Monoculture is messing up the climate. Befriending biodiversity–especially in the soil– can help! Featuring interviews with Michael Kovach (Regenerative Farmer & President of the PA Farmers Union) and Dr. Bonnie McGill (an Ecosystem Ecologist).
Learn more and watch the companion We Are Nature video series here.
Episode Credits: Produced by Taiji Nelson and Michael Pisano. Field Recording by Mark Mangini. Research and editing by Michael Pisano. Music by Mark Mangini and Amos Levy.
Michael Kovach (00:02):
Every bite that you take is a vote for what food system you want to see. Get to know your farmer. Go find a place locally that's doing things that make a difference that you're passionate about. You want to see a better food system. You want to see a more resilient food system. You want to see a food system that puts carbon into the ground instead of leaking it back out or down the river. Go find that person and support them because they need you.
Michael Pisano (00:45):
Welcome to We Are Nature, a podcast about natural histories and livable futures presented by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm your host, Michael Pisano. Climate change is already impacting how we make food and many of our large scale agricultural practices contribute to climate change. Today, we'll talk about all that and about how agriculture can be a part of the solution. We've turned to two experts to break it all down, a farmer-
Michael Kovach (01:17):
I'm Michael Kovach. I'm a grass-fed regenerative type farmer here in Mercer County, Pennsylvania.
Michael Pisano (01:24):
And also an ecologist.
Bonnie McGill (01:26):
I'm Bonnie McGill. I'm an ecosystem ecologist and science communication fellow at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Michael Pisano (01:34):
Together, Michael and Bonnie helped me understand the connections between farming and climate, how agriculture can evolve to feed a better future and how you and I can be a part of making that change. Michael and Karen Kovach run Walnut Hill Farm in South Pymatuning Township, Pennsylvania, just over an hour north of Pittsburgh in Mercer County. Just about 40% of the land in Mercer County is farmland. The three top crops by acreage are forage, meaning hay for livestock, second is corn for grain, meaning corn for livestock or processing into things like corn syrup or biofuel, and then in third place, Mercer County's growing soybeans. Driving up from Pittsburgh to visit the Kovachs at Walnut Hill, I passed through vast fields of corn and soy, the thing you might imagine when you think about American agricultural landscapes.
At Walnut Hill Farm where the Kovachs raise animals and a diverse array of plants to feed them, I saw a very different agricultural landscape. Michael also happens to be president of the Pennsylvania Farmer's Union who advocate for family farmers, sustainable agriculture and policy that promotes a better food system. More on collective farmer action later. Also, soil science, biomimicry, the farm bill and how you, yes, you, can contribute to a better food system. Stay tuned. Yeah, maybe this is a floaty philosophical question to start with, but I'm curious about what it's like to be a farmer in 2021.
Michael Kovach (03:17):
Wow, what's it like to be a farmer in 2021? Well I mean every type of farmer would have a different experience. For me, I feel like we're doing something that has really grown in demand. Folks are really starting to realize that the food system that we've devolved to in the United States is fallible, unhealthy, extractive of nature and the environment and impactful worldwide. So I think there's a growing realization. So from my perspective as a regenerative farmer, it's a great time to be a farmer.
Michael Pisano (03:51):
You might be asking, "What's a regenerative farmer?" There's a couple ways to answer that question. Here's an ecological perspective from Bonnie.
Bonnie McGill (03:59):
This industrial commercial model that we have right now for large scale farming is really a very open loose leaky system in terms of how an ecologist would talk about it. We have a lot of inputs that are coming in, those inputs have big greenhouse gas footprints and we have a lot of things coming out so they're not holding in those nutrients that you put in and other things like that. Whereas with regenerative farming, you're returning to how nature works on its own if you will. So you're having a more closed system where the inputs are coming from within the system. You're nurturing the soil as one of those main sources of nutrients and holding water for you as a farmer.
Michael Pisano (04:42):
More on soil shortly. But first, back to Michael at Walnut Hill Farm. The Kovachs are raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chicken and turkey. Their pasture land is full of diverse plants for forage, everything from rye to dicon radishes to hazelnut trees, and they also grow hay to feed their cattle over winter.
Michael Kovach (05:03):
Grass-fed cattle in northwest PA, we're extending our growing season by planting fall and spring annuals on average, probably about two months or two and a half months, which is pretty good. But northwest PA, there's just no option other than to make some hay. So we do make round bale silage it's called, or haylage, and the process is basically cut it in the afternoon and then bale it the next morning. So it's still very wet, but it's wilted some so when you open it in the wintertime, it smells like beer and sunshine I always say.
Michael Pisano (05:40):
It's probably a welcome smell on a cold day. Yeah, right on. And what differentiates the way that you work with your animals from maybe a more conventional farm?
Michael Kovach (05:49):
Well for one thing, these guys are never in a barn. Our cattle have never seen a barn. They have a little open hoop building over in the north area that they can get under if it's real bad. And in fact, we've stacked up bales out in the field if it's going to be a particularly rough windy period of time, they just want a wind break. They're much healthier being outside. They've got an internal furnace that keeps them warm. I mean just as long as we keep them well fed and water's the biggest problem in the wintertime, but we get it sorted out. Sometimes we get them someplace close enough that we can plug in a tank heater or we just break ice every morning.
