Expert Insight: Natural Resources and Climate Mitigation

April 13, 2021

On January 14, together with Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, we held an event focused on implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act as it pertains to New York’s natural resources. We convened two panels of experts to discuss how protecting nature can help with climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as the various techniques farms can employ to fight climate change. A recording of the event can be watched here

During the forum, the audience had an opportunity to ask questions, although we weren’t able to answer all of them during our Q&A session. Event panelists Samantha Levy, New York Policy Manager for the American Farmland Trust; Jenifer Wightman, a research specialist at the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and John Macauley of Macauley Farms in Livingston County, NY have responded to some unanswered questions from the forum.

Lynda asked: “Do we have simultaneous data re biodiversity value alongside carbon?”

Jenifer responded that “One very direct way of looking at biodiversity is preventing lands from being developed. This reduces road development and travel, it maintains corridors for wildlife, and increases diversity. Yes, we should always be looking at biodiversity, but the issue of climate is so large, that it will radically change the landscape (and its inhabitants). So it is a yes/and agenda – in general we need more funding for research to ensure multiple ecosystem services are maintained and/or improved, carbon and diversity being but 2.”

Sheree asked: How does payment to landowners for carbon sequestration tie into the market?

Samantha responded that “Currently all we have are voluntary markets, so any widespread public payments would be additive and likely help to unlock potential.”

Sheree also said: “Can the small role of Carbon sequestration in agriculture be reconsidered? Regenerative Ag has the potential to sequester huge amounts of CO2. It also reduces the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide. And can increase the amount of local meat and dairy, reducing transportation and GHG emissions from nonlocal meat and dairy, and potentially eliminate CFOs.”

Samantha replied: “Agreed, and we are working hard to ensure this is considered in the state’s climate plan through the panels and working groups”

Ellen asked: “How do you balance/evaluate a proposed solar array that would be located in forest and require cutting down trees.” (sic)

Jenifer responded: “In principle, we want to keep forest as forest to maintain and improve their carbon pool (and for some land owners, product) capacity. Therefore, we should look to site solar on idle or underutilized lands and we should consider improving the grid to connect these idle (unforested) lands to grid. In general, we should aspire to keep forest as forest, ag as ag, and activate underutilized lands for solar. We estimate ~1.7 million acres of idle land in NYS.”

Bill asked: “If I owned a failing agricultural operation in the Hudson Valley, would the GHG value be greater if I reforested it or if I built a solar farm?”

Jenifer replied: “Great question. First, why is the ag operation failing? What does this mean about your underlying soils/topography or types of crops/animals or business model? How much area is it? Are you looking to find a profitable alternative? Or are you looking at maximizing GHG mitigation? Are you close to 3-phase power lines (necessary for solar, can be expensive to connect if not nearby)? What kind of trees would you like to grow (for bioenergy or long lived wood products)? Do you have lots of deer (afforestation can be difficult to get started and it will take decades to see the result – which is part of why it is such a great endeavor for climate, but difficult financially in the near term with current policies – which may change quickly to support afforestation but that is not yet clear)? Both solar and afforestation take effort and I would start by trying to keep the ag-land as ag land, and then start accumulating details about whether or not solar or woodlands are well suited. Every location has unique characteristics – but agriculture, solar and forest are all fantastic land uses. Just don’t forget how much time it took your forefathers to remove tree stumps from that ag soil before you start planting more! That is an embodied gift of ag land (rock and root clearing – don’t underestimate its value!).”

Kyle asked a series of questions about solar and agriculture, which were answered by Samantha:

“Can you comment on agri-voltaics?”

“This is a newer, yet interesting approach that the current renewable market in NY doesn’t support the growth of. We need research in NYS and proof of concept, and then perhaps we might be able to better incentivize agri-voltaics more diverse than just sheep grazing or pollinators habitat.”

“Can you comment on the use of regenerative solar and any benifits on agriculture?”

“I’m not sure what regenerative solar is”

“Do you have any comments on the use of renewables in New York to offset GHG emissions? In particular, utility scale solar projects on areas that are already open fields/deforested?”

