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The carbon footprint may be on agriculture's face

A ruling by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put into play all kinds of possibilities for land use in the new century. This is not just conjecture, as a court ruling required the EPA to declare greenhouse gasses to be detrimental to public health and to open a comment period on how to regulate them. This will either result in regulation or legislation to address how to manage land and livestock in the global warming era.

I can hear some of you seething right now, and I sympathize; however, the political reality of global warming is real, regardless of the scientific basis for the conclusion that man is heating up the planet and must change practices to reverse the trend.

To moderate your emotions, go back to the conservation provisions that were put into farm legislation in the 1980s. Remember "sodbuster" and "swampbuster" as radical concepts to prevent land from being converted from native vegetation to cropland? Then, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) came along and enticed farmers to set aside millions of acres of marginal land. Each of these was resisted until the economics were examined. It is quite possible that programs to counter global warming will make another offer and this time it will be to "re-forest" America.

The key is carbon. It is released into the atmosphere naturally by our environment but also by acts of man. Plowing the soil releases it, while growing a crop collects it. The most efficient way to bring the carbon in our air back into balance is to put it back into the ground. This can be done on a very large scale by planting trees on land that was once farmed. The initial talk is to "re-forest" 300 million acres of land. (breathe, breathe, OK) What is it worth to you (government) for me (landowner) to do this? The projection is that farmland converted to growing trees can capture seven tons of carbon per acre/per year. The value of the carbon, per ton, goes as high as $70! Now, you are talking! At $490 per acre, per year, global warming ain't that bad!

Oh sure, you'd have to give up your cows, sign a long-term deal, put in the trees, get them established and control the deer. But that's real money and the aesthetic beauty could be breathtaking. I'm thinking Grant Wood's painting of Stone City might be recreated on a canvas a thousand miles wide. The reality is that every farm could become 25 percent trees with fields diminished in size and greenbelts crossing the Plains in every conceivable direction.

Will it happen? Probably not, because when you add up the expense to society and the reduction in food production, it won't yield the political results necessary to keep voters happy. If we follow the accusations of the consequences of ethanol production, it would cause tropical countries to cut down their forests, which would more than negate the gain in carbon sequestration.

What are the other options? Government could start by taxing livestock for its emissions and then move to penalizing farmers who till their land before planting. Add in emissions taxes for commercial and farm vehicles and penalties for any action that releases carbon. To control costs, the program could be based on "offsets" rather than incentives. You may gain "credits" by practicing no-till farming that would "offset" your cow herd. The trees might be planted with government participation, but without annual payment, just to allow traditional farming on the remainder of your land. The fertilizer you buy might be a dollar a pound because the maker had to buy carbon credits to manufacture it.

This is not idle speculation designed to elevate your heart rate while reading. It is going to be a real political issue that will impact the farms of America. Congress must act to limit the Clean Air Act or to tailor programs to gain compliance. Either way, the farmer and rancher will be attached. Animal agriculture may be most negatively affected, especially intensively raised livestock. The potential for offsets only works when you have something to offer to counter the action against your major enterprise. Dairies, poultry operations and hog farms usually don't have enough land to provide for their needs--let alone having 25 percent of additional property to set aside. Western ranches may do well, but their productivity per acre is low and some would say that the land is already in its native state, so why change it. The greatest beneficiaries could be farmers who produce program crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. They are a known quantity today, with great promise for carbon reduction tomorrow. The government may step in and "pay to play" on their acres by shifting payments that are already being made and going after more money from industry to channel to land that will become a carbon sink.

Once again, we are living in historic times. The challenge of global warming is worldwide, but the first major step may be a footprint on the farmland of our country.

Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.

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