For far too long, prevailing conventional wisdom has been that environmentalists and farmers will always be at odds over the impact of government policies, oversight, and regulation. It’s time to change that. We need a strategy that supports our farmers as they deal with the negative effects of climate change and one that also supports the agricultural practices that will help address the severe, immediate climate crisis that we all face.
Maryland—and especially the Eastern Shore—is highly vulnerable to the current and future effects of climate change. When it comes to rising sea levels, our region has the dual misfortune of the threat of rising waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries as well as sinking land. Our farmers stand to lose the most if we fail to act on the threats of saltwater intrusion, coastal flooding, and severe weather events—but our vibrant agricultural community also stands to benefit the most when we think creatively about how to partner for success.
I come from a long line of family farmers, and agriculture runs deep in my DNA. It’s one of the reasons I’m running for Congress here in Maryland’s First District—our farmers need a true advocate and leader who is willing to stand up for them in Washington, and that’s something we haven’t had for the past decade.
My spouse and I own a small 34-acre organic farm in Kent County that is our forever home. We see ourselves as stewards and work to always be in right relationship to the land and its habitats and ecosystems. It is in the spirit of a farmer-conservationist that I sponsored a roundtable discussion which gathered local stakeholders ranging from farmers and environmentalists to academics, non-profit leaders, and industry entrepreneurs to discuss ideas for how agricultural policies can partner to help solve our climate crisis.
Out of that collaboration came a specific policy platform that I call “Agri-Climate Solutions for Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” which can be read in full on my campaign website. These ideas are just a few of many ways that our agricultural communities can be a part of our climate solutions and how farmers can benefit from these practices.
Creating a National Soil Health Initiative
Successful agricultural communities depend on the quality and health of the soil that is feeding their crops. As the effects of climate change are dramatically impacting soil conditions, we must get ahead of the curve on mitigating these challenges by supporting a robust and visionary plan to create a new project called the National Soil Health Initiative (NSHI) through the USDA that would address the problems of saltwater intrusion, reform key conservation programs, and leverage greater use of carbon farming which can boost soil health and store carbon in the soil, positively impact the climate crisis, and contribute to agricultural resilience. This project could begin as a pilot program for the Delmarva / Chesapeake Bay region to prove its benefits before rolling it out as a national program.
Farming Carbon: Soil-Based Sequestration
While certain agricultural practices can release net carbon emissions, others do the opposite by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Scientists estimate that each year, soils could sequester over a billion extra tons of carbon. However, we must support the implementation and continuation of carbon storing practices to achieve maximum soil carbon outcomes.
There is a growing carbon credit market providing an opportunity for farmers to get paid for mitigating the effects of climate change through soil-based carbon sequestration.
Large corporations who want to offset their carbon footprint are in the market to buy carbon credits. Farmers generate carbon credits they can sell in this marketplace when they go through the process of certifying and calculating the carbon they store in the soil through practices using cover crops, diversified crop rotation, use of natural inputs such as compost, conversion to perennial grasses and other conservation cover, reducing chemical inputs, and pastured rotational animal production, to name a few.
To address this potential, the NSHI will invest in research to test and identify optimal carbon storage practices and will facilitate the tracking and measurement of organic matter and soil carbon to help drive best practices and maximize participation in carbon markets. The program will assist with the transition to and continuation of practices which achieve optimal per-acre carbon storage.
Reforming Conservation Programs
The USDA has an alphabet soup of programs that collectively work to conserve land by compensating farmers and landowners who voluntarily engage in conservation practices. The NSHI will advance some key reforms to these programs by:
Increasing rental payments under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for projects tied to climate-conscious practices that focus on increasing organic matter, soil carbon, and soil health as well as better management of nutrient runoff into waterways. CRP will also add educational and technical assistance programs to inform landowners of available programs and assist with participation and enrollment;
Updating the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to give weighted priority to projects devoted to soil-boosting practices which provide optimal per-acre carbon storage outcomes;
Using the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to provide federal bonus payments to farmers enrolled in state cover crop programs, effectively leveraging additional state funds for this purpose and maximizing enrollment in existing state cover crop programs. CREP will also authorize incentive payments for rewarding best practices in measured outcomes for soil carbon storage;
Amending conservation programs to put an increased emphasis on helping farmers create individualized soil health plans, including plans for soil carbon storage;
and Amending conservation programs to allow farmers to receive rental payments for land that is no longer suitable for agriculture because of saltwater intrusion if they install some form of alternative and sustainable energy source on that marginal land.
