Healthy Soil, Healthy Farms, Healthy Bay
Dena Leibman - Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture
Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture
Current Issue
Parent Article

Fly low over the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries, and you’ll see the starkly different personalities of the region’s agriculture. The bay’s eastern flank is mostly a vast, flat carpet of soy and corn — feed for the millions of chickens produced in the area’s large-scale poultry houses. Cross the bay to its western shore and the farms — many still growing feed, but also vegetables and grass-based livestock — become smaller in converse relationship to city-inflated land prices.

Within the cities themselves, an urban farming revolution has squeezed mini-farms between housing developments and onto vacant lots and even rooftops. Each of these types of agriculture comes with its own deeply rooted conventional wisdom, often at odds with the others’. Imagine, then, last winter’s truly watershed moment when stakeholders — from the Farm Bureau to the Maryland Department of Agriculture to bay watchdog groups to the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture — joined together to pass the Maryland Healthy Soils Act. All were in rare agreement: Healthy soil is win-win — good for farms and the bay.

Soil is a living ecosystem, teaming with billions of microbes interacting in ways that provide nutrients and structure for growing plants. When well-nurtured, it absorbs and retains rainfall, snowmelt, and irrigation water. Enter modern agriculture. We’ve deep-tilled our land into hardpan; sprayed chemicals to the point of diminishing returns (read: resistant superweeds and pests); over-applied nutrients — both synthetic and organic; and removed natural field edge buffers that filter runoff. We’ve corralled our livestock into confined spaces where manure piles up and too often finds its way into bay tributaries. Today, agriculture is responsible for 40 percent of nutrient pollution and the majority of sediment pollution to the bay.

The blossoming soil health movement and the multi-stakeholder interest behind it show promise in turning farmers from perceived villains of water quality efforts to full-on heroes. For example, organic and conventional farmers in record numbers are using cover crops — non-commercial crops grown between plantings of commercial ones. Cover crops are the workhorse of sustainable agriculture, reducing tillage, suppressing weeds, providing natural nitrogen and other nutrients, and most importantly for bay health efforts, keeping water in the ground and filtering polluted field runoff.

In 2015–16, more than 500,000 Maryland acres were planted in cover crops thanks to the state’s cost-share program. Other practices are key to soil health: managed grazing distributes manure, keeps land covered in grass, and provides a conducive habitat for microbes. Reduced tillage and chemical use keeps microbes healthy and happy. Planting deeply rooted perennials draws carbon via photosynthesis into the ground to help build soil organic matter. Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can absorb an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. What’s more, these practices also draw down atmospheric carbon and can offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Progress is coming, but we have far to go for soil health to be an effective tool for meeting Total Maximum Daily Load requirements. First up is solving the thorny issue of how to suppress weeds without microbe-killing chemicals or tillage; most farmers must now “pick their poison” from the two. We must learn best practices per soil type and ever-changing weather patterns, collect more data, and work to ensure farmers remain profitable — for when a farm is sold to development we lose our best chance of stewarding that land for water quality.

Which brings us back to the Maryland Healthy Soils Act. Its passage was, indeed, a Kumbaya moment, but it comes to Marylanders toothless; our work together has just begun. For instance, the act asks the state agriculture department to set up a program for demonstration projects and farmer education but provides no funding. California and Oklahoma, also among the eight states that have passed healthy soils bills, are truly investing in soil health programs, including demonstration projects, research, technical assistance, and farmer education.

We must pass similar bills in every bay watershed state, and they must come with funding for farmer education and training and cost-shares for soil health practices, as well as a commitment to research and helping farmers find ways to get a return on their investment in their soil.

With the passage of the Maryland bill and growing awareness of the link between soil and bay health, the wind is at our backs. The time is now to turn the Chesapeake region into a national example of how it’s possible for farmers and environment to thrive together.

Dena Leibman is executive director of Future Harvest, Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. FHCASA is a farmer-based nonprofit that provides education and advocacy to advance agriculture that is profitable and good for land, water, and communities. She is also co-owner of ZigBone Farm Retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.

Tale of Two Cities
Water and Grass in the American West
Oliver A. Houck - Tulane University
Tulane University
Current Issue
Covers of reviewed books

About a year ago, two books from students long graduated came in the mail. One was from Eric, who was living off the radar in New Mexico at the time, his field backed up to a hedgerow and a small ditch of water, the lifeblood of the farm. The other was from Tom, whose grandfather had run a cattle operation below the Mexican border, spreading north to Arizona. Both of them wanted to tell me something similar, although it has taken me this long to see it. The books are about landscapes and the people tied to them in ways that now seem almost irrelevant, save for a distant longing.

