farm and raise a family. CASA de Llano, a nonprofit, works with immigrant farmers to help them understand the principles of climate change and incorporate new ways to manage risks in a changing climate. Land, for these farmers, she said, is a long-term asset.

Farmland and Community Ties

Ben Burkett works hard to strengthen the roots that his grandfather put down when he earned 10 acres by homesteading in the late 1800s. Like many African American farmers in this area near the Mississippi Delta, the long history with his land is also the history of the community. He is the president of the Indian Springs Farmer’s Cooperative, part of the larger Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, which fortifies this multi-generational farm area and helps to preserve this predominantly black farming community.

Climate change, understandably, is not the immediate priority — it is earning enough to keep the land a farmer owns. The 2007 per capita personal income in Mississippi was $28,845, the lowest per capita income in the U.S. For black farmers, farming successfully is one of a long list of management priorities — the most important of which is to keep their land in their families and keep their farming communities strong.

Burkett says his interest in climate change parallels his goals for farming — to do more with less (less water, less chemicals, less cost) — which helps him get a better price for what he grows. If it saves money, he says, he wants to know how. This approach is true of how he farms, using as few pesticides and herbicides as possible, because it costs him less. Or, put another way, it earns him more.

If the climate change “crops” demonstrate the carbon dioxide-absorbing potential that researchers tell him it will, he plans not only to change his own farming practices, but also to demonstrate these methods for the members of the six-county farming cooperative. The idea is to keep this field untilled by rolling over the grasses and then planting seeds in the resulting till. The roots of crimson clover and cereal rye absorb carbon dioxide, pull it into the ground, storing it in the soil. The result is vegetation that creates rich aerated soil, helping to store water so crops will be more drought tolerant.

Burkett’s climate change acre is relevant for his own local farming community, but also for everyone who eats. Most people can recognize connections between disastrous weather, crop failure, and higher food prices. For farmers, the bottom line is weather. If the weather undermines their ability to grow crops, farmers are in financial trouble. If it’s climate change, the problems only worsen. One way to protect their investment, he said, is to diversify production methods that protect crops and their land, thereby providing some insurance against weather and climate change.

Energy Efficiency and Security

The solution to climate change is not complicated: Use less energy. That’s the message that Dena Hoff, a farmer from eastern Montana, delivered to the 16th UN Convention on Climate Change in Cancun as the North American representative for Via Campesina. This international farmers organization represents peasant, indigenous and landless farmers, nearly 150 farm groups in 69 countries. Climate change is an environmental, social justice, and ethical issue, she said. Hoff traveled to Mexico to counter what she describes as “the false solutions to climate change.”

Some corporations, she said, may view climate change as an opportunity to make more money through geoengineering and agrifuel production. This runs counter to Via Campesina’s position, that is, to conserve energy, promote biodiversity, save seeds, and use less fossil fuel. Hoff is also vice president for National Family Farm Coalition, a nonprofit representing U.S. farmers. Her own family is looking at ways to take their farm off the grid by investing in alternative energy sources and making their operations — both livestock and produce — more sustainable, such as building hoop houses, an inexpensive “greenhouse” that helps to extend the growing season without increasing their energy use.

“Small farms can feed the world,” she said, “and mitigate climate change. We need to use less energy, by using tractors less, saving our own seeds, doing more with less if we are actually going to save the planet.”

Author
Jackleen de La Harpe is a Portland, Oregon, independent researcher and writer.

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3 Responses to Sustainable Agriculture: Growing a Row of Climate Change

  1. Agribusiness and large scale farming continues to be the primary source of food in the United States and many other nations.

  2. Greg says:

    Agribusiness and large scale farming may be a primary source of food, but that’s not ordained by law or nature, yet. And it doesn’t necessarily conflict with the idea that small-scale farming may benefit farmers and their communities either. Although it might require restructuring of some people’s expectations.

  3. Lucille Gitto says:

    Great information :)