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Carbon next element of concern (Editorial)

by | Oct 1, 2019

In the late 1990s, nitrogen was pushed onto the stage as more than a crop input and essential nutrient for growth to be a lightning rod of political discord and ushering in the era of regulated nutrient management for farmers and fueling their distrust for government and environmental groups that still lingers today.
Little more than a decade later, phosphorus was thrust into the limelight in Maryland as many of the same groups heatedly debated how to change regulations phasing in the University of Maryland-developed Phosphorus Management Tool to those nutrient management plans that would improve water quality but not put farmers out of business.
Now, as climate change rhetoric rises, another essential element for plant growth, carbon, is in full focus as governments, activists and big companies seek carbon footprint reductions to meet self-imposed deadlines or marketing objectives promoting sustainability.
With agriculture using about 40 percent of U.S. land, farms are often viewed as good places to sink more carbon from the atmosphere.
Quite the opposite of nitrogen and phosphorus; decision makers want farmers to get as much carbon as possible in their soil.
So-called “carbon farming” has come into the lexicon, pushing practices that put priority on carbon sequestration.
Many, like no-till, crop rotation, cover crops and buffer strips have been on Mid-Atlantic farms for decades.
Farmers here were doing it before it had its own name.
At just over 1 percent of the U.S. population, farmers are a small demographic politically to saddle with the responsibility, making them an even easier target for lawmakers to hit and not feel it so bad at the polls.
Never mind that nationally, agriculture contributed only 9 percent of greenhouse gasses in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Like the debates that raged over nitrogen and phosphorus regulation, the question on farmers’ minds with carbon is, “What’s it going to cost me?”
Whether it’s a market-based trading program or an outright mandated reduction, operating in a “post-carbon economy” will require regulation.
To farmers, like all business owners, regulation translates into added costs and forces the continual survival trend of “Get bigger or get out.”
“Farmers, across the nation, need to be studying how they can reduce their carbon footprint (soil sequestration, adding renewable energy like wind or solar, etc.),” Jill Hamilton, president of Sustainable Energy Strategies, Inc. wrote to us in August. “They need to understand the voluntary carbon markets and what dollars are left on the table if they aren’t participating.”
It is incumbent upon farmers to search for opportunities that emerge when change arises. Innovation has brought U.S. agriculture to the precipice of efficiency, and its farmers have led the way.
But it’s also incumbent upon our nation’s leaders to recognize the pressure those regulations would present to farmers and work to not place undue harm on the very industry they would lean on as their elegant solution.

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