Perhaps the problem in the way we approach nature is our desire to bend it to our will. Eventually it snaps back.
A group of landowners are connecting regularly to talk about ways to repair some of the damage that humans have done to the air, water, and earth. Within three years, they hope to have 200 climate land leaders sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions on 10,000 acres, largely in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
The group is open to all landowners who want to make a sustainable difference. Currently owners have anywhere from 60 to 1,200 acres. The group is starting small as a pilot project, using 100 acres in Northfield as a hub farm for testing and training concepts.
Teresa Opheim helps people create succession plans for their farmland. “I noticed how many owners of inherited farms had strong environmental interests, but they had not figured out how to put that in place on the land,” she says. “Someone might be a donating member of the Sierra Club, but have farmland of mostly corn and soybeans with the use of biocides. Some of these landowners have large acreages that could have a major impact in our region’s reduction of greenhouse gases. Soil has great potential to sequester carbon, when done right.”
Opheim became founding project director of Climate Land Leaders (CLL), which works with people fortunate to own land who have the talent and power to address the climate crisis. Many of them are not dependent on the land for daily living and are in the position to invest in it for long-term good.
For many landowners, that means changing crops of exclusively corn and soybeans, grown with chemicals and tillage, into perennial practices that also includes grass, trees, and shrubs.
One owner recently contacted the group saying, “I have 120 acres of soybeans in Faribault. What should I do?”
A first step among the leaders, Opheim says, is to have each landowner set goals for the coming year. Group calls have included discussions about how to take soil samples to measure health, with a soil scientist who walked them through steps. Other topics: how to plant trees, how carbon stored in the soil will help draw down air pollutants, and practices that are best for mitigating climate change.
“The group is a mixture of sound science, inspiration, and heart and soul,” Opheim says.
Julie Ristau is on the steering committee of CLL. She also is executive director of the pilot farm, Main Street Project (name change to be announced soon), which is experimenting with sustainable practices for both land and people. The farm originally was designed to help Latinx immigrants create pathways into stronger wages in farm and food industry jobs. It became clear, however, that the industrial food system is built on a foundation of low-wage work. So the Main Street Project became more focused on creating systemic change that involves both sustainable economies and land. CLL is a natural extension of that work.
When the farmland was purchased in 2016, it was degraded after years of corn-on-corn farming. The team at Main Street Project has been restoring it to health. “It’s also about water quality and profitability,” says Ristau. “It is about providing land for beginning farmers that isn’t part of generational transfer of family land — to improve access to land ownership. It is about establishing an agrarian commons as a new normal. It is how we see the economy moving forward, with diversity and resilience.”
It was a natural place for CLL to begin its pilot work. “We are incubating,” Ristau says. “We are creating safe and welcoming environments for peer-to-peer learning.”
The intention was to launch with a large-scale retreat in March at the farm. Because of the pandemic, however, the conversations are limited to virtual conference calls.
Thus far all of the people on the calls, representing 12 farms, are women, with “strong environmental awareness and consciousness,” Ristau says. “Women tend to push and lead innovation.”
Carol Bouska and her three sisters inherited the farm in Northeast Iowa where they grew up, and where their father was born and died 11 years ago. The sisters are spread out geographically — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Washington. They came together in agreement that the legacy they want to leave is sustainable farmland that also uses the privilege they have. They know they inherited fourth-generation land that was originally Native territory, and are deciding how to address that.
Together they attended a sustainability workshop, talked about legacy planning, and hired Ecological Design, a women-led Minneapolis company that helped them diversify and regenerate land that had relied primarily on corn and soybean crops. Their first intention: Do not let the farm get absorbed into a corporation. Their second goal: Invest in a more sustainable landscape — including for pollinators and water — that enables easier community access to safe and healthy foods.
To learn how to do this, they became involved with CLL. Together with the National Resources Conservation Service, and the farm operator who rents their land and had worked with their father for decades, the sisters are moving toward regenerative methods. Carol Bouska recently walked all 450 acres of the land for a virtual demonstration shared with climate land leaders.
As Opheim explains the work of the group: “We are in the bread basket of the world. We have soil that can be used more effectively to build healthier and more viable farmland for future generations.”
Some of the basic steps toward healthy soil involves diversity of crops; not turning the soil over (no-tillage), which keeps microbial life alive and feeds the soil food web; planting perennials for year-round sustenance; and covering as much of the soil as possible. It involves planting trees, shrubs, and legumes; restoring prairie, savannas, and wetlands; and proactively managing soil nutrients.
Recommended crops include alfalfa, hay, asparagus, aronia, black currant, elderberry, hazelnut, kernza, orchard crops, and Native plant seed production. Organic matter and methods increases carbon capture, crop yield and profits, and improves water infiltration and reduces erosion.
• Sustainable Farming Association, sfa-mn.org
• Natural Resources Conservation Service, nrcs.usda.gov
• Chard Your Yard movement, chardyouryard.com
• For those who are interested in transforming farm or ranch land they own to address climate change, contact Teresa Opheim: firstname.lastname@example.org