80 Million Reasons Not to Pay for Regenerative Farming

Hello Big Team Farm!

First of all, I hope you and yours are safe and warm wherever you are reading this. If you are not and you are in need of mutual aid, please reach out. The support in this community is pretty boundless, and I’m happy to help marshal resources support here.

Second, a few quick book updates before we really get into it. This coming week or so is the last I get to spend with Farm (and Other F Words) before it gets shipped off to layout, copy editing, and finally, print. I’m in a fascinating mental space at the moment— thinking back over the last eight weeks of intensive edits, the last six months of hardcore writing, and the last four years of research and transformative conversations and learning. And now I’m here, about to say “so long for now” to this weird thing I did about farming. It’s been wild. That said, the newsletter is a little short this week so I can focus my energy on, you know, The Thing.

The good news for y’all, I’m definitely still on track to get you a book by the end of April! So keep an eye out for updates in the next few weeks about covers and events and other fun launch related stuff.

The Regenerative Ag Racket

Here’s an article I saw this week; “The First Farmer in the US to Sequester Carbon for Cash in Private Marketplace Earns $115,000 For His Planting Strategy” from the Good News Network. The long and short of it; a Maryland farmer who owns 10,000 acres of commodity grain cropland (corn, soybeans, and wheat) sold carbon credits to a couple of major groups in exchange for planting cover crops and limiting his tillage.

Not only is this money poorly spent, it’s just the beginning of what could be a decades long boondoggle of pouring “climate investment” money down the drain while actively making our global environment worse. Let me explain.

(I have sprinkled in some completely unrelated goat gifs just to make this all a little more fun.)

What’s really going on here?

This Maryland farmer (Trey Hill is his name) is getting paid by Shopify, the University of Arizona, and others to “offset” their carbon emissions. That means, rather than actually changing anything about their business practices to reduce their own emissions, they’re paying a farm, ostensibly, to suck some of the carbon they’ve emitted out of the atmosphere and sink it into the soil, by way of these “regenerative” practices.

Good deal, right? As long as the net amount of carbon getting pumped into the atmosphere is reduced, things are getting better, correct? No. Because to be able to sell the service of removing carbon from the atmosphere, a farm would first have to prove that they are a net negative emitter themselves. In other words, Trey would need to show that in the course of running his business, he’s emitting less carbon than he’s sequestering in the soil with his practices. And grain farming emits a lot of carbon— from planting and harvest crops in giant, diesel-powered steel implements to trucking grain across the mid-Atlantic by the semi-load, drying grain by burning propane, and applying fossil fuel-based soil amendments and fertilizers.

That’s the thing, you can only sell negative carbon if you’re producing negative carbon.

In all the reading I’ve done, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that this type of accounting has been carried out by anyone involved in this deal. Instead, there is simply the assumption that 8,000 pound of carbon will be sequestered due to these practices, and at about $17 a pound, that’s worth about $100k.

But even a little something is better than nothing?

Maybe you’re thinking that farmers have it pretty tough, and they need to make money too. It’s not so bad, then, to pay out a bit, to encourage these folx to do the right thing. What’s a few $100k in the scope of the planet’s future, right?

Also no. You see, farmers do not have it “pretty tough.” US farmers received something like $46 billion in direct payments from the federal government in 2020 alone (and that’s *without* Farm Bill commodity program payments). Reporters have found that the vast majority of those funds went to giant farms like Trey’s. The average net worth of U.S. farmers is over $1 million, and average farm household income is $10k higher than that of the average American.

In other words, the vast majority of farmers can already afford to adopt these practices without the taxpayer (or a greenwashing company) footing the bill. They do not need financial “help” to do the right thing. And when someone demands payment to not cause harm, even when it’s already well within their ability to do so, there’s a word for that. A racket.

Who gets the most benefit from these practices anyway?

That’s the thing, as Trey said in a different article; “Now I spend less on tillage and diesel fuel, because basically all we do is plant, spray and harvest.” Translation: Trey is *already* getting paid for using these practices— he’s experiencing lower costs, he could get higher yields, and most importantly of all, the long term value of his private land is likely to grow due to better soil health (and the fact that it’s surrounded by metropolitan areas, beaches, and our beautiful Chesapeake Bay).

Speaking of land value, can we have a record scratch moment for that 10,000 acres? The average price of an acre of farmland in Maryland is $7,900. That’s right, good ol’ simple farmer Trey here controls $80,000,000 worth of farmland.

