How farmers are leading on finding climate solutions

January 28, 2021
Minnesota’s family farmers are already experiencing the climate crisis. There is more extreme weather, unpredictable growing seasons, and increased pressure of plant and animal diseases. Farmers understand the risks of climate change and are coming up with new ways to remain resilient, such as putting carbon back in the soil. 

Minnesota’s family farmers are already experiencing the climate crisis. There is more extreme weather, unpredictable growing seasons, and increased pressure of plant and animal diseases. Farmers understand the risks of climate change and are coming up with new ways to remain resilient, such as putting carbon back in the soil.

cow by solar panel

Minnesota’s Farmers Union

Farmer advocacy organizations such as Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) have a big role to play in finding climate solutions. MFU is a grassroots organization that has represented Minnesota’s family farmers, ranchers and rural communities since 1918 and is a chapter of National Farmers Union (NFU). In the early 1900s, farmers who founded our organization came together to demand fairer prices for farm products, and today the purpose of our organization is a triangle of priorities: legislation, cooperation and education. We work on state and local issues, help support the growth of cooperatives and educate our members on issues. Now, we’re turning much of our attention to climate change.

This past November, delegates to our 79th Annual MFU Convention identified climate change as a top priority for our advocacy work. We recognize that many farmers are investing in climate-resilient practices such as cover crops, rotational grazing, nutrient management and on-farm renewable energy, just to name a few. Farmers must be at the table when discussing the climate crisis because these challenges pose a threat to their livelihoods, communities and our economy.

At the local, state and federal levels, we are asking for fair returns on voluntary investments in practices that sequester carbon; programs that incentivize practices that improve soil health; compelling crop insurers to account for increased risk to crops; and expanding the use of biofuels and on-farm renewable energy. During the five years before the last ag census in 2019, Minnesota lost around 5,000 farms, so we need to do all we can to keep family farmers on their land.

The need for a new cash crop

Farmers see the need for locally grown energy, which is why many have invested in biofuels plants, such as ethanol and biodiesel. When they grow commodity crops and have markets available at their local biofuels plant, they have more certainty of a fair price for their products. Ethanol production, for example, produces ethanol for automobile fuel and many by-products, such as dried distillers’ grain soluble which can be fed to livestock; corn oil that can be used in biodiesel production or livestock feed; and industrial grade alcohol that can be used to make vodka, hand sanitizer, cosmetics and more. When these plants are structured as cooperatives, the diversified product stream allows for a higher return on investment for farmer members.

As early adopters of technology, farmers have installed biodigesters, wind turbines and solar panels to power their farms for decades. More recently, farmers are experimenting with co-location of solar with livestock and other agricultural practices. A great example of this is the West Central Outreach & Research Center at the University of Minnesota-Morris is using agrivoltaics to shade their dairy cows. There is also interest in using agrivoltaics with sheep and goats, though there is concern that the latter would damage the panels.

Another renewable energy option for farmers is to lease part of their farmland to large wind and solar installations. It ensures a steady income for the farmer for the life of the contract, and it also helps produce clean energy which benefits the farm and community. A concern of many farmers when approached by solar or wind developers is the lengthy contract. To help them navigate contracts, MFU partnered with the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) to create the Farmers’ Guide to Solar & Wind Energy in Minnesota. The guide is meant to be a general resource for farmers and covers many topics including legal agreements, leases, easements, covenants, contract provisions, assignment clauses, liability provisions, insurance provisions, tax considerations, equipment responsibility and maintenance, compensation, land use restrictions and more. The guide can be downloaded from FLAG’s website or MFU’s website. As always, farmers should consult their attorneys regarding their specific situations or contracts.

Policy solutions to help farmers

wind turbine on farm

Within state government, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently established a Climate Change Advisory Council. MFU was glad to see him appoint two farmer-members to the council – Anne Schwagerl of Big Stone County and Pat Lunemann of Todd County. Anne is an organic crop and diversified livestock farmer, as well as the MFU State Secretary. Pat is a dairy farmer and has been an active MFU member for years. Both have seen the effects of climate change firsthand and are committed to making agriculture a part of policy solutions.

National Farmers Union (NFU) has also made climate change a top priority, recognizing that farmers can help mitigate climate change. Their climate and carbon sequestration policy is a comprehensive federal approach with practices that focus on soil health, CO2 emissions reductions and carbon sink potential of ag and forested lands. The policy must:

  • build on the Farm Bill’s voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs;

  • spur on-farm production of energy and expand the use and availability of biofuels;

  • encourage markets that appropriately compensate farmers for the goods and environmental services they provide; and

  • ensure a strong public investment in research to move farming systems forward.

Learn more about NFU’s climate change work.

In December 2020, NFU announced its first Climate Change Policy Advisory Panel (CCPAP), a 16-member panel of family farmers and ranchers from across the country. These members will share their own experiences with climate change to provide recommendations to the organization. MFU is proud to have Hannah Bernhardt of Medicine Creek Farm and the Pine County Farmers Union Vice President representing us on the panel. Hannah is a beginning farmer focusing on sustainable and regenerative agriculture, through intensive-management and rotational grazing for optimal animal and soil health, producing pastured pork and 100% grass-fed and finished lamb and beef. Her farm was also Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certified in September 2020 and is committed to leaving the land better off than when she found it.

NFU is also a leader on the new Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), which also includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, FMI-The Food Industry Association, National Alliance of Forest Owners, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the Nature Conservancy. This diverse group has not worked together so closely on climate policy before.

FACA supports the following policy recommendations:

  • Providing voluntary, incentive-based tools for farmers, ranchers and forest owners to maximize the sequestration of carbon and the reduction of other greenhouse gas emissions, as well as increase the resilience of the land.

  • Supporting the development and oversight of private sector markets for GHG credits.

  • Promoting public and private sector tools to incentivize farmers, ranchers and forest owners to prioritize and scale climate-smart practices.

  • Offering incentives for farmers to reduce energy consumption, increase use of on-farm renewable energy and make continued progress toward reducing the lifecycle GHG emissions of agriculture- and forestry-based renewable energy.

  • Streamlining consumer-facing packaging and implementing a public private-partnership to reduce the GHG impact of food waste and loss within the food value chain.

  • Increasing federal investment in agriculture, forestry and food-related research substantially and continuously.

flowers in solar field

Over the last five years we have had disastrous growing seasons and low farm income, leading to the loss of hundreds of farms in Minnesota. Although farm income improved in 2020 due to better harvests and higher prices, the main factor was the financial support from the federal government in payments through the Paycheck Protection Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Programs (CFAP and CFAP 2). This support is necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, farmers would rather not rely on the federal government to survive. Improving energy efficiency on farms helps reduce operating costs, installing small scale wind or solar helps reduce energy costs further and installing large scale wind or solar ensures a guaranteed income for years to come.

Farmers are resilient and proud of their work. They rely on the land and their animals for their income and are working to keep the farm healthy for future generations – and the planet we share. Supporting their efforts on land stewardship and renewable energy ultimately benefits all of us.

Michelle Medina GermánMichelle Medina Germán is the Director of Programming at Minnesota Farmers Union, and leads MFU’s renewable energy programming that helps educate farmers on energy efficiency, renewable energy and more. Michelle is a registered lobbyist for MFU focusing on agriculture, energy and the environment.

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