Written by intern Mikkela B. 

Soil is one of the most valuable assets we have in the fight against climate change. Not only does soil support biodiversity, but it also has the power to sequester large amounts of carbon. And drawdown is critical – the IPCC report concludes that not only do we need to greatly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, but we also must consider carbon capture and sequestration if we are to meet the 1.5℃ limited warming goal. Yet unsustainable practices–like tilling, applying pesticides and herbicides, fertilizer use, and monocropping–are damaging the soil and harming the animals and humans that depend on it. 

But farmers–industrial and otherwise–don’t necessarily have it easy, either. The problems faced by those in agricultural communities are vast, and include falling prices, high stress, extreme weather, and economic events. While farmers typically earn income from both on- and off-farm sources, the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) reports that the median income earned by farm households was -$1,735, and was forecasted to increase to only $296 in 2019. From 1996 through 2018, median farm income earned by farm households was negative each year. A lack of access to markets, financial and cultural barriers, and inadequate policies all contribute to the problem. 

It’s no wonder, then, that farmers might find themselves between a rock and a hard place when thinking about doing things differently.

The solution to both problems–environmental issues and farmer difficulties–may lie in regenerative agriculture. A bill proposed at the federal level seeks to incentivize and support farmers who are engaging in regenerative, climate-friendly practices. Sponsored by Senator Mike Braun (R – Indiana), Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), The Growing Climate Solutions Act (H.R. 7393/S. 3984) would create a certification program at the USDA to help alleviate farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon markets. Farmers already know that “sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand” – this can be used to drive operations improvements in a way that addresses “the root causes of the climate crisis,” said Sen. Stabenow at a Senate hearing on the bill in late June. 

According to Phil Taylor, who serves as a research associate at the University of Colorado – Boulder and is the founder of Mad Agriculture, an organization that is working to “catalyze a regenerative revolution in agriculture,” when it comes to making a transition to more sustainable practices, farmers are hesitant to do something different from what they’ve been doing for years. And it’s not just about technical know-how; there are social and cultural barriers, too. 

“In a place like Boulder,” Phil starts, “everyone’s doing their own thing. In other parts of the country, someone who’s different sticks out like a sore thumb.” He goes on, “Also, when you shift, even something as simple as adopting organic practices, everyone starts looking over the fence. Your neck is on the line. Your reputation is on the line. You’re the talk of the town. Who wants to be the talk of the town? Who wants to be the weird person?”   

And then there are two other big barriers: markets and money. 

If a farmer wants to transition to a regenerative system, they need money to do so. Currently, most farmers operate on thin margins and are saddled with various forms of debt, including land loans, equipment costs, and operating costs. Even when a farmer can successfully make the transition to regenerative agriculture, the post-transition reality isn’t without challenges. 

Consider Alice and Karl Starek who own and operate The Golden Hoof, a 100-acre regenerative slow food farm located on 75th street in east Boulder. The regenerative practices employed on the farm are so effective that Phil tells me, “Their emphasis on livestock management and perennial ecosystems have created the most carbon-rich soils measured in the front range.” Despite this major success, though, a conversation with Alice at her farm highlights that she faces many of the same challenges as other farmers. I ask her if she’s heard anything about the Growing Climate Solutions Act and provide a short overview of its objectives. 

“On the surface, my first instinct is to say that it’s a great idea,” started Alice, “What we really need, though,” she emphasized as she packed her freezers with cuts of her regeneratively raised beef, “Is a Food Freedom Act like what they have in Wyoming,” referring to a law that allows direct farm-to-consumer sales of products that cannot be sold in the same manner in Colorado, such as raw dairy. Such a law has been lauded as supporting farmers in gaining direct market access to consumers. A lack of market access is currently a huge barrier that farmers face, especially farmers “in the middle.” 

“There’s been a bifurcation in the farm economy, with small, diversified farms doing direct-to-consumer sales where they can get maximal value; whereas large farms have undergone major consolidation,” Phil explains, “This has left the traditional, American farmer abandoned and in the middle. They have no access to consumer markets, and have to bend to commodification of crops. They have no options – the only place they can sell their crops is the elevator,” referring to grain silos that dot the countryside to move grains to the city.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act wouldn’t change anything about the regulatory framework of farm-to-consumer sales. Instead, it would assist farmers in gaining access to carbon markets – which means that farmers would get paid for the carbon that they sequester (and the more carbon sequestered–which means the greater the necessity for regenerative practices–the better). This emissions-reducing framework not only helps to combat climate change by storing carbon directly in the ground, but the more carbon-sequestration-ready a farmer’s soil, the healthier that soil is, too. 

For someone who doesn’t already work with farmers and doesn’t understand the landscape of carbon markets, this may sound like a fantastic idea, and perhaps it is, but Phil cautions that we shouldn’t be so quick to accept carbon markets as the answer, especially when the price of carbon is low. 

“In short,” he explains, “carbon markets could be an avenue, but society is going to need to be willing to pay a lot more. $15/ton isn’t enough,” he stresses, “It takes a good $50/ton to get carbon into the soil – $15/ton is only paying a fraction of what it costs to put it in the ground.” And he doesn’t stop there, “The social cost of carbon is at least $200 – until society is willing to pay more, these markets are going to fall short. Also, there’s no precedent for these markets actually working.” 

His sentiment–that we need to value regenerative practices more significantly–is echoed by Alice. “Most food purchasers only want the cheapest thing as they need to buy food every day and they don’t have much money. Our society routinely values things like new I-phones, new clothes, and new cars over healthy, regenerative food. [Consumers] will spend lots of money on a pumpkin to carve that looks pretty, but would not purchase an ugly regenerative pumpkin to eat and would not pay a premium for any pumpkin that ‘they were just going to eat,’” implying that there needs to be a major shift in consumers’ mindsets before regenerative farms will consistently gain access to the markets they need to be viable. 

Under the legislation, farmers would receive technical assistance in developing the types of practices that sequester carbon and would make a farmer eligible for carbon credits, as explained by an article published by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. The bill has been supported by a wide range of interested parties, ranging from farmers to big businesses, including McDonald’s and Microsoft, which have both backed the legislation. 

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture on June 26. The legislation has been described as “gaining momentum” to move forward, with Congressional representatives recognizing the urgency of climate change, even as the pandemic consumes national attention. 

John Curtis (R-UT) and Joe Neguse (D-CO) have also introduced bipartisan legislation to initiate a study on the impacts on soil health on public lands and the role that soil can play in carbon sequestration and storage. 


Mikkela Blanton is a graduate student at the University of Colorado – Boulder and an intern with 350CO’s Regenerative Ag and Local Food Committee. 

Want to learn more? A few great resources for learning about regenerative agriculture, carbon sequestration, and the role of animals and grazing in supporting soil health include:

Kiss the Ground

Mad Agriculture 

The Rodale Institute

350CO’s Regenerative Ag & Local Food Hub

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