Stanley Crawford’s Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico is a chronicle of the Acequia de la Jara region in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, threading its way through the hard-scrabble orchards and vegetable gardens of some thirty families (parciantes), most of them Hispanic, some dating back centuries, and drawing their water through the historic Spanish pattern of sharing, both the water and the duty to maintain it right down to the fence-line. The mayordomo is elected to the thankless job ($100 a month) of keeping the system flowing and apportioning it in fat times and lean. This would be Crawford himself, in the year described.

As the book opens, we are on a work crew, spring cleaning, and the mayordomo is parceling out the jobs in small bites, two meters per individual (less if it is hard going), yesterday there were thirty, tomorrow perhaps nine. Those who do not show or put up a substitute (a peon), are given a delincuencia, which they pay in money or make up another day. And so they inch downstream, wrestling out snags, cutting back brush, restoring a bank, all shovel and hand-saw work, one stretch done and then on to the next, “¡Vuelta . . . y vamanos!” The young men tell tales of bravado, curse when they bang on a rock, but stay with the day, for which they are paid $2.50. The mayordomo’s treasury sometimes drops to zero.

As the book progresses through sudden dam failures (the shunts consist of old rugs, bed springs, whatever is at hand), freak floods, and agonizing drought, overlain with family feuds that, too, can date back centuries and may unravel any night in the parking lot of a bar, the mayordomo’s job morphs into negotiator, requiring endless hours of listening and persuasion. (On one occasion he begins with an inveterate hard case, announcing that there will be no water for him, his host threatening imminent violence in return, which then proceeds to a tolerable compromise). One begins to realize that it is the communal work that keeps them together.

It is not all work. Crawford muses on the fate of a muskrat colony with its roof caved in, a drowning bat rescued from an eddy, a beaver dam left intact for the winter freeze, its family safe inside. There is something magical about walking a stream, any stream, and if you’ve ever done it you know.

Looming over the scene is the threat of an adjudication, the American West’s process for managing water based on prior appropriation, first-come, first-served (with scant recognition of who was really first out there), and in that other timehonored American tradition, winner-take-all. Water is not a matter of community. It is instead an object of private property, title, and lawsuits.

Indeed, the kind of limits imposed by the majordomo for group purposes and the needs of others are considered physical takings and entitled to compensation. One adjudication of water rights to a nearby acequia is well into its second decade at a cost of tens of millions of dollars; the golden opportunity to own it all and then sell it to the highest bidder, wherever that bidder abides, for whatever purpose, is the prize.

From here it is but a straight line to the western water world of today. Las Vegas, with money unmatched anywhere west of the 100th meridian short of the Pacific Coast, can sink a deeper pipe into Lake Powell and call other states to its bidding (a few years back sixty percent of that water was going to residential lawns). California’s Westlands project, in default for a century on its obligation to reimburse the U.S. government for its construction (setting aside annual subsidies and below-cost water), has included among its “family farms” the likes of the Southern Pacific Railroad and Standard Oil. The lion’s share of agricultural water in California now goes to almonds, the most thirsty-per-pound crop on the continent. The odds against the Acequia de la Jarra, and what it represents, seem quite long.

Seemingly a world away is Bob Sharp’s Cattle Country: Rawhide Ranching on Both Sides of the Border. It is another personal chronicle, this time of two college dropouts who, in the early 1920s, set out for Mexico to raise cattle, which they had never done before, on borrowed money, on leased land (the Cerro Colorado), on no more than a buenos dias basis with the language, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, camping in a cave knee-deep in bat guano. What could go wrong? They cut expenses to the bone, skirted danger, and instead had a hell of a time. They focused on steers, and the plan was to buy them young, fatten them up over spring and summer, and take them north for sale in the fall. They did business by a handshake and were never let down. The first year, deducting expenses, they made $16. From there, they slowly expanded, and thrived.

The first part of the book is largely nostalgia, the outlaws and vagabonds wandering through, displaced Yaqui Indians on the run, nearby families who shared their one-room haciendas, two planks for a bed, and would accept no money for the food they offered (they did accept a dressed deer), the nearby towns whose primary danger was the liquor and primary pleasure the baristas who would ride out into the desert with them “to share a blanket under the bright stars.” Learning the land by reading it and whom to trust by reading them as well. Good were plain clothes, a small hat, and a well-treated horse — and trouble was otherwise.

