Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers make every day Earth Day

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report recently that underscored the urgency for implementing climate solutions and spelled out the gravity of the situation if action is delayed or curtailed. The urgency of climate change isn’t something that needs to be explained to Nebraska’s producers—they are on the frontline, seeing the impacts every year.

But what struck me is that the overriding theme of the report was hopeful. Though much more must be done to address climate change, there remains a hopeful pathway forward to address emissions, and carbon capture is a major element of the strategy.

This message resonated with me given the investments that the United States Department of Agriculture is making in voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands that can help build soil health, boost yields, sequester more carbon, and have a host of other environmental benefits to help meet that goal. In other words, conservation and production go hand in hand on working lands.

It is fitting that this report and these recommendations were issued a couple of weeks before Earth Day. Celebrated globally since 1970, this is a day that people reflect on the status of the environment and commit to work to improve it. An old t-shirt slogan used to demand “Make Every Day Earth Day.” With over two-thirds of the total land area of the United States privately owned, with 914 million acres in farms and ranches and 300 million acres in private forests, farmers, ranchers, and foresters make everyday Earth Day through the careful and deliberate stewardship of their working lands. Their actions are designed to ensure maximum yield with minimum input while protecting the natural resources on which all of us rely.

Recently, the Biden-Harris administration enlisted the help of farmers and ranchers in combating climate change in the very manner that was reflected in the IPCC report. Through the utilization of existing and new, voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs, administered by the Farm Service Agency, amongst other agencies, working lands in rural America not only have a seat at the table in combating climate change through carbon capture, but are at the head of the table. Implementing programs as diverse as the Conservation Reserve Program and incentivizing cover cropping practices allow for maximum carbon capture, but carbon capture is not the only result. These programs, and many others, improve water quantity and quality; enhance wildlife habitat; improve air quality; reduce erosion potential; and provide for a more beautiful space to live.

Last May, President Biden announced the America the Beautiful initiative, which includes a goal to conserve at least 30% of our lands and waters by the year 2030. Much has been made of the operative word conserve. There have been suggestions that there will be forced conservation or imminent domain pursued to accomplish these goals. In fact, last week in Lincoln a group from outside of the state came here to present an event designed to misconstrue the purpose of the America the Beautiful Initiative and mislead you into thinking it is a “land grab.” That is not what the President’s climate executive order says or does. Simply put, this initiative will center on voluntary, locally led and locally driven efforts. As part of it, USDA and other federal agencies will utilize existing programs and seek to enhance funding and potentially build out additional programs for private landowners to use to enhance and extend stewardship of their land. This is not a top-down approach to conservation, but a partnership in which program participation is voluntary, does not require conservation easements and is incentive-based. This initiative seeks to build on locally led conservation initiatives at a scale starting as small as an individual field. It honors private land-rights and engages with farmers and ranchers as partners seeking to enhance their own operations while providing climate mitigation. While the goals are loftier in terms of participation in these important programs, the role of the federal government as a partner, collaborator and investor in conservation has not really changed at all.

These expanded investments in farmers and ranchers to aid in addressing the climate crisis through conservation is an excellent opportunity for hardworking men and women of rural America to continue to “make every day Earth Day.”

—John Berge is state executive director of the Nebraska USDA Farm Service Agency.