Happy Cows and Tighty-Whitey Tests: Welcome to the Future of Farming
Farmers in Iowa are restoring the land and climate by combining age-old practices with new knowledge. Earthjustice is devising a strategy to accelerate this shift to climate-friendly agriculture.
Farmer and rancher Seth Watkins is a numbers guy—but with dirt under his fingernails and a heart as golden as the corn cobs on his 3,200-acre farm in southwest Iowa. In 1998, after years of using conventional farming practices that prioritized maximizing production over everything else, he had a simple yet profound revelation: Cows should eat grass and calves should drink milk. The best way to ensure both, he figured, was to rethink the balance sheet and work with Mother Nature.
Over the next two decades, Watkins transformed his farm into an ecological powerhouse that restores the land, protects local wildlife and sequesters carbon—all while turning a profit. His balance sheet now includes environmental costs, like air and water pollution, depleted topsoil and increased greenhouse gas emissions, which industrialized farming has largely left off the books since it first took hold after World War II.
Today, those costs are hitting farmers and their downstream neighbors hard, especially in Corn Belt states like Iowa. Watkins and other conservation-minded folks are bucking the trend. They’re sowing the seeds that could restore local farming communities. These efforts, combined with legal and policy initiatives pushed by Earthjustice and allies, could help pull us all away from the brink of a climate catastrophe.
When it comes to farming in the U.S., Iowa rules the roost: It’s the No. 1 producer of America’s corn, soybeans, pork, eggs—and ethanol. But you won’t find many idyllic red barns with chickens pecking bugs in the grass and cows mooing among clover. Instead, Iowa has embraced industrial agriculture, which favors miles-long monocultures, copious chemical usage and warehouses for animals.
Iowa’s place at the top of the food chain also puts it on the frontlines of industrial farming’s environmental impact. The state suffers from dangerously high nitrate levels in the water, caused in part by farmers lavishly applying nitrogen to the soil. Elevated levels in drinking water can cause birth defects, cancers and thyroid problems. They also contribute to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Iowa’s “black gold,” rich soil built up by thousands of years of natural processes, is also vanishing. Across the state, rivers and streams run muddy brown due to soil erosion caused by tilling and nutrient depleted soil. A 2007 study found that 10 million acres of Iowa farmland had eroded at unsustainable rates. Depleted topsoil compels farmers to apply ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer to their lands, raising costs and further adding to the nitrate problem.
Even though many farmers don’t use the words “climate change,” they notice more and harsher droughts, floods and other extreme weather. In recent years, farmers have struggled with both droughts and then heavier rains that inundated Iowa’s depleted soil and sent nutrients and pollution down the river. One study has found that, without modified farm policies and technological improvements, climate-induced weather changes could set agriculture productivity levels in 2050 back 70 years. Combined with findings that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could decrease key nutrients in food crops, and suddenly the nation’s breadbasket is left only with bread crumbs in the near future.
At the same time, industrial farming practices are worsening climate change. The excess nitrogen fertilizer that pollutes waters also converts to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In addition, cattle burps and their manure emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
The EPA estimates that raising livestock and producing crops contribute 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, though some put that number as high as 25 percent if the entire food system—including fertilizer manufacturing, on-farm energy, and food processing and waste—is factored in.
Agriculture’s impact on the environment is enormous. But so is the potential for solutions, says attorney Peter Lehner, who leads Earthjustice’s sustainable food and farming program. Taking the long view, Lehner sees the chance to reduce—or even eliminate—agriculture’s climate harms, much as the country has begun to do with the power sector.
“Agriculture’s impact on the environment is enormous. But so is the potential for solutions.”
Lehner’s vision is informed by his management of a sustainable (and certified carbon neutral) coffee farm in Costa Rica and his extensive legal experience. As the former chief of the New York State Attorney General’s environmental protection bureau, Lehner used the Clean Air Act to compel coal-fired power plants to stop fouling the air with smog and soot. After those cases helped lead to setting national smog and soot standards for coal plants, he then brought one of two landmark Supreme Court cases that established the government’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide from coal plants.