We could at this point be watching a movie: throw in a passion for the land that keeps cropping up, the view from Sunrise Rock, a hidden pool of water, a cougar Sharp shot and regretted (“He killed in order to live. I did not”), a pair of deer an old cowboy would not shoot, explaining: “I came close to destroyin’ a natural thing of beauty between two wild critters that, for an all-powerful reason, belong to one another this particular time of year.”

If that line were filmed for the movie it would be left on the cutting room floor. But it was the way people talked then, and thought, and the closer to the land the more they thought it. Which becomes an abiding theme as Sharp moves into the big time.

Part two of the book (actually written first in time) is a report of his success managing one of the largest commercial spreads in America, the Baca Float north of Prescott, Arizona. Here we see a familiarlooking hierarchy of command, the owner speaks only to the general manager, he to the wagon-boss, he to the cowboys. No one breaks this rule. The cowboys at this level, too, are a different breed, “more at home on their territories than a banker in his bank,” reading sign, sensing dangers, living the pain and the peace.

Sharp’s major innovation came to him from an old-timer so close to the land he seemed part of it: Cattle in brush and desert country, he said, didn’t need to be coddled with hay, chemicals, and other supplements. They were survivors and would reach their own levels with the land. Which, when Sharp tried it, not only happened but bred into a hardier stock that withstood harsh conditions far better than their cousins. The Baca Float, too, thrived.

Like the Acequia de la Jara, it was ultimately overtaken by corporations remote from the business, largely centered on the public domain, whose ethic had little to do with the land. By the 1990s ten major corporations — several banks, a Canadian agribusiness, and a Japanese automobile manufacturer among them — controlled two thirds of all grazing on federal lands.

Rebellions against the very government that supported them characterized the new landscape, the Sagebrush Rebellion, People for the West, Wyoming rancher Herman Werner shooting 52 eagles out of the sky (more decorated his funeral hearse when he died), and now Cliven Bundy in the lead. Bob Sharp’s cattle business had everything to do with living within the environment around it. That environment was his greatest pleasure. As it was with Stanley Crawford, mayordomo of his micro-domain.

We may never be able to get back into the Garden, on either front. We have long sold ourselves on other things. But it seems valuable, and perhaps instructive, for books like these to keep that flame alive.

Oliver Houck on water and grass in the American West.

A Common Table
Brian Deese - Kennedy School of Government
Daniel Hornung - Yale Law School
Ali Zaidi - Stanford University
Kennedy School of Government
Yale Law School
Stanford University
Current Issue
A Common Table

In 2018, Congress must reauthorize the Farm Bill. Even in a polarized Washington, the measure represents a unique opportunity to bring disparate parties together to help the sector achieve meaningful reductions in carbon emissions and boost rural economic opportunity

The new Farm Bill that will occupy Washington next year presents a unique chance to make progress on two critical issues: addressing climate change and enhancing economic opportunity for America’s farmers, foresters, and ranchers. Congress should lift its sights and consider new and aggressive ideas to reward and incentivize these businesses for taking advantage of market and technology innovations that utilize the carbon-reduction potential of the U.S. agricultural sector.

This article makes the case for why it is both economically wise and politically practicable for Congress to take this approach, by establishing a major new reverse-auction payment mechanism for agricultural enterprises that undertake cost-effective carbon reduction and storage measures on their land. If done right, this approach could help spur a new “carbon farming” industry by establishing a robust and rigorous agricultural marketplace in the United States for the chemical that combines with oxygen to form the most common greenhouse gas. At the same time, Congress should significantly scale up the federal agricultural research and development budget, to encourage greater innovation in the farm sector with a focus on improving productivity and resilience, producing more on fewer acres, increasing potential revenue to landowners, and keeping America competitive in global agriculture markets.

There are at least three reasons why the timing for progress on carbon reduction in the agricultural sector is ripe.

First, the agricultural sector provides carbon reduction opportunities that work. To understand how, take one example: soil tends to naturally contain and store organic matter. Various agricultural practices including intensive tillage that exposes soil to air can release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Yet modest changes can yield a different result: through a variety of activities such as no-till or reduced-till agriculture — when seeds are drilled directly through crop residues into untouched soil — more carbon remains in the ground rather than in the atmosphere. Other farming practices with similar effect include the use of cover crops and residue management, planting field borders and other areas with perennial grasses and other native plants, and bolstering crop rotations with carbon storage in mind. There are also many additional opportunities beyond cropland that can increase carbon on working agricultural land, including for example sustainably managing grazing practices on pasture and rangeland, integrating more trees into field borders and stream banks, and restoring forests on marginal lands.