Just one more time.

Eighty.

Million.

Dollars.

In.

Land.

Wealth.

But yeah, we should all probably chip in to send him and his family some money to say thanks so much for deciding to do the bare minimum in terms of carbon sequestration.

Oh, and let’s not talk about the $8 million in taxpayer funds the farm has already received in commodity payouts since 1995, including the $1.1 million Trey’s farm received in 2019 alone. These payments are not insurance payouts or “earned” income, that’s $8 million in federal payments simply for growing commodity grains.

Okay, but this isn’t the norm right? This is a bad apple.

You’d think after last summer, we’d all have learned the inherent fallacy of the bad apple argument. But alas, I hear it All. The. Time. about farmers.

So let’s take a closer look at the precedent Trey here is setting, for argument’s sake.

Say I’m a smaller farmer than Trey, owning, say, 1,000 acres of cropland in Kentucky.

I see what Trey’s doing, and I want a piece of that action. I grow commodity corn and soybeans on 800 acres, the other 200 acres of my property are a mix of wetlands, forests, and marginal pasture that isn’t worth farming because I always lose money on it. I sign up with one of many currently mysterious and unverified carbon farming marketplaces and I start getting paid by the acre for the carbon I “sequester” based on how many acres I plant in cover crops.

In fact, I realize, after a year or two, that this carbon thing has changed the math on those marginal acres. If I clearcut that 40 acres of woods and drain that 80 acres of wet ground by the creek, I can put 120 more acres into corn and soybeans and get paid the market price for grains (which are currently at their highest levels in a decade), plus my federal commodity payments, plus the extra money I get for carbon sequestration.

And that’s how “paying for regenerative farming” creates incentives to eliminate perennial carbon sinks like wetlands and forests— both of which sequester significantly more carbon than cover crops. Plus, when a farmer clears a forest, they can get paid for the timber too, so there’s even more incentive.

So is Trey a bad apple? No. He’s responding to an inherently bad incentives, and we should more than expect many other farmers to follow in his wake.

Modern Farming’s Three Goals

As Trey points out on his website: “Modern farming has three goals: to be productive, to be efficient, to be profitable.” In other words; profit, profit, profit. Though Trey goes on to say this description isn’t for him, it’s telling that “food” does not appear among these goals.

This is what we’re dealing with here folx. These are the climate champions of farming— 1%ers who will refuse to do business in a way *that’s in their own best interest financially* unless we pay for it, for no other reason than they know we will.

The thing is; we don’t have. We can say no. We absolutely do not have to pay farmers to adopt climate practices, just like none of the rest of us get paid to wear seatbelts or to follow the speed limit. That’s right, we could police them instead.

I’m not even talking crazy, actually-ethical-farming regulations or anything. How about a simple; “no more money from the USDA money faucet until you plant cover crops.” Currently, less than 5% of US cropland acres are planted in cover crops, despite the fact that USDA sends direct payments annually to the owners/operators of the vast majority of acres. **Not to mention, there is an existing USDA program that will compensate farmers for planting cover crops.** Before we start paying farmers any *more* money, how about we start putting some conditions on the annual billions they already get.

I will spare but a moment on this travesty of a sentence in the original story; “Biden wants to ensure that large farms have the opportunity to expand their income and protect the climate in this way, which may boost American yields of root and cover vegetables, increasing food output as well.” First of all, this reporter unwittingly got it right, this program is all about more money for large farms. Period. I don’t know a single small or food producing farm that is looking at these programs, those operations are too focused on feeding people and staying alive. And I’ll just glaze over the middle nonsense to let you know that, no, cover crops are not harvested (essentially ever) to “increase food output.” That’s just a real airball for my guys at Good News.

Crowd Work

I panned some of this anger on Twitter this week, and fielded some interesting questions I wanted to expand on:

1) There is no “open market” in commodity grain production. Direct commodity payments, subsidized crop insurance, and the ethanol market distort the commodity grain market so much that honestly “market” feels like a generous description.

2) Not one single person, in the Biden administration at least, is talking about making direct payments go away, and they’re at all time highs right now. Tom Vilsack, the new/old Secretary of Agriculture is a veteran ag lobbyist and will not advocate to remove the solid-gold federal farm safety net, and why would he? The mission of the USDA is not to feed Americans or to protect American land, it’s to promote the American agricultural industry.