Lehner says the biggest challenge to making farms more sustainable is getting laws and policies in place that incentivize farmers to consider agriculture’s full environmental impact, including its climate impact. That’s important now more than ever, given the Trump administration’s refusal to combat climate change. Even if there are extremely ambitious reductions in climate pollution from transportation and energy, expected increases in both population and in climate-intensive industrial meat consumption puts the world on the path to the worst-case-scenario mapped by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014.
The good news is that some of the best solutions for farming sustainably are also the simplest. These include well-demonstrated practices such as planting cover crops to protect the soil, rotating crops regularly to naturally reduce pests and reducing runoff by planting vegetation around streams. Many of these solutions actually make farms more resilient to climate change impacts like flooding, drought and heat waves.
Watkins’ first foray into sustainable farming started with his decision to breed his cows in the summer so that they would give birth in the spring, rather than in Iowa’s harsh winters. This put less stress on the animals and cut down on the time Watkins spent warming up the calves, which produced healthier calves and left more time for him to work on other tasks.
Watkins then began seeding clover into his fescue grass pastures. The clover helps keep the cows healthy by diluting some of their usual diet of fescue, a type of grass that when raised in a monoculture can cause low-grade fevers when consumed in the summer. Clover also produces fertilizer naturally, which meant he could use less nitrogen, reducing both his costs and his climate footprint. And since clover is easily killed off by herbicides, Watkins began spraying weed killer only as needed, again reducing his costs and the amount of chemical pollution running off the farm. That in turn led to a resurgence in native birds and grasses, which led to a resurgence in deer, which then led Watkins to open up a hunting business that now brings in side income.
“One step would make something else better, and that’d make something else better,” says Watkins.
Over the past few years, Watkins has transformed his farm into a menagerie of coyotes, rabbits, doves and deer. They’re surrounded by row crops and restored ponds and prairie grasslands full of delicate red and yellow flowers, purple clover and about 600 happy cows lounging under oak trees that both provide shade and sequester carbon. As he bumps along on his red, dusty four-wheeler, butterflies float along like ballerinas while grasshoppers dart between tall blades of grass. Watkins pulls up to check an audio recorder that has so far tracked the sounds of about 78 different bird species and even the endangered Indiana bat.
“You just give Mother Nature a chance, and she will respond kindly,” he says with a satisfied smile.
Watkins isn’t alone in his efforts. About 30 minutes west of his place is Chris Teachout’s farm. Teachout is a fifth-generation farmer who, among other things, uses cover crops like wheat and rye during the fall and winter to protect and replenish soil during the corn-soy off-season.
“This goes beyond sustainability,” says Teachout. “Like with your health, you don’t just want to sustain it, you want to make it better.”
Teachout eagerly holds out a handful of soil. It’s spongy like cottage cheese, thanks to a biotic glue formed by the cover crops’ roots interacting with the soil’s bacteria, fungi and earthworms. He says it far outperforms the dry, crumbly stuff typically found on a conventional farm, absorbing water and resisting erosion.
To prove it, Teachout performs the “soiled underwear test”—burying one pair of men’s white underwear in a conventional field and one in a cover crop field to see how they fare. After digging them up months later, the underwear in the conventional field was largely intact, but muddy brown in color; the other pair had degraded significantly but remained mostly white. Teachout explains that the conventional soil’s lack of microbes can’t break down the underwear, and its lack of biotic glue means the water easily picks up dirt and moves it around. That’s called erosion. The cover crop soil, in comparison, is full of microbes that simultaneously break down the cotton underwear while keeping the soil’s nutrients in place, so nothing is lost or leaked.
“This goes beyond sustainability. Like with your health, you don’t just want to sustain it, you want to make it better.”
Research at Iowa State University backs up the findings from Teachout’s tighty-whitey test. There, agronomist Matt Liebman and others have found that using a three- or four-rotation cover cropping system, coupled with livestock integration, can reduce fertilizer and herbicide usage, improve soil quality and increase crop productivity—all with profits equal to those of a conventional corn-soybean rotation. In addition, cover crops sequester carbon, as do trees and other plants that can be integrated into a diversified farm. Studies have found that so-called “carbon farming,” if implemented widely, could help turn farming from a carbon emitter to a carbon sink.