Michael Pisano (06:28):
What about the way that your animals interact with the other life here?
Michael Kovach (06:34):
We've got a great wild niche of the county and pretty happy to be in the middle of it, and we have bald eagles nesting just a few hundred yards that direction and a great diversity of wildlife here in turkeys and deer and everything else. But they all enjoy the same things that our cattle do. So very often in the same pasture behind me in the evenings, I saw four bucks out here together the other night just running around eating doing what they do. And it's neat to be raising food in the middle of all that. It makes it difficult to raise poultry with all the raptors and weasels and minks and owls and foxes and coyotes and coons and everybody else that eats chicken in the neighborhood and doesn't pay for it. But it's one of those things that we're okay with. We take steps to try to mitigate it, but it is what it is. We're part of the whole food web here.
The biggest difference I would say between us and what's considered conventional agriculture today is we're not feeding them on a feed lot. We're not feeding them things that they weren't evolved to eat. We're not keeping chickens in the house. Everybody's out doing the things that they're evolved to do. Chickens are out scratching around, the turkeys right over here are out scratching around, catching bugs and doing what turkeys do. Likewise, the beef and the sheep and the pigs, the pigs are in the woods. They're designed to be in the woods. They've got a great shovel nose for digging up acorns and stuff, and they love acorns. So we just try and embrace all the animals and their habits and make use of that when necessary, when possible. These turkeys are clearing a fence line for us. I mean they're clearing a tree line that has an old fence line in it at least, and it's just tough to get in there and mow it. We could do it with a weed whacker, but why not make happy turkeys?
Michael Pisano (08:22):
Why not make happy turkeys? Those are words to live by.
Michael Kovach (08:25):
Michael Pisano (08:25):
[Michael talking to turkeys] Hi, how are we?
Michael Kovach (08:25):
A popular term to describe that thing is biomimicry. I've heard that a lot more recently and I'm encouraged by that. The idea is to just rather than try and bend ground or nature to your will, you just tweak around the edges a little bit and make improvements where you can. Obviously, you can't do it exactly like... We don't have the great planes here, so we compartmentalize our pastures into small pieces and manage the grazing in such a way that replicates the great herds of buffalo going across the grasslands back in the millennium immemorial.
Michael Pisano (09:15):
Excellent. Yeah, biomimicry. For someone who's never heard that term, that's a great practical example, but do you have a definition maybe?
Michael Kovach (09:23):
Sure, sure. Biomimicry basically means exactly what it sounds like. It's you're looking at what's going on in life around you and trying to emulate that through your practices. So for instance, I mean obviously they're required or necessary in some context, but look around in nature and see how often you see a monoculture of anything. It never happens.
Michael Pisano (09:47):
Monoculture means growing just one thing in one place at a time. A big field of corn or a big field of soy is a monoculture, a turf grass lawn is a monoculture. While I think this term just applies to plants, I'm also going to lump in livestock practices like CAFOs, that's CAFOs, which stands for Confined Animal Feedlot Operations. In a CAFO, a single species of animal is raised at industrial scale, isolated from any vestige of its natural habitat. It turns out that industrial scale agriculture and the commodity trade and policies that support that food system can be harmful to humans, non-humans and the health of the planet. It comes down to connection to our food versus disconnect from where our food comes from and diversity of life, especially in the soil. Before we get into the specifics and how we might fix it, let's clear something up, why is it that we grow so many endless waving fields of corn across America these days? Let's start at the beginning.
As with the majority of the plant food that humans eat today, the story of corn starts with the story of grass, corn, rice, wheat, barley, rye, oats, millet, bamboo, all these plants are grasses in the family poaceae, which is the same family that any grass you'd find on a lawn or pasture belongs to. From looking at coprolites, aka fossilized dinosaur turds, we think that this grass family got its start back in the Cretaceous sometime between 50 to a hundred million years ago. Grasses turned out to be really adaptable and they spread all over the world and diversified to adapt to many different habitats. Today, we've identified 12,000 grass species in the poaceae family. One of those species is cute, shrubby, not really corn-like at all grass called Balsas teosinte. This teosinte, one of four teosinte species, produces little clusters of hard kernel-like seeds, just five or 10 seeds per cluster, and each of those clusters is less than an inch long.
