Agriculture at the Center of Change

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Heather Cusick (she/her) leads Climate Bridge Strategies LLC. She received a Bush Fellowship in 2019, enabling her to explore the intersection of lands and climate solutions. Photo by Share the Roots

I grew up on a small wheat farm in Kansas where I fell in love with natural systems. That interest carried into my professional career. I worked for Sierra Club for close to 20 years, and served as an early architect of the Beyond Coal Campaign — a national campaign to move the country away from climate- damaging coal to clean energy.

As a long-time resident of Minnesota, it is exciting to see the growing list of farmers, scientists, elected officials, and conservationists who are exploring ways to address climate change challenges and transition opportunities. Our state has 54 million acres of landscape — nearly 26 million of which is agricultural. That large agricultural base has a climate impact:

  • Agriculture contributes nearly 25 percent of Minnesota’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Agricultural emissions are responsible for approximately 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Human-produced nitrous oxide largely comes from soil management practices and manure management. This remains in the atmosphere for about 100 years, and the impact on global warming is about 300 times that of carbon dioxide.
  • Much of agriculture’s methane emissions — which stay in the atmosphere for about a decade — comes from livestock digestion and manure.
  • Much of agriculture’s carbon dioxide results from soil cultivation and electricity use.

There are some attainable fixes to reduce these risks. Regenerative agriculture maintains healthier soil, reduces the use of harmful fertilizers, improves manure strategies, increases farm energy efficiency, and sequesters carbon through actions such as strategic plantings, restored wetlands, and managed grazing.

Carbon sinks, such as in forests and other lands, absorb about 12.4 percent of our annual fossil fuel emissions. Natural climate solutions can improve these numbers through maintaining healthy forests, prairies, and wetlands.

Consolidation of power and factory farms are not doing our climate any favors. According to U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who introduced an antitrust bill in 2019 for agriculture, three companies control 70 percent of all agricultural chemicals and pesticides. The top four largest pork packers control 71 percent of the market; the top four beef packers 85 percent; the top four wet corn processors 86 percent. Three global companies control nearly two-thirds of the world’s commodity crop seeds.

Consolidation and factory farms make it harder for smaller, regenerative farmers to get good prices.

Eighty-one percent of America’s farmed cropland is controlled by 15 percent of farms. The farmer’s share of every dollar has dropped from 41 percent in 1950 to less than 15 percent today. The weakening of small family farms undermines communities across America.

At the same time, 95 percent of the farmers in the U.S. are white, with an average age of 57.5 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Only 36 percent are women, and 8 percent are under the age of 35. This is also not sustainable.

With a suite of policy actions and longer-term investment in rural communities, it is possible to support regeneration. Small and midsized farmers can be at the center of Minnesota’s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Engage your representatives and ask how they are supporting new and BIPOC farmers, ensuring a just transition for small and midsized farmers, decreasing greenhouse gases in chemical production and use, addressing consolidation, and investing in conservation.