And it turns out that these types of land-sector carbon-reducing practices are not only feasible, but quite cost effective. Last year, the United States released a Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, which was designed “not to predict near-term policymaking [or] model the future U.S. energy and land sectors with precision . . . but rather to describe key opportunities and challenges . . . and highlight findings that are robust across scenarios.” One such finding was the continued and enhanced role of the U.S. land sector as a net carbon sink.

The MCS analysis estimated that, by 2050, land-sector and other carbon-removal technologies could sequester 30 to 50 percent of emissions across the economy, while carbon-beneficial forms of biomass could also displace fossil fuel consumption in sectors that are harder to electrify, such as aviation and heavy-duty vehicles. These reductions could take the place of reductions in the electricity sector or elsewhere that would come at a greater cost. On the other hand, in a scenario where the land sector is underutilized, the pressure to cut emissions shifts to other parts of the economy at a significantly higher cost per ton of carbon.

Second, the economic returns for farmers, foresters, and ranchers of a robust, market-based land-sector emission-reduction strategy could be significant and timely. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, net farm income in 2017 is down nearly 25 percent from 2015 levels. This decline reflects a growing set of structural challenges facing the U.S. farm sector. A Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank analysis found recently that American farmers are becoming “increasingly reliant on international demand and exports to support domestic prices and farm incomes,” and are challenged by “reduced farmland values,” “weaker credit conditions,” and “increased interest rates and collateral requirements.”

These trends are especially problematic given the slow rebound of employment and wages in rural areas. According to USDA, while employment in metropolitan areas exceeded its pre-recession peak by nearly 5 percent by 2016, employment in nonmetropolitan areas was still nearly 3 percent below its respective peak. Adding to the economic challenges are demographics — the average American farmer is 58 years old, nearly the oldest out of all U.S. professions. New revenues, markets, and skilled jobs are needed to attract the next generation of landowners and managers.

Together, these economic factors reinforce the need for economically efficient policies that help the agricultural center modernize and improve financial returns for farmers, foresters, and ranchers.

Third, the United States is falling behind in the global race for the type of technology-enabled progress in agriculture that carbon farming and sustainable land-sector management represent. The types of R&D that increase agricultural productivity also tend to decrease agricultural carbon intensity, while freeing land to support more forests, biomass production, or high-value natural areas. For example, precision agriculture, which can depend on greater utilization of sensors, drones, big data, and automation, can seed huge carbon reductions — just as it boosts farm productivity overall.

Despite this potential, public agricultural R&D investment in the United States has fallen in real terms over the last decade and a half and has fallen considerably as a share of total public R&D spending in the United States over a longer period. While private agricultural R&D investment has grown in recent years, private R&D dollars are not a substitute for the publicly funded basic research that drives innovation advances.

In 2015, USDA’s Economic Research Service modeled scenarios with different levels of public investment and found that slowdowns in support lead to a significant innovation gap within two decades. Specifically, if the current approach to public investment persists, the growth of agricultural total factor productivity drops dramatically — by almost 40 percent. The analysis concluded that, once depressed, such productivity will be significantly harder to make up by too-little, too-late investments in R&D.

While the United States is slowing down on agricultural R&D, others are not. Over roughly the last two decades, the U.S. share of public investment by major countries in agricultural R&D “fell from 22.5 percent to 13.4 percent.” In particular, the United States has fallen behind Chinese public investment in agricultural science. According to USDA, China passed the United States in public investment in 2008 and has kept focused on the field — following what historically has been a uniquely American playbook. Between 1990 and 2013, Chinese public investment in agricultural R&D grew eight-fold. As a result, U.S. leadership on technology-enabled agriculture is faltering at a moment when the global agricultural market is poised to grow dramatically.

Fortunately, there is a way to simultaneously address these climate, economic, and innovation challenges.

Economists have long acknowledged that the most economically efficient way to reduce greenhouse emissions is to place an economy-wide price on carbon. Modeling suggests the American land sector has the potential to deliver up to 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent reductions annually in a $40-per-ton carbon-reduction scenario, similar to anticipated reductions in the energy sector. This underscores the fact that there are clear, cost-effective emissions reductions to be gained from the land sector if appropriate policy mechanisms are in place to drive them. It also reinforces that, in the current environment, where the United States has no economy-wide carbon price and there is no effective nationwide market for land-sector carbon offsets, we are under-incentivizing land-based sequestration activities.

