About 20% of global emissions come from agriculture and land use. Yet agriculture can also be a vehicle for taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The Oregon Global Warming Commission has developed a proposal that calls for increasing carbon sequestration, some of which would come from agriculture. George Plaven, reporter for the Capitol Press, recently wrote about ways the state is hoping to use agriculture to help reach the state’s climate goals.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with agriculture and climate change. About 20% of global emissions come from agriculture and land use. But if people farm in certain ways, they can also take carbon out of the atmosphere. The Oregon Global Warming Commission has developed a proposal that calls for increasing carbon sequestration, some of which would come from agriculture. George Plaven, a reporter for the Capitol Press, recently wrote about ways the state is hoping to use agriculture to help reach its climate goals. He joins us now to talk about it. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
George Plaven: Thank you for having me, Dave.
Miller: What role could agricultural land play in combating climate change?
Plaven: So as you mentioned, where agriculture and forestry comes into this conversation is through soil carbon sequestration. So basically, when you have a plant that’s green and growing, it’s not only converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, but it’s also growing a root system underground. It effectively turns that farm or forest into a carbon sink while those plants are growing and healthy.
Miller: How significant could this be?
Plaven: According to the EPA, carbon sequestration reduced total US greenhouse gas emissions by 12% in 2019. And researchers now believe that that total could be more than doubled annually, by doing things such as restoring natural habitats and modifying farming and forestry practices to take advantage of soil carbon sequestration. One researcher in particular, Dr Ray Seidler, an environmental microbiologist and a former OSU professor based in Ashland, he says that if 25% of Oregon’s 16 million farmed acres adopted some practices to sequester carbon, it could actually remove up to six million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, which would be enough to offset all emissions from the state’s agriculture sector.
Miller: So what are the actual things that farmers or ranchers or timber land holders might do to make that happen? To make that a reality?
Plaven: So there are a number of things that farms and forests can do. On the farming side, you may see farms adopt no till farming. Instead of tilling their fields after harvest, they would instead leave all of that agricultural residue on the ground where it can be reabsorbed into the soil and sequester carbon that way. You may also see farmers adopt cover crops instead of leaving a field fallow. They may plant a different crop or native vegetation to further sequester carbon. It has other benefits as well, such as cutting back on erosion and also boosting soil organic matter, and allows the soil to retain more water as well.
On the forestry side, you may see things like certain forests being set aside as community forests, where harvest would be basically lifted and the trees would be left alone. So there are a number of things that are outlined all in the Global Warming Commission’s Working in Natural Lands Proposal
Miller: What exactly is the Oregon Global Warming Commission calling for right now?
Plaven: This goes back to the executive order that was signed by Governor Brown in 2020. In that executive order, they identify that they want the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 85% below those 1990 levels by 2050, to combat climate change. So the Natural and Working Lands Proposal from the Global Warming Commission, which came out recently, recommends that the state sequester an additional five million metric tons of carbon annually by 2030, and nine million metric tons by 2050, in order to meet those targets.
Miller: The biggest rule making going on right now in connection with Governor Brown’s executive order, she said to a bunch of state agencies “figure out ways to reduce carbon emissions,” but the biggest thing right now is being done by DEQ, which is putting in place a cap and trade program. But my understanding is that they did not include a working and agricultural lands piece in what they’re putting forward. Why not?
Plaven: DEQ, and the committee that was helping DEQ to develop that proposal, throughout the process had been discussing including carbon sequestration projects as one of the community climate investments that emitters could invest in. That ultimately was taken off the table. According to the agency, the intent of this particular program is to speed up the adoption of renewable fuels in Oregon, and also to reduce Oregonian’s dependency on fossil fuels. So the investments that they want to make in that program are going to reflect that goal, and they decided that carbon sequestration was not one of those that they wanted to include in that, much to the chagrin of some members who served on the committee.
Miller: So instead, some of those members and other proponents are hoping the state is going to use its Agricultural Heritage Program to take the lead here. What might this group do?
Plaven: So that was one thing that was identified in the Working and Natural Lands Proposal as a potential funding mechanism. One part of the Working and Natural Lands Proposal is to create what it calls a “Climate Smart Agriculture Program” that would basically do a number of things. It would provide funding for education. It would provide funding for research outreach to farmers, as well as some direct investments into projects. And so the commission has identified that it would like to have somewhere between $15 and $20 million from the legislature to get that program started.
And to do that, they’re considering funding the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program. This was a body that was created in 2017 by the legislature, but since then has essentially been an unfunded mandate. It was initially set up to preserve farmland and work on things such as passing farmland from one generation on to the next. But they’ve since identified that they may be in a position also to administer this Climate Smart Agriculture Program.
Miller: Even though that’s not what it was originally intended for. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in terms of state bureaucracies, some kind of change over when different priorities take hold.
What did you hear from industry groups like the Oregon Farm Bureau about this proposal?
Plaven: There are some concerns that I heard raised specifically from the Oregon Farm Bureau in the course of my reporting. I think one of the top line things that they wanted to emphasize is that whatever programs do come out remain voluntary and incentive based, rather than adding additional regulations onto farms and ranches, things that could potentially make farming and ranching more expensive for them, and also not necessarily fit within their farming profile. It’s important to remember in Oregon, we grow more than 200 different crops in this state and have a wide range of climates. Think from the coast out to eastern Oregon, where in some areas you might get less than 10″ of precipitation a year. This is not going to be a one size fits all approach. Things that work on one side of the state are not going to work on another side of the state.
So the Farm Bureau, and farmers as well, would like to see some of this money go into research that helps them to identify what the best practice might be in a given area. And another concern that did get raised as well is whether or not farmers who have already adopted some of these practices, such as no till, things that sequester carbon, whether they would be reimbursed retroactively for what they’ve already done, or if they would be basically excluded from the program, which they feel wouldn’t be fair to those growers who are already doing the work and put up the investment.
One other concern as well, a general concern that the state may be leaning too much on agriculture to meet the state’s climate goals. The state has already improved. This is a statistic from Oregon State: in agricultural efficiency, back in 1960, the state ranked 46th out of 50. It’s since improved to 15th. So the analogy that was used is the industry has already run a marathon, and it may be asked now to run another marathon on top of that.
Miller: What did you hear from individual farmers or ranchers who have already been putting some of these practices in place, in terms of their experiences?
Plaven: The farmers who have already adopted these practices really highlighted the benefits that they have seen in their individual operations, both from an economic and environmental standpoint. I did talk to one rancher, he’s out on the coast near Tillamook. He has about 100 acres, and he raises grass fed cows and hogs on that land. And he told me that, since adopting what he calls holistic management and rotational pasture grazing, that’s basically where you have, the animals graze on one part of the pasture and then rotate them out to another part, allowing the vegetation to recover as you go through the rotation. He said since he started doing that, his beef business has actually gone up 150%. His direct quote actually was “It’s in my economic interest to be thinking about soil carbon.” That’s what goes into the plants that then goes to the animals.
I also talked to a rancher out in eastern Oregon who also does rotational grazing, as well as no till on his wheat and barley crop. And he highlighted that there are certainly upfront costs to invest in new equipment, and no till drill is not cheap. But in the long run, he’s spending less money on diesel fuel. He’s out in the tractor less. He’s also using less chemical fertilizer, and he’s in one of those areas where the precipitation is less than 10″ annually, and the soil is using water more efficiently. There’s a statistic out that for every 1% of increased soil organic matter, including carbon that you put in soil, the land can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre. So that is certainly a big deal for folks that see little rainfall.
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