By Bridget Washburn
Known as home to the Indy 500 car race and for its temperamental basketball coaches, Indiana also features expansive fields of grain crops, occasionally interrupted by a scattering of livestock. Extending north to the fringes of South Bend and Fort Wayne, and south to more populous Evansville, 80 percent of the Hoosier State’s land, nearly 15 million acres are working farms, forests, and woodlands that support an estimated 94,000 jobs. Like other states in the US “breadbasket”, corn, soy, wheat, and hay comprise the bulk of Indiana’s crop exports.
A yearly visit to my family’s farmhouse in Mitchell, Indiana allows me time to appreciate the towering grain bins, combines, tractors, and horse-drawn Amish buggies. My late uncle farmed over 7,500 acres of corn, soy, and wheat; working the southern Indiana fields far past midnight to complete the fall harvest. Far from a textbook “environmentalist”, he knew the characteristics of over fifty farms’ soils, testing them to determine the best application of fertilizers. He participated in USDA trials, including a program where he planted several hundred acres of radishes, which persistently showed up over the next decade, and another time-consuming one to eradicate the USDA’s trial crop. And, he routinely planted cover crops – to fix nitrogen in the soil and reduce erosion – decades before climate champions promoted the practice. He was ahead of his time as only 5% of farmers recently surveyed by Purdue University/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer reported planting cover crops to capture carbon.
Across the nation, family farmers – and the agricultural industry in general – struggle to remain resilient to the growing impacts of climate change, which vary from year to year with no “quick fix” in sight. In 2022, Indiana farmers planted 5.25 million acres of corn, harvesting 5.13 million acres, and losing roughly 120,000 acres to drought, pests, hailstorms, flooding, fungus and pests, and other severe weather. In 2022 climate-related disasters resulted in roughly $21.4 billion in crop and rangeland losses. Bloomberg reported that “a poor US harvest will likely exacerbate the food inflation that’s already been gripping the world. War, drought and the overall impacts of climate change have dwindled global grain stockpiles.” A new NASA study published in, Nature Food, stated that wheat production may increase by 2023, but global corn yields are projected to decline 24% due to extreme heat, shifts in rainfall patterns, and elevated surface carbon dioxide concentrations.
Agricultural production can harmful carbon source or an important and beneficial carbon sink, depending on how it’s practiced, So let’s examine some of the factors farmers face in their business model that influence how they operate.
Organic versus Conventional produce. Consumers often hold a narrow view of farms and agricultural products, relying on “organic” or “conventional” labeling to determine whether products and producers are “good” or “bad”. Items lacking a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic label raise concerns about pesticide and fertilizer use, while organics are sometimes viewed as unnecessary and overly expensive. Organic practices eliminate many chemicals of concern but required certifications that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If a field has been sprayed with any banned substance in the past, the producer must undergo a 3-year “transition period” before certification can occur, which can be financially difficult as the implementation of more expensive organic practices is not yet offset by higher sales prices of organic goods at the market. Add to that annual renewal fees, assessment on annual production or sales, and inspection fees, and going organics can be very costly and thus disincentivized. Of the millions of acres of US corn planted, only a quarter million bear organic certification, largely due to these costs.
Improving Livestock Feed and Operations – In June 2023, McKinsey and Co. found that “action in a handful of areas can allow food and agricultural systems to decarbonize on track with a 1.5-degree pathway”: meaning agriculture would have to reduce total emissions by 80 percent, or 14.4 metric gigatons of CO2 equivalents. The number one decarbonization measure, according to McKinsey, is increasing concentrate-to-forage ratios in livestock. Forage-based diets require more enteric fermentation, which produces more methane – a powerful greenhouse gas-than diets with higher concentration levels. By altering cattle feed and reducing meat consumption generally, we can make a substantial dent in carbon emissions. However, changing ranch operations is difficult and takes time.
Quantifying Ecosystem Benefits of Open Space -Restoring farmland to viable ecological reserves offers another key opportunity to sequester and hold carbon dioxide, which is gaining traction at the national level. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) recently announced it will invest $10 million in an initiative to quantify the climate benefits of its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts. This will position agriculture and forestry as leaders in addressing climate change by measuring and monitoring the soil carbon sequestration of various conservation practices over the life of CRP contracts. “CRP is a powerful tool for implementing voluntary, measurable conservation outcomes to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” said FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux. “Nearly 21 million acres currently enrolled in the program prevent the equivalent of more than 12 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Further quantifying program benefits will allow us to better target CRP to achieve continued climate wins. In Indiana, the CRP allowed Hoosier landowners to plant 73,416 trees in 2022 alone. Roughly 162,000 private landowners own approximately 77% of the timberland in Indiana, and on average, Indiana’s forests are growing in volume more than 1.8 times the amount being removed – a win for the climate. Fallow farm fields enrolled in the CRP are often restored to wetlands in the northern part of the state, which supports aquifer recharge and water quality.
Other actions include supporting on-farm decarbonization through the electrification of farm equipment, hydrogen power for on-farm machinery, and solar, wind, and/or geothermal power for buildings and grain bins. Even in Mitchell, solar has gained traction, and alongside the quiet highway bordering several family farms, fields of solar panels face up to the sun and power the local agricultural co-op. In fact, the Hoosier States is slated to be home to the largest solar farm in the nation, which will be built on leased farms and other land, sprawling over 13,000 acres. Dubbed the Mammoth Solar project, acres of land that once produced grain will instead harvest sunshine, providing much of the clean energy sustainable agriculture will require.
The World Bank reports that agricultural land covers half of all habitable land and is responsible for 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals – so it moving it towards carbon neutrality is key to mitigating climate global. From my summer in Indiana, I learned that we are making progress toward leveraging the carbon sequestration potential of our ag sector and reducing the environmental impacts of our practices, but more must be done to incentivize responsible practices.