There is an odd irony in the fact that most of the impetus for climate change legislation is coming from office bound urban elites while those who have the most experience of its effects are in rural areas and work outdoors. Who is that? Farmers for one; I was a farmer for 25 years, and I worked outdoors year round in the mountains of southern Vermont. To me climate change is a reality.
And I'm not the only one. A Bloomberg report this past Thursday focused on Nebraska farmer Rex Woolen, who has no doubts about it, and who sold an estimated 470 tons of carbon credits (most farm credits are "aggregated," or packaged together to make units large enough for markets). For example the North Dakota Farmers Union packaged the carbon credits of 3,900 of its members and got about $9 million in payments to be split among them.
There is a great quote attributed to Woollen about his fellow farmers' first take on the idea: "They called me a tree hugger. Then I showed them my first check."
Oh, how well I know this feeling! When I left farming I went to work for the Rodale Institute, where I help develop a farm economic modeling package that used USDA economic data to compare the returns of conventional and organic farming. The whole of the project was to get cash numbers in the hands of farmers who were considering a transtion. Otherwise, they would have a hard time convincing lenders and land owners to back the shift.
This is not unlike the shift to ethanol (don't get me started!) and the ethanol point is made, predictably, in this Bloomberg piece by Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman. But the fact is that we need to find other ways to compensate farmers than have been tried in the past, and all the evidence points to a conclusion that agriculture can have a positive or a negative effect on carbon emissions.
The two hangups? Quantifying the carbon balance for different practices, and determining a price that is profitable for the farmer. Fortunately it looks like the House Agriculture Committee is thinking seriously about this (finally) both in terms of funding the necessary research (a bunch is already under way, but we need more) and soliciting broad opinion about market positioning.
And there is the political reality consider. If you want farm state legislators to support climate change laws, then you need to not only make a case for why it should be done, but how it will benefit their consituents is a dollars and sense fashion. I'm all for it.