3.30.2018 – Agriculture Sequesters Carbon and Hemp Production

Last week, I painted a rather bleak picture of our working landscape and the challenges faced by the people who work in our forest products and agricultural sectors. This week I would like to focus on turning these challenges into opportunities and explore some thoughts that I, and others, have had regarding what we can do about the situation.

In feedback received as a result of last week’s article, it was suggested to me via email that if no one wants to farm the land, farms should go out of business and the land go back to forest. Besides the fact that dairy farming accounts for $3 million per day to the State’s economy, dairy farmers do want to farm but they are struggling with low milk prices that are set on a federal level, and over which they have no control.

The milk-pricing system is a monopsony, which is a market structure in which only one buyer interacts with many would-be sellers. The bottom line is that the farmer has to take what the buyer offers, unlike most commercial models where the seller sets the price.

In Switzerland, farmers are heavily subsidized by the Swiss government in order to maintain the countryside, which is considered extremely important in a country that relies heavily on tourism. In a 2013 article in The Local online, Malcolm Curtis reported that “Government agricultural subsidies in Switzerland accounted for 57% of farm income in 2012”, and increase of 2% from the previous year. Switzerland was second only to Norway where subsidies represented 63% of the farmers’ incomes. My understanding is that higher prices are paid to Swiss farmers whose cows graze at higher elevations!

I haven’t polled our farmers but suspect that they would prefer not to receive subsidies and rather be paid a living wage for their milk. Right now they are not even receiving what it costs to produce the milk.

The concept of letting the land go back to forest is anathema to anyone who has worked to clear land – it is backbreaking work and hard won. There are a number of places throughout the State where fields have been given up and started to go back to pucker brush. It is disheartening to watch this happen.

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee recently passed a Regenerative Agriculture Bill that codifies a pilot project known as the Environmental Stewardship Program created at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. Farmers who are accepted into the program will be expected to employ soil health principles that will build organic matter in the soil. They will be assessed on nutrient management, sediment and erosion control, soil health, greenhouse-gas emission and carbon sequestration, and pasture health.

Four of the basic soil health principles include: Disturb the soil as little as possible, grow as many different species of plants as practical, keep living plants in the soil as much as possible, and keep the soil covered year-round. Employing these principles has a couple of very positive effects. It is estimated that if we can achieve the goal of having 75,000 acres in cover crops and 42,000 acres in buffer/filter strips, we can draw down 80,750 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is equal to removing 21,400 cars from our roads. We know that the majority of our carbon footprint comes from transportation and home heating so by using these agricultural strategies, we can make up for part of our transportation impact. Currently, we have a minimum of 22,000 acres cover-cropped that are accounted for in Nutrient Management Plans and are aware of many others so we are well on our way to that goal.

On top of this benefit, the organic matter that builds up in the soil as a result of these practices reduces nutrient run-off and therefore, the nutrient load in our waters. For a demonstration on how this works, go to YouTube and search for Ray Archuleta who is a well-known Conservation Agronomist. His “Slake” and “Rain” Tests are fascinating and proof that employing soil health strategies such as cover cropping and no-till will help clean up the waters of our state. If farmers were paid for sequestering carbon it would help bolster their incomes. There has also been research and efforts to harvest phosphorus and market it to areas where it is needed.

Another crop that might help farmers improve their incomes is hemp. There are multiple uses for hemp including animal and human food, building materials, rope, clothing, and medicinal uses, to name a few. Vermont businesses have been extracting cannabidiol (CBD) from hemp for use in products that have shown positive results in treating epilepsy, psoriasis, anxiety, and pain relief. CBD products are being sold by Ceres Natural Products in Brattleboro.

Legislation has been proposed that would promote additional research to improve our knowledge about the benefits of the various types of hemp and their properties. Hemp was a very successful crop in the 19th and early 20th century in Vermont. We know that it grows well here and might be something that could help farmers who are struggling.

We learned in testimony that North Carolina has vibrant hemp production and that one farmer, alone, will be growing 25,000 acres. Other states are ahead of us on this and it would behoove us to strike while the iron is hot.

Our Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets is prepared to facilitate the necessary additional permitting and any testing that might need to be done to assure that the hemp grown falls within the required standards. Hemp cannot have more than three-tenths of one percent (.3%) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the ingredient in marijuana that gets users high. Our proposed legislation would allow for the option for farmers who grow hemp with high THC levels to have medical marijuana dispensaries extract the THC to be used in medicinal products. Currently, farmers in such a situation would have to destroy their crop.

As we move forward with hemp production and development of hemp products, we will need for testing to be done to assure that people are getting what they are paying for and the dosage they expect. The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets has testified that this is something they are prepared to do.