Articles

    How we must get farming right to avert future crises

    John Piotti
    President
    American Farmland Trust

    Agriculture is like a double edged sword: on the one side it has been a lifeline for millions because of the ability of farmers to produce an abundance of food for the world; on the other side, the unsustainable practices that are often employed to grow our food harm the environment. But, The Chicago Farmers learned during the May 11, 2020, virtual meeting through a presentation by John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust (AFT), that all is not lost, that enough farmland farmed with the right practices can lead to true sustainability and a healthy planet. AFT is a Gold Level Sponsor of The Chicago Farmers

    “There are things that we need to change in farming. The world needs farms: ‘no farms, no food,’” said Piotti to Chicago Farmers members attending the May Zoom meeting. “AFT has worked for 40 years to bring agriculture and the environment together and it has been involved in some of the most critical issues affecting the planet, including climate change.”

    Piotti gave a brief history of U.S. farming since 1837, when John Deere invented the modern moldboard plow. “It changed everything,” said Piotti. “The prairie land was too tough and too thick to properly farm, but that changed with the Deere plow. But once we had this amazing technology, we plowed and plowed--and that over-plowing contributed to the 1930s dust bowl.”

    He went on to say that during the 1930s, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace advanced soil conservation as government policy; but then during the war years, the country’s focus was elsewhere. During the 1950s and 1960s, American farmers applied industrial models to agriculture and the “Global Green Revolution” was underway.

    “That Green Revolution kept millions from starving, but that accomplishment came with severe environmental consequences,” said Piotti. He then added that environmentalists became more active during the 1960s and 1970s in an effort to turn things around but they were often at odds with farmers.

    According to Piotti, AFT was founded in 1980 to bridge the divide between farmers and environmentalists. Piotti then pointed out how different things were in 1980 than today--how less than 10,000 acres of farmland has been protected, there was no recognition of agricultural easements in federal law, no federal funds for farmland protection, and minimal support for better farming practices.

    But AFT changed all that, Piotti pointed out, when it launched the “Conservation Agriculture Movement” by advancing the Farmland Protection Policy in 1981 and incorporating the Conservation Title into the 1985 Farm Bill. In years since, over 6.5 million acres of farmland have been permanently protected and better farming practices have been adopted on millions of additional acres.

    Yet sadly, agriculture is a major cause of the climate crisis now confronting the world, Piotti said, adding that 10 percent of our nation’s overall carbon emissions are from agriculture. But agriculture has the chance to reduce atmospheric carbon and put it back into the soil, Piotti noted.

    AFT is the only national agriculture group that takes a truly holistic approach, focusing on the land itself, the farming practices employed on the land, and the farmers and ranchers who steward that land. Piotti said that AFT encourages regenerative agriculture, which uses better farming practices that restore soil health. These practices:

    • reduce harmful run-off into streams
    • hold water during droughts
    • don’t require farmers to use as many inputs
    • capture atmospheric carbon in the soil (countering greenhouse gas emissions)


    And the best practices for increasing carbon in the soil?

    • cover crops
    • crop rotation
    • no till or low till
    • intensive rotational grazing
    • silvo-pasture (which allow livestock to graze in wooded settings)


    Piotti commented that farming is essential to both growing our food and providing essential environment services, including carbon capture. He shared that AFT’s research has shown that just by applying cover crops and reducing tillage, U.S. agriculture could sequester carbon equivalent to over 80 percent of its emissions--and that Ag could go further with more aggressive steps. “We could become a carbon sink, that is what agriculture needs to do to counter industry that will always emit carbon,” said Piotti.

    A major concern is that we are losing 2,000 acres of farmland every day--and we lose opportunity to combat climate change with every acre we lose. He said that one key question is whether we have enough farmland. “It is necessary to determine how much land we need not only to feed ourselves, but to provide essential environmental services including sequestering carbon,” Piotti said. “We don’t yet have that answer, but when the research is complete, I am convinced that it will show that long before we run out of the land that we need to feed us, we will run out of the land that we need to help heal the planet.”

    The aging farmer population is another concern, said Piotti; however, AFT is actively involved in helping people who want to farm. The organization helps would-be farmers find farmland and advises them on how to farm successfully.

    Piotti said that AFT recently created a Farmer Relief Fund to aid farmers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. AFT has now raised $1 million, which allowed it to allocate $1,000 checks to 1,000 farmers. “We had 5,200 applicants and with current funds can only support one out of five applicants. So we hope you will consider a gift to the Farmer Relief Fund,” said Piotti.

    Piotti said that in order to combat change, widespread adoption of regenerative practices is necessary as well as sufficient farmland and enough of the right farmers and ranchers. That’s a tall order.

    But there is reason for hope, he said. “We have the tools needed to protect the land and manage that land well, and we know how to support the next generation,” Piotti said. “We simply need to do this work at greater scale.”

    He also pointed out:

    • we are poised for changes in both policy and markets to compensate farmers for both growing food and providing environmental services
    • we are positioned to take on new research that will help assess exactly how much farmland we need—and in so doing, avoid a tipping point


    Piotti went on to say, “Perhaps the biggest reason for hope is that more and more people appreciate farming, farmers and the food they grow. This increased awareness of farming and environmental challenges is making a difference. Driven by public demand, federal policy is poised for major change with regenerative practices as the focus.”

    Piotti urged people to connect with AFT, visit its website (www.americanfarmlandtrust.org) and become a member. Piotti said, “We need more people engaged.”

    He added, “AFT is in the crises prevention business. As horrible as this pandemic is, it is a small problem compared to what will happen if we have a serious shortage of food or a planet that is environmentally unsound. Yet we can remove these threats if we act now to rebuild agriculture.  And we can do that with your help.”

    Written by Denise Faris, Chicago Farmers Editor