Watkins, Teachout and Liebman all emphasize that their approaches aren’t that novel. Many go back centuries, taking best practices from both sides of the agriculture spectrum and combining them to benefit the farmer and the environment. Yet they aren’t widely implemented across Iowa. Of the 23 million acres of corn and soy in Iowa, only about 600,000 acres are planted with cover crops in the winter. The reason for the inertia goes far beyond the field.
“The biggest obstacle is the mind-set,” says Teachout, pointing to his temples. He says that farmers are conservative by nature, and they often operate on tight margins, so many are reluctant to try new things, especially when the current infrastructure supports the status quo. Farmers also tend to assume that every spare acre should be farmed. That’s even when they’re shown data that some land could be more profitable if set aside for conservation, making it eligible for federal subsidies that promote environmental restoration.
That said, Watkins has noticed that seeing positive results in the field has helped change minds, albeit slowly. “My neighbors [seem to] feel, if Seth tries it and he fails, then we won’t do it,” says Watkins. “But if it works, then we’ll ask him about it.”
Earthjustice’s Lehner believes that strengthened laws and innovative policies can further nudge farmers toward sustainable measures. Current laws reward industrial farming and let agricultural polluters off the hook. So Lehner and his team are focused on reshaping the legal landscape built around the farm bill and federal and state agency rules.That means working with coalitions to reform federal and state incentives and petitioning agencies to shift how they interpret broad mandates into specific rules.
Earthjustice is working with states to enact healthy soil laws that provide incentives to farmers whose management practices contribute to healthy soils and store greenhouse gases. We are also pushing agencies to incentivize farming practices known to increase soil carbon or reduce climate change emissions, such as methane from cows and nitrous oxides from excess fertilizers. Furthermore, we’re continuing our work to strengthen regulations of factory farms, particularly in New York and in North Carolina, to force livestock facilities to report and clean up their pollution. This both protects nearby communities who suffer from these facilities’ pollution and levels the playing field for conservation-minded farmers who don’t pollute their communities.
Though the agriculture industry is formidable, Lehner is confident that change is possible. He cites the recent transformation from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy as proof.
“When I started 30 years ago, nobody had really thought about disrupting the energy system,” says Lehner. “Now, it’s time to tackle the food system, too.”
MORE ON EARTHJUSTICE’S STRATEGY FOR A CLEAN FARMING FUTURE
- Incentivize farmers to fertilize less. About 50 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops leaks into our waterways or turns into a greenhouse gas. Earthjustice is petitioning agencies to replace policies that encourage overfertilization with ones that reward sustainable approaches, like rotating crops and planting vegetation along streams.
- Leave manure out to dry. If farmers follow the tradition of raising livestock alongside crops, manure can be left to dry in the fields, which emits less methane than the wet storage methods factory farms often use. Even concentrated feeding operations can manage their manure dry. Earlier this year, Earthjustice successfully fought a federal rule that exempted industrial livestock facilities from reporting their pollution.
- Store carbon in the soil. Practices such as planting cover crops can reduce the need for fertilizer while also sequestering carbon. Earthjustice experts recently testified in support of proposed legislation that would provide funding and technical help to Massachusetts farmers who want to adopt these approaches.
- Farm where farming makes sense. By targeting federal conservation payments to lands with higher ecological value and lower agricultural value and linking them to compliance with basic sound practices, we can reduce emissions and polluted runoff, store more carbon in soils and improve farm profitability.
- Lock in the carbon long-term. We also need carbon storage practices that can’t be undone by a single turn of the plow, such as incorporating trees and shrubs into pastures and growing crops that don’t require annual replanting. Earthjustice and our allies are developing legislative strategies and petitions to agencies to create federal technological, education, and financial incentives for these strategies.
Read Earthjustice attorney Peter Lehner’s recent Environmental Law Reporter article to learn more about legal pathways to carbon neutral agriculture.
Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.