Boosting Technical Assistance and Decreasing Administrative Burdens
USDA programs supporting soil health and soil carbon storage, education, and assistance are underfunded and oversubscribed. There is a significant need for more federal investment in technical assistance and support throughout all USDA programs to meet the growing demand. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and its Soil Conservation Districts is just one example of where we must invest in more technical assistance offerings to help farmers implement robust soil health plans that are envisioned under the NSHI. In addition to program expansion, the NSHI is dedicated to decreasing administrative burdens that can limit access and engagement in these programs.
Addressing Saltwater Intrusion
In addition to severe weather events, rising sea levels also pose a significant threat to our farming traditions as saltwater intrusion dramatically impacts growing conditions. As saltwater leaches from the Bay onto our fields and into our aquifers, the rising salinity level in the soil makes it challenging to grow an array of cash crops that have become staples for our region.
To address these challenges, the NSHI will invest in research to test and determine which cash crops are most capable of withstanding salty soils and periodic flooding; track salinity changes over time in groundwater wells and surface water; and map these areas as a way to highlight where it will be most cost-effective to implement adaptation measures such as planting salt-tolerant crops. The NSHI will also make changes to existing conservation programs to inform landowners of available programs and ease transition of impacted farmland to marsh fields that will protect biodiversity and improve carbon storage.
Crop Insurance: Keeping it Affordable and Rewarding Good Climate Practices
The Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) protects farmers from the impacts of unpredictable weather but as insurance claims increase because of severe weather events, farmers may be faced with higher premiums to keep the program solvent. The USDA projects that the severity of predicted climate change could cause FCIP costs to increase by up to 22 percent. We must ensure that farmers are not bearing the burden of these increased costs through higher premiums for their crop insurance. A better approach is to make fossil fuel companies pay for climate mitigation and devote a portion of that funding towards FCIP solvency.
In addition to keeping crop insurance premiums from rising, the USDA should reward farmers with lower FCIP premiums if they are using best practices to make crops more resilient against severe weather.
Farmers who increase organic matter and carbon in the soil can produce more climate resilient crops, which withstand the extreme and unpredictable swings between drought and heavy rains. These practices contribute to more resilient yields and reduced federal crop insurance claims; however, the USDA gives no consideration to whether a farmer deploys these practices when determining crop insurance premiums. By modernizing this program to give farmers credit for good climate practices through lowered FCIP premiums, the USDA would create an incentive that is good for the farmer as well as the land.
Transforming Poultry Litter Into Biofuel and Potting Soil
The Eastern Shore is home to some of the highest concentrations of broilers in the country with the poultry industry employing thousands of Marylanders in our region. For decades, excessive chicken litter was applied directly to agricultural fields, resulting in high nutrient levels in the Bay, algae blooms, and dead zones. How to properly manage excess poultry litter has been an ongoing challenge for our region, but an innovative public-private partnership may offer a sustainable solution to this problem.
Planet Found Energy Development is a Maryland-based company of scientists, farmers, and business leaders dedicated to developing manure management technologies that will safeguard the environment as well as the economic viability of our agricultural communities in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Planet Found has built a patent-pending system for treating poultry litter and converting it into renewable energy, potting soils, and fertilizers while eliminating liquid discharge. In the process, the majority of phosphorus introduced to the system is captured as a phosphorus-based fertilizer, removing it from the nutrient cycle in sensitive agricultural and ecological environments.
This project is currently being piloted on the Lower Shore in Pocomoke City. As innovations like this one come to market, there is an opportunity to use agricultural technology to solve some of the most stubborn environmental challenges created by certain farming practices. Reducing agricultural runoff into our waterways and lowering our phosphorus nutrient loads will dramatically improve the health of our Chesapeake Bay. Doing so by investing in and scaling up technologies that transform poultry litter into value-added products for commercial sale is a win-win-win.
This Agri-Climate plan envisions a world where Eastern Shore- and Maryland-based companies with next generation solutions to agricultural and environmental challenges benefit from strong public sector support and advocacy. The agricultural community is in many cases the most affected by the climate crisis, and farmers should be our priority partners in combating it.
Heather Mizeur is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District race in 2022. She previously served as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates representing the 20th district in Montgomery County. She now resides is Kent County with her spouse Deborah Mizeur.