In the absence of an economy-wide policy, the most scalable approach would be to create a new, nationwide program of direct payments and credits to producers who effectively sequester and store carbon. This approach could be implemented in two ways. In states that have established carbon markets, sequestration policies in the land sector can offset carbon emissions reduction obligations of energy-sector entities. California, for example, already allows 8 percent of carbon compliance to come from offsets, including from agriculture.

Such a pay-for-performance model could also be implemented by the federal government — kickstarting action in states that don’t have economy-wide carbon prices and increasing ambition in states that do. Specifically, the federal government could run reverse auctions to make carbon payments to carbon-sequestering projects, using mandatory funds authorized through the Farm Bill.

Such a model is not without precedent. Australia, for example, has a voluntary carbon offset program for farmers called the Carbon Farming Initiative, which after its first years of implementation was rolled into an economy-wide carbon-pricing scheme. Under the CFI, farmers can earn credits for activities like “reducing livestock emissions, increasing efficiency of fertilizer use, enhancing carbon in agricultural soil [and] storing carbon through revegetation and reforestation.” These credits can then be sold to other parties to meet their carbon obligations. While the CFI has been challenged by underfunding and a continuously evolving policy context, over 500 land-based projects have been registered to date, and hundreds more across on-farm energy-saving and fuel-reduction practices. We would need to design a system that works for American stakeholders, but we can learn from the experiences of other countries in launching these programs.

Narrower but analogous programs also exist in the United States. California has forestry, livestock, and rice methane offset protocols as part of its economy-wide cap-and-trade program, under which 173 projects have registered to date. At the federal level, USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually in financial and technical support to farmers engaging in conservation practices that “improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related natural resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland.” Although EQIP payments are not made on a carbon basis, they support many of the same practices that could qualify under a carbon-payment scheme.

One of the biggest pitfalls identified from Australia’s experience is that uncertainty regarding the availability of annual funding can distort an effectively functioning market. If farmers don’t have a long-term and significant price signal, it is harder for them to justify upfront investments in emissions reducing technologies and techniques. In the U.S. context, providing mandatory funding in the Farm Bill over a 10-year window would help address this concern and would also reduce the risk that farmers simply “pull forward” the lowest-hanging-fruit actions that would have taken place just a few years later — the problem of additionality. A certain and long-term funding source would promote efficient improvements as well as provide enough lead time to finance complementary investments.

A second challenge in establishing an effective market-based payment program is compensating carbon reductions on an apples-to-apples basis across different practices, land-sector types, and regions. Carbon-accounting rules that define eligible practices, ensure additional carbon is being stored or reduced, and provide guidance on how to ensure lasting carbon benefits, can be developed to ensure agricultural activities are being treated robustly and equally throughout the program. Many such protocols already exist in California and under voluntary credit registries like the Voluntary Carbon Standard and American Carbon Registry.

A third challenge is avoiding payments for “hot air,” or emissions reductions that would have occurred even without an offset mechanism. We know there are ways to deal with this issue. For example, in California’s rice farming protocol, farmers who voluntarily participate are required to produce emissions estimates based on historical farm area, crop yield, agricultural techniques, and other measures. They then submit records to calculate emissions reductions once they begin one or more of the three authorized management practices (dry seeding, early drainage, or alternate wetting and drying).

Over the long-term, policymakers should strive for a maximally accurate program that builds on California’s approaches by measuring actual emissions at each farm, compared against a baseline. The federal government and state governments could play an important role in providing farmers with the resources to more easily follow these measurements in real time with advanced monitoring equipment and tracking software. The next generation of carbon tracking and reporting is already under development with support from programs like USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grants.

A final concern is that applying a crediting mechanism to one sector of the economy raises the specter that you end up replacing emissions in the American agricultural sector with emissions elsewhere. This effect, known as leakage, could happen, for example, if U.S. timber prices increased because this program had the effect of decreasing U.S. timber supply and, as a result, global markets demanded more deforestation in other parts of the world, like the Amazon.

A government analysis of Australia’s CFI indicated little reason to suspect significant leakage to date in the program. However, as activities are deemed eligible or ineligible for credit under the program, potential and actual leakage should be fully analyzed and considered. If the United States enacts this program domestically, ultimately the most effective way to fully mitigate leakage risk is to bring as many countries and sectors into the fold as possible, which U.S. policymakers could work on through the existing United Nations climate change negotiations process.