“Renewables are not exactly being used to offset emissions, but rather to reduce GHG emissions out of the gate. Developers need to site these projects near transmission, and so that and willing landowners are main drivers for siting decisions, not the value of the land they are placed on. We would like to see the value of the land considered more readily in siting decisions so that in our quest for energy security, we do not let market forces compromise our food security or farm viability”

“Could you please comment on the conflict between utility scale solar facilities and agricultural land with the environment? What are some major issues and what can be done to allow the deployment of solar in a sustainable manner with respect to farming?”

“The answer is smart solar siting. I recommend referring to a blog I wrote last year for more information:

Caroline asked: “What will the Best Farmlands map look like in 2050 assuming not catastrophic warming, but not really meeting the stated goals….??”

Samantha answered: “AFT’s next iteration of the Farms Under Threat report will seek to answer these questions. Look out for it!”

Caroline added: “That is, will there be any increase in very farmable land in the northern part of the state, esp the northeastern part of the state, where we could a little more easily start some of these best practices, conservation easements, and so on?”

Samantha replied: “In theory yes, but the impacts of climate change on soils are complex. This may be a better question for researchers at Cornell, or refer to the state’s Clime-Aid (not spelled right) report”

Bernie asked: “I am wondering whether, in general, farmer are open to adopting no-till farming or do they need persuasion. For example, are John Macauley’s neighbor farmers doing no-till?”

John responded: “In general farmer are always looking to save time and money, but as of adopting no-till some struggle to fully adopt the practice. With no-till you have to think more than just going out and doning conventional. For example what to do with weeds, conventional farmer would just go out and do tillage to fix the problem and chemical termination, but a no-till/ cover crop farmer would say what can I grow for a cover crop suppress the weeds and grow plants that either winter kill or one thats grow in spring that need crimping or chemical termination.”

Bernie also said: “Maybe John can opine on whether no-till farming is more profitable?”

John replied: “No-till farming is still profitable and for me is more profitable than conventional farming we were doing before.”

Mary asked: “A question for John Macauley — thanks for a great presentation. I remain unclear about whether increased pesticide/herbicide use is needed with no-till. I have heard both yes and no. Can you talk about that?”

John responded: “When it comes to more herbicide use, we are using the same abount as i would if I was conventionaling tilling. With the use of cover crops our herbicide use has been a little reduced in those fields. As for pesticide I look and think before appling, I dont like to handle them if I dont need to. I also look to see if ther is truly a need, past the thresholds level, is there beneficials inscect that are moving in that are taking on the pests (pesticides terminate benificials along with pests), and are the in just part of the field than I will just spray that part.”

Samantha added: “The programs John described are great Federal programs. The state also has a number of programs funded in the Environmental Protection Fund, such as the Agricultural non-point source pollution and abatement program and the Climate resilient farming grants program that assist farmers in adopting soil health practices”

Sheree asked: “How do the ag folks see grazing as part of carbon sequestration, and conversion of confined feeding operations as central to CH4 and nitrous oxide emissions,”

Jenifer replied: “I like to think of cows as a kind of food battery. They eat stored winter cellulose (with the help of their microbe collaborators in their gut) to provide milk and meat during or dormant growing season (winter). We can’t eat cellulose – so that symbiotic duo of cow and microbe – makes a valuable transformation of stored cellulose of hay/grains into delicious edibles. However, the composition of food and microbes in the gut is what makes that transformation more or less efficient. If it is less efficient, the system makes more enteric methane and less milk. If the system is more efficient, it produces more milk and less methane. In general, the US dairy and beef industry is quite efficient compared to rural grazing in developing countries where there isn’t supplemental feed to make the ideal gut composition. To be honest, I’m not convinced grazing is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than confined feeding operations where the diet is very closely monitored to maximize feedstuff. In general however, to answer your question most directly, given the potency of methane (in NYS its Global Warming Potential GWP, is 84x more potent than CO2), it is quite difficult to sequester carbon at a rate equivalent to the methane emitted from the cows gut. Additionally, soil and crop carbon is short-lived and fast cycling (compared to long-term carbon sequestered in a 100-yr tree that then builds a 100-yr house), in part bc that soil/crop carbon is like a checking account running the whole biological cycle. That is, existing grasslands are probably at a steady state of carbon (so unlikely any new sequestration there). Therefore, if I were a grazing farm, I would look to giving my herd daily well-designed supplemental rations to minimize the methane and maximize productivity.”

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