Former USDA Secretary Vilsack is right: “You cannot ask farmers to do this on their own. They have the will but not the resources.” 

The bipartisan hearing held by the Senate Agriculture Committee, led by Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow, on Climate Change and the Agriculture Sector set an important precedent for future conversations and the work we need to do to bring to bear the benefits of climate-smart agriculture – work we need to do for our farmers, for our society and for the future of our planet. We are facing the greatest challenge humankind has ever encountered and farming done right offers a one-of-a-kind solution, one that we must embrace and support fervently. 

The role that farmers can play in combatting climate change was on full display earlier this week and the positive impact their efforts can have on farm productivity and profitability, our environment and our economy were made clear by the testimony. But while farmers and ranchers are working to reduce their emissions and to sequester more carbon in the soil, there is much more that can—and must—be done to address climate change. 

Adopting climate-smart agricultural practices is among the least costly and most immediate actions that can help reduce GHG emissions on a meaningful scale. Their extensive adoption can serve as an important bridge until new climate-friendly energy and transportation technologies are developed. 

While there are a growing number of farmers and ranchers taking action to rebuild their soil by adopting soil health management systems, key barriers hinder more widespread adoption. We need to break down those barriers and deliver urgently needed support and incentives so that farmers and ranchers can do the work we all need them to do.

There is another immediate challenge. One that was briefly mentioned in yesterday’s hearing, but one we must not disregard. Farmland in this nation is being destroyed at an alarming rate. 1.5 million acres annually, three acres per minute, are being converted to real estate development.  

This trend is a problem for our nation’s efforts to combat climate change as we are losing our best farmland fastest—farmland best suited for intensive food production and most useful for restoring our planet. Low density suburban sprawl that consumes farmland also correlates with increased transportation emissions as more cars are on the road for more miles.  

This nation has the world’s largest concentration of fertile soil for farming.  We need every acre of it to not only feed ourselves and to have any hope of effectively combating climate change. This land can capture carbon while making our society more resilient by recharging aquifers, helping manage floods and fires and providing habitat for wildlife. 

I seriously question if our nation can achieve its goals for responding to climate change if we don’t commit to protect and promote good stewardship of every acre of farmland and ranchland in America.  

But I am optimistic—because more people are talking about the need to draw down carbon from the air and sequester it in the soil; because the same practices that combat climate change also increase resiliency, enhance profitability and improve water quality; because many states are taking the lead to develop climate policies like those of the US Climate Alliance; and because the federal Farm Bill, passed last year, is funding many practices to reduce GHGs and capture carbon.  

The Farm Bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program received another $2 billion in funds to help farmers and ranchers looking to protect their land from real estate development. Through programs like Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, the Farm Bill supports voluntary practices that improve soil health, increase resiliency and productivity of farm operations, and bolster the land’s ability to capture and store carbon. 

Senator Stabenow has rightly described the 2018 Farm Bill as a first piece of bipartisan climate legislation. We need to make sure farmers are fully utilizing these programs and the NRCS offices have the resources and the people to roll out these funds rapidly.

We need to heed the wise words of farmer Matt Rezac who testified at the hearing and knows first-hand that farmers are great stewards, that they want to protect and improve this valuable resource. 

“I know focusing on environmental stewardship also makes economic sense, when it’s done right. I strongly believe that with the right policy and the right incentives, farmers can keep improving across the board. We can produce an abundant food supply, safeguard resources for the future, maintain our businesses, and lead the way on climate solutions.”

I want to make sure we all realize how important farming is to our future -- the land, the practices and the people. My personal mission is to work relentlessly to connect the dots. No Farms. No Food. No Future. 

John Piotti has worked at the forefront of sustainable agriculture since the early 1990s, first in his home state of Maine, and now nationally. In 2016, he became the president of American Farmland Trust, bringing new energy to this storied organization that helped create the conservation agriculture movement.