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Climate change: It doesn’t matter what one believes

By Staff | May 15, 2009

A Knierim-area farmer, who serves on a national ag research advisory committee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that it no longer matters whether a farmer believes is the cause for climate change.

“That train has left the station,” said Bill Horan, who’s been farming near Rockwell City for 34 years with his brother, Joe. He said the Obama Administration’s constituents believe it and the president promised to deliver on it. As a result, “there are people sitting in cubicles in Washington, D.C., writing policies that will affect farmers, while we’re out here saying, ‘I don’t believe in global warming.’

“Agriculture is behind the curve in these discussions, but the ag industry needs to be participating.

“If you are not at the table,” he explained, “you are on the menu.”

But the good news, Horan said, is that discussions about carbon sequestration could result in extra revenue for farmers who implement forms of conservation tillage and other sustainable, environmentally friendly land management practices.

Horan said the ag research committee on which he serves is designed to advise the USDA on where to spend research dollars on developing renew energy, including wind, solar and biofuels.

He noted that since Iowa is a world leader in wind-generated electric power, leads the nation in total ethanol production and is a leader in biodiesel production, then Iowa should get a significant chunk of the research funds.

Horan said the country has set aside between $8 million to $12 million for renewable energy research. “That is equivalent to the value of the U.S. soybean crop,” Horan said, “and would be significant to a state like Iowa.

“But there are a lot of industries who want that money and they’ve been involved longer than ag.”

Ag had been distracted over the passed two years, Horan noted, in working toward a new farm bill in 2008, that was a year overdue. While farmers were trying to get the bill through Congress, others were lining up behind the World Resources Institute’s “cap in trade policy discussions including Xcel Energy, Halliburton, Shell Oil, General Electric, Chevron, BP America Inc., American Petroleum Institute and American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Farm News that the various committees given jurisdiction over implementing cap in trade policies “should take seriously the positive role that agriculture plays and has played over a number of years in reducing greenhouse gases. Whether the committees and House and Senate leadership will bring them to the table has yet to be seen.”

New revenue for farmers?

How carbon sequestration can become an economic revenue maker for farmers is currently being debated in D.C. The Cap and Dividend Act of 2009 was introduced into the U.S. Senate in late April. Wording in the bill indicates that a farmer who implements no-till practices, for instance, would help to keep carbon locked in the soil profile and therefore could those carbon credits to the highest bidder, most likely electric utilities with coal-fired plants, and by oil refineries.

Iowa should get its fair share of the research money, Horan contends, “because agriculture is the cheapest way to destroy carbon and methane.

“And we have an ally in the rural electric cooperatives, because they will have to buy carbon credits for generating electricity.”

The Chicago Board of Trade already trades agricultural carbon as a commodity.

“Many farmers don’t believe that man is responsible for climate change,” Horan said, “but it doesn’t matter. That has passed.”

What farmers need to be focused on, he said, “is how will pending legislation affect us?”

Grassley added that a bill considered in the Senate last Congress capped farmers at a fairly low level. He pledged to work to allow as many offsets as possible for agriculture. “But as you know,” he cautioned, “there aren’t many farmers in Washington who understand the improvements that have already been made in this sector of our economy.”

Nevertheless, Grassley said that the House is having hearings right now and is expected to push a bill through fairly quickly. “Earlier, the Senate leadership was talking about getting a bill through by the end of summer,” he said, “They have backed off that timeline and the Democrat leadership has said publicly that they don’t have the votes to move a bill through the Senate at this point.”

An onerous job

Who will verify and how will carbon credits be awarded has yet to be finalized, Horan said, who admits that it will be an onerous process, but adds that this will create a new bank of high-tech jobs for young Iowans.

“Farmers are (carbon) emitters,” Horan added. “We use electricity, we generate methane, we till the soil and we sprayer nitrogen fertilizer on it.” But if carbon sequestration policy can be written favorably for ag, Horan said, it will encourage more farmers to switch to conservation land practices, such as no-till. “If we get paid for it, we’ll do it,” he said.

He encourages farmers to support ag organizations that are working for farmers in D.C. by becoming members. “We have to do some Googling and educate ourselves and talk to our Congressmen when they are home,” Horan said. The ag community in this country is very small and the few people who show up get to make the rules.”

In a letter dated May 7 and submitted to the house House Energy and Commerce Committee, the president of the National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, urged support for legislation that would enable America’s farmers and ranchers to be key actors in combating climate change.

“America’s agricultural producers can perform activities that provide significant contributions in the fight against climate change,” the letter reads, “including no-till planting, native rangeland management, seeding grass and methane capture …”

In moving forward with climate change legislation, Johnson said, “it is necessary to ensure that there is a mechanism to offset the increased costs associated with a cap and trade system.

“The draft legislation in its current form has taken the first step by not subjecting agriculture to an emissions cap, but the committee must also establish a robust and flexible agriculture offset program.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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