Young farmers and ranchers across the country are working to solve the climate crisis.
The thousands of young farmers and ranchers in our 45 chapters across the country began careers in agriculture for manifold reasons: to grow healthier food for their communities; to steward the land, water, and natural resources for future generations; to support their families; to honor their ancestors; or out of a love for working outdoors, with livestock, or with their hands. Many of these farmers tell us that despite the long hours, hard physical labor, and low pay, the fulfillment they feel from planting seeds and helping them grow to harvest, or selling the meat and eggs they raised at market, has not diminished since their very first season.
The call to farming is as diverse as the individuals in our coalition, but the future of every young farmer in our country is singularly challenged by the climate crisis.
This year, as thousands of Midwest farms recover from historic floods, farmers along the coasts struggle to rebuild from hurricanes and record-breaking heat waves, and producers throughout the West manage drought and the constant threat of wildfire, the impacts of the climate crisis on U.S. agriculture demand immediate action.
As we come together to address this global emergency, farmers must be centered in these critical conversations. Without rapid and coordinated response, the consequences will be dire: farmers and ranchers will be unable to produce the food, fiber, and fuel we all rely on.
From its inception in 2010, the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers) has brought farmers together to tackle the obstacles preventing us from building successful careers in agriculture. If we do not take coordinated action now to address the climate crisis, a livable future for beginning farmers and ranchers, and all of us, is gravely at risk.
The damaging effects of climate change on agriculture are escalating, and the time to act is now.
Of the 3,500 young farmer respondents to our 2017 National Young Farmer Survey, 66% reported experiencing unpredictable weather patterns, more severe storms, increased pest pressure, increased uncertainty in water supply, and/or increased rate of disease, which they attributed to climate change.
Resultant ecosystem disturbances, crop loss, reduction in cultivated acreage, compromised livestock health and production, and reduced nutritional content of staple crops threaten agricultural productivity and profitability, human health, and the U.S. economy as a whole.
2019 has been the wettest year and July 2019 the hottest month on record for the planet, and extreme weather events are only projected to increase in severity and frequency over the coming decades. These increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are amplifying economic risk for farmers in an industry with already thin margins.
“In the almost ten years that I’ve been farming, the entire growing season is shifting. It’s been so much wetter than people are used to. Rain events used to be gentle—long and drizzly—now we see big, windy downpours and much more violent rain and weather events. In 2016, the second half of my season was flooded out. We got 11 inches of rain overnight and the river rose 14 feet.”
–Hannah Breckbill, Humble Hands Harvest, Decorah, Iowa
Policymakers, advocates, corporate stakeholders, and all of us who support a brighter future for agriculture must work together to achieve effective climate solutions. Farmers and farm workers don’t just need a seat at the table in these discussions—we need comprehensive climate policy that recognizes the people who are putting climate solutions into action on the millions of acres they steward across the country. Farmers stand witness to climate patterns and disruptions and can share unique and valuable insight into the impacts climate change is having on food production, ecology, and rural communities. In short, we need climate policy that acknowledges the exceptional climate leadership capability of our young farmers.
An unpredictable climate future, coupled with the existing high barriers to entry for beginning farmers—including burdensome student loan debt, land access challenges, limited capital, unaffordable health insurance, and lack of skilled labor—will further deter talented young people from launching careers in agriculture unless we take action now.
Climate and Land Access
The U.S. lost nearly 70,000 farms and over 14 million acres of farmland between 2012 and 2017 (USDA, 2017 Census of Agriculture). Finding access to high-quality, affordable farmland is the top challenge for young farmers across the country, and our work to increase affordable and secure land tenure for young farmers is made all the more urgent by the climate crisis.
Increasing the number of young farmers on the land is our best hope for breaking the cycle of farmland loss and unlocking the powerful climate-fighting potential of U.S. soils.
Land use and climate change interact in a series of direct and deleterious cycles. The accelerating trend of development and farmland loss, occurring at a rate of 1.5 million acres per year, reduces the atmospheric carbon sequestration potential of U.S. agricultural soils. In addition to its capacity for carbon sequestration, land is also necessary for maintaining regional food production, food security, water retention, heat absorption, and air quality.
Research from the American Farmland Trust indicates that development occurs disproportionately on soils rated the highest for productivity, versatility, and resiliency—the land best-suited to intensively produce a variety of crops with least environmental impact now comprises less than 17% of the total land area in the continental United States. At the same time that farmland is being lost to development, the impacts of climate change are further degrading the soil on remaining, more marginal lands through processes of erosion, salinization, desertification, and disruption of water cycles.
Taking farmland out of agriculture denies us the opportunity to unlock the tremendous climate mitigation and adaptation potential of U.S. soils.
Improving soil health through incorporation of perennial crops, conservation tillage, rotational grazing, cover cropping, and boosting soil organic matter is a promising strategy for sequestering carbon, and is only possible if farmland stays in farming and farmers have the security they need to implement these practices.
Setting climate policy that supports the next generation of farmers and ranchers
Young farmers and ranchers can have a transformational impact on mitigating climate change through building soil organic matter, reducing synthetic inputs, using more efficient irrigation systems, and other regenerative practices. Farmers need policies and programs that provide financial incentives and make mitigation strategies desirable and practical. Producers who already use these practices should be rewarded for the environmental services they provide.
Above all, farmers need to participate in the research and development of climate policies, and programs need to be adequately funded at the federal, state, and local level. Farmer participation in the design of these programs paired with adequate funding is the only way to ensure that they will work in practice.