3) No, it’s not a win-win to pay multi-millionaires to invest in their own land. See above.

Yes, exactly. Paying for carbon sequestration on private land *might* make sense if, and only if, it could not be done otherwise because the land owner could not afford it. And the thing is, if a landowner can’t afford to keep their land safe and healthy, then maybe they shouldn’t get to own it? We have laws like this for structures, in fact, that’s how condemning a building works. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the inherent livability and safety expectations we should have for private farmland, and what the people can do when a landowner fails to meet them.

Speaking of interesting land law and how it might be possible to pry ill-cared for land from the hands of dead-beat landowners, I highly recommend following ag law guy Anthony Schutz on Twitter. He’s also funny and has cuuuute pups.

“…and the government foots the bill.” 😂

We haven’t even talked about the actual practices

Luke here is another good follow, especially if you’re looking to stay up with latest on the Canadian ag scene.

Luke makes a good point. Cover cropping and no-till are a part of a wide system of practices that could, collectively, sequester a good amount of atmospheric carbon in the soil when used as a system.

The problem with just about every “carbon farming” program I’ve look at is, not a one is actively encouraging the long term planting of perennial crops (trees, bushes, and perennial grasses), which is one of the most important elements of sequestering carbon in any landscape.

Instead what’s happening on farms like Trey is, they’re planting temporary cover crops, which are planted one season and killed a few months later. According to the article, Trey is not killing (or “burning down”) his cover crops with herbicide, but by tilling it into the soil. A green cover over bare soil does store carbon, but when that cover is killed and the plant matter decays, much of that carbon will return immediately to the atmosphere. That’s right. Much of that carbon that Shopify paid this farmer to store will be right back up in the atmosphere a few months after it was “banked.”

Plants and soil, needless to say, are not the Earth’s crust. They are not capable of trapping carbon for millions of years. The Earth’s crust is where we found most of the carbon we continue to pump into the air. The soil cannot hold all the carbon we found in the crust, and a few month old field of radish or rye cannot hold the same amount of carbon that the forest that it replaced did.

Brass Tax

From my vantage point, the entire existing system of carbon markets is a slight of hand where a few hundred thousand dollars buys “green credentials” for both a farm and a bunch of companies, and in the end, the exact same amount of carbon, if not more, is finding its way into our atmosphere. This is excusing companies from reducing emission (which is way more effective strategy) and mostly just works to redistribute money amongst the ultra-wealthy.

When crafting programs that encourage and reward regenerative practices, we must realize that by making grain production more lucrative without changing any of the other incentives in the system, all we’re doing is encouraging farmers to cut down more forests, drain more wetlands, and plow more vulnerable soils to be able to cash in on the regenerative farming gravy train. This is not an un-anticipatable outcome. It is an obvious one.

So yes, encourage farmers to utilize regenerative practices— for private landowners, they pay for themselves. In fact, we should seriously consider punishing those who fail to do it with fees and fines, especially commodity grain growers who contribute relatively little to our national food security.

We do not have to capitulate to a population of people who have overwhelmingly prided themselves on climate denial— and they should not get to take the lead now that they’ve finally decided to participate.

In short, we should *absolutely not* be paying farmers for regenerative farming.

#FarmArt

Since you’ve already made it so far. I’ll just give you the second half of Savannah LeCornu’s First Series, “First Foods.” This one includesHuckleberries, Serviceberries, Crookneck Squash, Cowish (or Kouse) root, and Corn.

I’m here to say that food is the main good thing about life.

Last F(ew) Things

  • The thing that’s getting me through this week is definitely discovering Detroiters. I am very late to this party, but I find this show absolutely hilarious. Season 2, Episode 9 is even about a grocery store called “Farmer Zack’s” so, super on brand. I also can’t say enough good things about I Think You Should Leave on Netflix. If you need somewhere to start with Tim Robinson, start with The Hotdog Car sketch. It is (there’s no other way to say this) everything.

  • If you’re new to Big Team Farms and want some explanation for what the F you just read, check out The Intro Newsletter and more recent additions by visiting Big Team Farms online.

Stay safe and well out there, friends. And remember, if you have questions, comments, concerns, or high quality gifs (especially farm-related) you’d like to share, I’m right on the other end of this email.

Rock on,

Sarah