Climate-smart farming should be encouraged

Guest Commentary
By Lynetta Usher Griner, Jim Strickland and Jack Payne
Special to the Lake Okeechobee News

GAINESVILLE — It’s the people who feed, clothe and shelter you speaking. We need to talk.

We’ve been busy producing food and fiber as well as the science to limit farming’s footprint. Now we’re talking about farming’s role in the climate crisis.

We know we can do more to lower greenhouse gas emissions and capture carbon. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), which has been hosting these discussions, provides science that says so.

What’s happening in Florida is part of a movement to grow a crop of ideas on how to get ahead of higher temperatures, stronger hurricanes, and rising sea levels that put salt in the soil. We’re resolved to be a source of solutions to face this threat to our livelihoods and yours.

Jim Strickland

There’s good news on the solutions front. Much of the technology needed for a better farm of the future exists now. Some Florida farmers, foresters, and ranchers already demonstrate climate-friendly practices that could be more affordably adopted by others with the right incentives as part of a society-wide climate strategy.

Consider that your $5 hamburger comes with complimentary sides of protected panther habitat, wildfire containment and fewer acres of strip mall. Ranches give you that.

Similarly, when you buy paper or furniture, you get carbon sequestration, flood control and water filtration for free. Forests give you that.

Producers don’t get much credit — in public image nor in their bank accounts — for this. For the most part, they bear the cost of keeping their lands undeveloped. Yes, there are some programs that will pay producers not to pave. That’s a start.

For the most part, though, farmers, foresters and ranchers get paid for what they produce, not what they protect. Let’s have deeper discussion about how to change the economics of land use in Florida.

Jack Payne

We as producers and scientists will continue to bring climate-conscious ideas as well as food to the table. Ideas like no-till farming that keeps carbon in the soil instead of released to the air. Like soil sensors that tell us we can shut off water pumps — and emissions from the fuel that runs them. Like reducing carbon miles from field to fork by figuring out how to grow food here instead of importing it.

We call it climate-smart agriculture. It means producing more food with less water and fewer chemicals. It means getting started on research now instead of waiting for triple-digit temperatures to fry our fields. It means farming in a way that sequesters more carbon.

Some of us do this now. Our challenge is to make it commonplace. It’ll cost. Science can help answer how much. Public policy, though, will have to grapple with the question of who pays.

Because we’re a bit defensive about being labeled villains in the climate crisis, we’ve hesitated to come to the public policy table to discuss responses. No more. We’re starting by taking the table to us. We’re scheduled to host Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, chairwoman of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, to visit with us this month to talk climate action with farmers, foresters, and ranchers as allies in strategizing.

It only makes sense that producers get involved. As if we needed any reminder of what the stakes are, Hurricane Michael snapped the trunks of trees like matchsticks, ruining a 20-year crop. It sent ranchers scrambling to get their cows off I-10.

Lynetta Usher Griner

Climate-smart ag conversations like ours are occurring in Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio. We expect to see more of it as climate’s effects on farming become more evident.

In Florida, at least, we’re not content to talk. The leadership of visionary farmers, foresters and ranchers, the science of solutions from UF/IFAS, and the support of the facilitating group Solutions from the Land will produce an action agenda.

Farmers, foresters and ranchers have too long let themselves be painted as the problem. This is our way of becoming part of the solution.

Lynetta Usher Griner is the 2018 Florida Farmer of the Year and a generational forest landowner and logger. Jim Strickland is the Audubon Florida Sustainable Rancher of the Year. They are the co-chairs of the Florida Climate-Smart Agriculture Steering Committee. Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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