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Riley Dormaier (2 1/2) waits for his turn on the combine during Dormaier Family Farms 2020 harvest
near Hartline.

Photo by Robin Dormaier

Wilbur-Ellis

POLICY

Going green(er)

Palouse citizens group seeks input from producers on climate action

June 2021
By Trista Crossley


The Palouse is more than just rolling hills, small towns and exceptional crops. It’s also the home of an organization making a determined effort to include the agricultural industry in climate change discussions.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) describes itself as a grassroots, nonpartisan advocacy organization focused on national and local policies to address climate change. With approximately 200,000 members nationwide, the CCL establishes relationships with local, state and federal officials to build political support for climate action in keeping with local culture and politics. The Palouse chapter of the CCL, established in 2012, has approximately 700 members from Whitman County in Washington and Latah County in Idaho and counts a number of large scale commodity producers among them.

“Agriculture is the backbone of our economy,” explained Judy Meuth, co-leader of the Palouse CCL. “It seems like if we are going to have a climate solution, we need to take care of everybody. Agriculture is a critical industry in the world, and if we don’t take care of agriculture and help it become more sustainable over time, whether we have climate change or not, we are not going to be able to sustain the human population. As a biologist, I think about it in terms of this is our habitat. We have to take care of the habitat just like we would for deer.”

Meuth grew up in a farming and ranching family in Texas, where they raised sorghum, field corn and cattle. She was a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as a professor from Washington State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She said that as early as 2017, the Palouse CCL was meeting with farmers and ranchers to talk about the challenges they were facing, and what climate solutions seemed reasonable to them. The group would then take that information to members of Congress.

In February of this year, the Palouse CCL held an online Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Policy meeting. In addition to several guest speakers, attendees at the meeting, which included farmers and ranchers, were invited to share their thoughts about climate legislation and carbon sequestration. The overall takeaway, Meuth said, was people were very much interested in soil health and trying to figure out how to do the best thing they can to keep their soil in good shape.

“But the challenge of working for carbon sequestration on your place has a lot of bumps in the road, everything from capital to invest in new equipment to tons of different kinds of small things, like ‘I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know what would work on my farm. What if I want to change crops, can I do that?’ Just on and on, so figuring out how to do that came out to be one of big problems. How do I get money to do that? How do I figure out what the best thing to do is, and what can I switch off if I want to?” she explained. “Several people said they would like to get involved, but were worried about being locked into some type of program that would keep them in a particular practice that didn’t work as well as they thought it would.”

The CCL is endorsing several pieces of climate legislation, including the Growing Climate Solutions Act (S 1251) and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 2307). Both bills have been introduced in Congress. S 1251 would create an advisory board and provide startup funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help solve technical entry barriers to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners who want to participate in carbon credit markets. HR 2307 puts a fee on carbon pollution, and the money collected would be returned to Americans in the form of a monthly dividend.

Although S 1251 has been endorsed by several national groups, including the American Farm Bureau, the National Corn Growers and the Environmental Defense Fund, the wheat industry has not endorsed it. The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) supports recognizing agricultural practices as a benefit to the environment and believes that any policy or regulation regarding conservation practices and technological advances that aid in the reduction of carbon emissions should be administered through the farm bill or the private sector. The wheat industry should be fully involved in discussions and the development of any policy or legislation relating to climate change. WAWG also believes that any carbon mitigation program should be voluntary, based on sound science principles and that growers need to have the flexibility to decide what practices work best on their farm.

Meuth said that the main concern they keep hearing from farmers regarding carbon regulation is the potential increase in transportation costs and cost of inputs, such as fertilizer, although HR 2307 does exempt on-farm fuel. As she pointed out, however, farmers aren’t like other businesses that can simply raise the cost of their product to compensate for the increased input costs.

“I’m not going to, in good conscience, ask anybody to back something that leaves them high and dry when it’s not the same way for most other industries. Most other industries say, ‘yes, if you make fossil fuels a little more expensive, I can change my price,’” she said. “One of the things we are advocating for, especially from our particular group, is when we go to Congress, we say let’s make sure we are taking care of what farmers’ needs are. I am completely in support of price on carbon, but we need to have a companion bill that goes with it that says we will protect commodity farmers because they can’t change their price.”

Other concerns that the Palouse CCL has been hearing from farmers is that any carbon program needs to be voluntary; that agricultural research is well funded and being done at universities; and that farmers want technical assistance and financial aid as they transition to more sustainable farming practices.

In the February online session, according to notes compiled by the Palouse CCL, producers said they wanted assistance in these areas:

• How carbon credit markets, and particular companies, work, and how to access them.

• Ways to accurately test for soil health and carbon sequestration.

• Crop rotations that work best with reduced tillage.

• Cover crops and mixes designed for specific areas/farms and ranches.

• Market incentives or government program incentives to create more diversity in our food production system and to regenerate the soil.

• Perennial crops.

• More crops that are economically competitive and market development for those crops.

• Integrating livestock in a cropping system to help manage resources, reduce fuel loads to help prevent wildfires and increase water retention from hoof disturbance of soils.

• Maximizing the benefit of inputs to reduce waste.

• More on-farm trials.

While some farmers Meuth meets are skeptical about climate change, she thinks most of them are seeing the changes, such as dryer, hotter summers, but not calling it a climate change issue. While farmers are supportive of research and technical assistance that helps them and their crops adapt to less moisture and warmer temperatures, Meuth believes adapting to a changing climate will only get farmers so far. She said that without decreasing carbon, temperatures will continue to rise to the point where the nutritional level of crops are negatively impacted.

“The actual data that farmers have been collecting in their own experiences goes along with climate change, but they aren’t framing it that way,” she said. “There are some folks that just see it as variability, and certainly it is that, but one of the hallmarks of climate change is more and more variability in weather over time.”

The Palouse CCL is still seeking farmer feedback on the Growing Climate Solutions Act and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. For more information about the Palouse CCL, a video recording of the February online session and a link to a feedback form, visit their website at cclpalouse.org.