REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. - The first placard greeting farmers Aug. 1-3 to Farmfest — after patrons paid for a ticket, but before they walked through the corridors of green corn and soybeans — was a blue-green sign in capital letters advertising "MORE" funding for conservation through last fall's Inflation Reduction Act.
If attendees missed the message, there'd be others.
All across the annual August gathering of agricultural industry tub-thumpers in southwestern Minnesota, from speakers on stage to vendor banners, words like "sustainability" and "climate-smart" blanketed this latest Farmfest, a perhaps ironic turnabout for an industry that's long considered itself land stewards but nevertheless has borne the brunt of environmentalists' ire.
Now, however, behind a generational influx of federal dollars, the ag industry wants to change the narrative. And some advocates believe the farmer's ability to make a living and Earth's wellbeing might no longer be mutually exclusive.
In last fall's Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration and Congress passed nearly $20 billion for climate-smart agriculture programming. The Minnesota Legislature also has earmarked funding for earth-friendly farm practices, including developing "green ammonia" as a fertilizer for cropland.
Industry-wise, more than a dozen companies — from Cargill to Land O' Lakes — offer Minnesota farmers payments to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil. Last month, Pepsi and Walmart announced they'd pay farmers for improved soil health and water quality on 2 million acres of farmland.
These should help farmers prove what they've long believed, that they're not the problem — but the solution — for a climate crisis.
Taking care of the soil
On Tuesday at Farmfest, corn and soybean farmer Ken Lanoue stood carefully at bay in the mouth of a gigantic shed while the big fans spun. Onstage, politicians and industry experts jawed about sustainable farming. His face tanned from a summer's worth of outdoor work, Lanoue, who farms near Milroy, Minn., stared cagily ahead, before speaking directly.
"We got to take care of the soil," Lanoue said. "We don't want it to wash away."
Some farmers say they have a chip on their shoulders about what they feel is unfair criticism when it comes to their impact on the environment. Their cows do produce methane and their crops do grow where native prairies once flourished, but they also help feed people around the world.
Farmers feel they are the ones on the front lines, tending the soil and working to comply with eligibility for water certification while navigating potential financial ruin should their crops not make it to market.
"There's a deep stewardship amongst farmers and ranchers, and that [ethic] a lot of times gets lost in the halls of Congress and policy places in Washington, D.C.," said USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation Robert Bonnie, who discussed the administration's big bet on voluntary sustainable farming initiatives in his Kentucky drawl on the fest's first day. "So many in agriculture take on big debt to plant a crop, to buy equipment, to buy land. And so conservation has to pencil [out]."
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group noted in a recent report less than a quarter of USDA's spending on its largest conservation programs between 2017 and 2020 went to programs the agency deemed "climate-smart."
Moreover, a recent study from Stanford University found cover crops can reduce yields in the U.S. Corn Belt, indirectly inflating carbon-burning cultivation elsewhere in the globe to make up for a grain loss from U.S. exports.
At a summer press event held at Arden Hills-based Land O' Lakes' facilities outside River Falls, Wis., Brett Bruggeman, the dairy cooperative's chief operating officer, opined that farmers aren't given credit for the carbon sequestration practices they've long honed.
"The footprint in the U.S. on the row crop — corn — is as important as the rain forest footprint is in Brazil," Bruggeman said. "Now the difference is the rainforest footprint in Brazil is 12 months out of the year. Our footprint is four or five, six [months], depending. But we've got to tell that story better."
Taking care of the land
Many environmental advocates, however, counter the necessary climate resiliencies can't come through the U.S.'s current row-crop paradigm.
Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, pointed to a 2013 state report that estimated even if every farmer planted cover crops and practiced no-till, the drop in run-off would still fall short of the necessary depletion of nitrates in Minnesota's water.
"I don't think we help people understand the nature of the problem when we frame it as a question of individual responsibility or individual intent or desires," Clark said. "We need to be working to get systems that can be profitable for farmers and good for rural communities that have a far better environmental performance."
Beyond adopting regenerative practices, Clark said he calls for further development and marketing of new cropping systems, such as perennial grains like Kernza.
Lanoue illustrated the dilemma for farmers caught between doing right for the Earth and their bottom-line by pointing to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a federal initiative to pay farmers to take lands out of agriculture production and cover them in plants conducive to soil and water quality, as well as wildlife.
"But that opens a raw subject," said Lanoue, whose neighbor has acres enrolled in CRP. "Because our farm's next to the CRP, they get the wildlife."
He waved his hand, as a bird might hop a fence.
"And we get the pheasants coming to eat our corn."
Still, to walk the dirt path under a baking sun at Farmfest means to stroll in the shadow of colossal combines and sprayers, grab bottles of water from commodity groups and koozies from carbon sequestration pipelines, and — upon squinting — view the future of agriculture.
Outside the Minnesota Farmers Union tent, state Sen. Aric Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud and chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, stood in a T-shirt and jeans, laughing with colleagues. By day, he's a professor of rhetoric at College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, so he appreciated considering the association between "farming" and "environmentalism."
"The language of 'environmentalism' we associate with being political and not with practices," Putnam said. "If you think about people who care about the land and take care of the land and want it to be as healthy as possible, that's 100 percent [what they do]."
Inside the shed, talk on sustainable farming continued. Some farmers leaned in the back while others up in front reached for the microphone to ask the next question.