In a series of conversations with farmers, climate experts, agricultural researchers, and policy analysts conducted over the past five months, stakeholders called for specific actions to address the crisis, including:
- Additional funding and capacity for public agriculture and climate research;
- Reforming and increasing funding for existing federal and state conservation programs;
- Expanding extension services and technical assistance to producers on sequestering carbon and adapting to the changing climate;
- Expanding platforms for climate knowledge sharing through climate hubs, extension programs, and land-grant universities;
- Improving and increasing outreach for existing federal and state programs, especially to farmers of color, women, and beginning farmers; and
- Creating green payments to farmers and ranchers for ecosystem services.
As momentum builds for new climate policies and programs in Washington and at the state level, we urge policymakers to pass legislation that includes support for climate adaptation and mitigation in the agricultural sector. Farmers and ranchers should be centered in these policy discussions and given the opportunity to actively shape the climate policies and programs that directly affect them.
Climate Change is a Social Justice Issue
The wealthiest nations and individuals contribute the vast majority of emissions driving climate change, and it is the most vulnerable communities that are least able to adapt due to limited resources, structural marginalization, and poverty. Crop loss, food shortages, distribution disruption, and eventual increases in food prices and access will impact communities of color and low-income communities first.
Many traditional and indigenous farming practices, such as cover cropping, crop rotation, intercropping, agroforestry, organic composting, and integrating crop-animal agriculture, have been “climate-smart” for thousands of years. Some indigenous, black, refugee, and immigrant farmers have voiced that elements of their cultural farming practices are now seen as important tools for mitigating climate change, yet they were not compensated for their knowledge and some were pressured to abandon these practices by farm advisors or indirectly through market pressure to produce higher yields (2019 California Young Farmers Report).
Climate change is largely the result of rampant exploitation of natural resources, which has run parallel to the exploitation of farmworker labor and farming communities throughout American history. This trend continues today through a system of unjust agricultural labor compensation and protections in the U.S. Climate change also poses many threats to farmer and farmworker health and labor productivity due to extreme heat exposure, poor air quality, and smoke inhalation and asthma due to increased wildfire activity. The urgency of the climate crisis should be addressed in parallel with the urgency to build equity across the food system. Climate solutions and policies should also revalue and include the concerns of historically underserved, disadvantaged, and exploited communities.
Young farmers are building stronger, climate-resilient businesses
While the latest IPCC report estimates that food production contributes 37% of total greenhouse gas emissions, there is a long list of time-tested farming and ranching practices that can stem climate change, and meet the three goals of climate-smart agriculture: adaptation, mitigation, and productivity. Though climate solutions differ across regions and on every scale of operation, each farm can take steps toward meeting these goals.
Our farmer leaders are already engaging in federal and state-level policy advocacy to fight for climate solutions across the country and using many climate-smart strategies on their farms and ranches. In our 2019 California Young Farmers Report, farmers reported implementing a variety of techniques to build resilience and sequester carbon:
During the 2019 legislative session, our farmer members and New Mexico staff joined over fifty partner organizations led by the NM Healthy Soils Working Group to pass the Healthy Soils Act (HB 204). This piece of legislation will help promote education and outreach about climate and environmental benefits of improving soil health, as well as statewide implementation of soil health practices such as cover cropping, composting, and low-till methods.
Graham Christensen, a Coalition member in Nebraska, converted his family’s fifth-generation corn and soybean operation to no-till. “We as farmers have such a great opportunity to be in a leading role in reducing emissions through good practices,” he said, “Trying to improve the productivity and quality of our soil is becoming a much heavier focus.”
Many young farmers across the country are employing climate-smart strategies not only out of a sense of environmental urgency, but because they make the most economic sense for their farm businesses. The increased consumer demand for sustainably grown products, savings on inputs and irrigation achievable with improved soil health, and profits attainable through integration of on-farm renewable energy production are only a few of the many opportunities for boosting farm income.
Investing in America’s young farmers is a direct and efficient way to protect the future of agriculture and our environment, to improve our country’s climate resilience, generate affordable renewable energy, and to help rural communities benefit from the value of carbon sequestration and other important ecosystem services.
We can’t achieve our goal of a bright and just future for U.S. agriculture without bold, immediate action on the climate crisis. Our farms and futures depend on it.
The National Young Farmers Coalition supports climate policy change at all levels of government. We are committed to helping our farmers access the programs they need to protect their farms and livelihoods, and to amplifying their voices in advocacy for policies that will protect the future of agriculture from climate change and its devastating impacts.
Read the climate policy recommendations we submitted to the USDA on April 29th, 2021.
We hope you will join us.
This statement was informed by stakeholder research conducted over several months with many farmers, partner organizations, researchers, and partners. Sincere thanks to:
California Climate and Agriculture Network (CALCAN), Marin Carbon Project, North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA), BSR, Frances Sawyer, Field To Market, Hannah Breckbill (Humble Hands Harvest, IA), Melissa Law (Bumbleroot Organic Farm, ME), Ben Tyler and Greta Zarro (Leatherstocking Chapter, Unadilla Community Farm, NY), Courtney Smith (Flora Bay Farm, IL), Nathan Moomaw (Moomaw Family Farms, OR), D. Rooney (Rock Steady Farm, NY), Citizens Climate Lobby, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), Frances Moore Lappé, Sue Van Hook, The Organic Center.