While there will be some investment of time and federal resources needed to develop a reverse auction program as well as expand and strengthen the available suite of rigorous measurement protocols, these actions are critical to unlocking the full potential to reduce carbon emissions from the land sector and even sequester carbon. Within the federal government, this work should be undertaken through cooperation between the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA. Based on experiences elsewhere, however, we know that building a program that serves as a sufficient market signal, compensates emissions reductions on an apples-to-apples basis, maximizes additionality, and avoids leakage is within reach.

In addition to a new market mechanism, policymakers should use the Farm Bill to accelerate the pace of agricultural innovation by improving the techno-economics of low-carbon practices. Public investment in agricultural R&D is a key ingredient of that innovation equation — to lead globally, the United States must steadily and substantially increase USDA and other agencies’ budgets for agricultural R&D by a factor of three by 2030 and focus those efforts on advancing the technologies that will unlock new possibilities in carbon farming and sustainable land-sector management. This will allow the United States to close the public investment gap with China and reestablish itself as the go-to place for agricultural innovation.

To be sure, increasing the research budget is not sufficient. We must do so in a way that optimally promotes acceleration of innovation. The American energy R&D program provides a powerful playbook for how to build out an ecosystem for innovation. As outlined in the Mission Innovation Domestic Implementation Framework, the program is composed of four elements: “foundational mechanisms to increase breadth of knowledge within a scientific discipline”; “translational mechanisms to target incremental improvements along defined tech-roadmaps”; “disruptive mechanisms to validate high-risk, high-reward, off-roadmap ideas”; and “integrational mechanisms to facilitate collaboration across disciplines and stakeholders.” Our increased public investment in agricultural R&D needs to tend to each of these components within the agricultural ecosystem.

Fortunately, significant progress has already occurred. For example, USDA supports land-grant universities to spur foundational R&D by enlisting them in advancing “competitive peer-reviewed research, education, and extension activities through multiple programs, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.” We can bolster the effectiveness of these programs by adding resources and increasing capacity at our national laboratories to focus on agriculture-oriented missions. To facilitate translational work, USDA can define and launch a new priority research effort to channel existing and new R&D resources toward ambitious productivity and resilience goals. The department should be given the green light to increase direct work with experts in other agencies who have begun to look at these important issues in recent years.

For example, ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s advanced-research program, has already ventured into agricultural R&D where it shared a nexus with energy. We know this approach works to bring forward disruptive technology, so we should consider formally charging ARPA-E (or a similar capacity) to undertake this work on a systematic basis to advance our agriculture goals. Additional interdisciplinary teams like the ones at DOE and NASA can work with USDA to meet our goals for 21st century agriculture.

As with any innovative policy idea during this polarized era in Washington, some will question the political economy of this reverse auction and investment proposal because it is does not fit neatly into preconceived notions of coalition building in Congress and the administration. But this ignores the new coalition that it could attract if policymakers are willing to consider this proposal on its merits: legislators who are looking for policies to reduce emissions and legislators who are looking to bolster the incomes of farmers and rural Americans, all while helping America regain a global competitive advantage in a post-Paris marketplace that is looking for ways to feed a billion more people without breaking the planet.

For that new coalition to come together, Congress should take seriously the transparent stakeholder process that will need to occur for farmers, ranchers, and foresters and the rest of rural America to buy into this program and allow it to realize its climate and economic benefits. To bring and keep all relevant stakeholders to and at the table, the revenues from the auction must function as an incentive, not a mandate. This does not just make political sense, it makes economic sense as well. The social costs of carbon are already being borne by the economy. This auction is an approach to abating those costs in an effective and efficient way.

The process must engage the diversity of actors in the land sector; it must strive to develop workable solutions that all find fair (especially with regard to baselines and measurement, monitoring, and verification); and it must work with all key parties to avoid unintended consequences. We must also leverage state-level policies that support these aims and with which farmers are already familiar, harmonize with existing state-level policies like California’s cap-and-trade program, and spur a race-to-the-top to improve state-level policy. Ultimately, for this program to work, farmers, foresters, and ranchers will need to lead the way. TEF

AMERICAN NEOGOTHIC ❧ In 2018, Congress must reauthorize the Farm Bill. Even in a polarized Washington, the measure represents a unique opportunity to bring disparate parties together to help the sector achieve meaningful reductions in carbon emissions and boost rural economic opportunity.