Each individual seed is surrounded by a hard tough case, which protects them from the tummy juices of animals that graze on teosinte, meaning that those animals will spread the seeds in their poop. Classic winning plant strategy. By around 10,000 years ago, humans in Central America were interacting with teosinte. Archeological evidence suggests that people chewed the stem of the plant which is full of sweet sugars before anything else. But at some point, they started selectively breeding teosinte for its grain. First, they selected for a mutation that reduced or altogether got rid of that tough seed case, meaning they found wild teosinte plants without seed cases, saved those seeds and planted them. Over thousands of years of selective breeding for other traits like seed size, cob size and taste, Native Americans transformed teosinte into maize. The crop was a hit. It was foundational for the big meso American civilizations providing a surplus of food that stored really well for lean times. Maize also spread to neighboring peoples and habitats in every direction including all across North America. And with that spread of seeds, there was also a spread of practices for how to grow maize. And while there are many regional approaches, one prevalent and relevant system is called milpa or Three Sisters. Basically, it involves planting corn together with squash and beans. The corn stalks provided trellis for the beans which like to climb, the beans pull in nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it in the soil to enrich that soil for future crops. The squash provides ground cover to shade out competitor weeds and to protect the soil from sunlight. This sustainable symbiotic system is an example of polyculture as opposed to monoculture. Keep that polyculture idea in mind, we'll come back to it later. Corn, like other grasses, prove to be adaptable to many climates. Because of settler colonialism, it spread to Europe and Africa in the 1500s and quickly became a staple food for many peoples.
Fast forward several hundred years later to the 1900s, the U.S. government had forced most Native Americans into the reservation system and handed their lands to settler farmers, farmers who were unfamiliar with the soils and climate of the Midwest and great plains. Meanwhile, mechanized farm equipment, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides all sprang up expanding the scale of production. Farms also specialized meaning that instead of growing many different crops and raising diverse livestock, they focused in on a single species of planter animal and on maximizing their yields via synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, specialized equipment, selective breeding and eventually genetic modification. Altogether, this gave rise to the industrial monoculture based food system that we see today. Despite the rapid advances in technology and productivity and despite some of the most fertile soils and hospitable climates in the world, American farmers have had a rough century or so. In the 1920s, they were in an especially tough spot.
During World War I, American agriculture was booming with high demand from war torn countries. The war and globalization more broadly had driven up the price of wheat, lending to the so-called great plow up in which millions of acres of prairie and grasslands were cleared for monoculture planting. Hundreds of thousands of farmers had taken on debt, mortgages, loans for equipment, all to expand their operations.
When the war ended and Europe began producing its own food again, the American farming industry began to collapse. It completely fell apart when the Great Depression hit in 1929 and the next year, a decade long drought hit the Midwest and the Great Plains. You might know that as the Dust Bowl. There, farmers had replaced native prairie habitats with monocultures and overworked the land. So between drought and the nutrient drained soil and the lack of native prairie plants to keep the soil anchored in place, that top soil that farmers relied on just dried up and blew away.
Enter the US government. They provided a bunch of relief programs to try stabilizing the market and to support struggling farmers. This led to the first farm bill in 1933. The farm bill is still around today. It's revised and renewed every five years, and it's what's known as an omnibus bill, meaning that it covers a bunch of different bits and pieces in one single legislative package.
The first farm bills focused on cutting down surplus crops to stabilize prices and on planting cover grasses and soil enriching crops like soy to protect soil from erosion. Since then, the farm bill has had a messy and largely unpopular history. I'm going to skip over a lot of it so we can get back to Michael and Bonnie. But in short, the farm bill has set aside billions of dollars in subsidies for specific crops, including corn right at the top of the list, which is currently the nation's biggest crop.
It also has measures baked in that are meant to protect farmers against unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, things like droughts or blights, as well as measures to support conservation. Unfortunately, farm bill money is not evenly distributed, and the vast majority goes to big agro businesses. Between 1995 and 2019, the US government gave out $223.5 billion in subsidies to farms.
During that time, nearly 80% of that big chunk of money went to only 10% of the recipients. Over a quarter of the funds went to just 1% of recipients. So while 50 people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans received farm subsidies, 62% of US farms didn't see a single dollar. What does this all mean for our selectively bred [inaudible 00:17:51]? We've incentivized growing big fields of corn, regardless of actual demand, regardless of the actual needs of our food system, and regardless of the impact on the future of food. It also means that farmers can face pressure to grow these subsidized high yield crops with industrial practices.
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:15:04]
Bonnie McGill (18:10):
That's the system. That's the commodity that our farm bill is incentivizing them to grow. It's also the local infrastructure of where they can sell their crop. So if you want to grow like a thousand acres of black-eyed peas, where are you going to truck all those black-eyed peas? That grain elevator doesn't take those. So it's also kind of the system that they're operating within is that's kind of how it works.
Michael Pisano (18:36):
And I would love to talk a little bit more about that system. And you mentioned the farm bill a couple of times. There are these larger scale policy level issues, things like subsidies that make it hard for farmers to move away from this status quo industrial agriculture. Can you just kind of illuminate that scale of obstacles?
Bonnie McGill (19:01):
Yeah. So if you're operating at a couple hundred acres, couple thousand acres, you are usually, almost everyone has to take out loans from the bank in order to buy the seeds and the fertilizer, the herbicide, maybe pesticide, whatever you're buying. That's a lot of capital that a lot of people don't have up front. So every year they're going into debt, and by the end of the year, they need to be able to pay off that debt. And so that kind of gets you into this sort of cycle.
You've also invested a couple hundred thousand dollars in each of your pieces of equipment, and that equipment works for a certain grain, a certain crop, planting and harvesting a certain thing. So now you're really locked into growing corn and soybeans. And so getting out of that with the amount of land you have that you might be paying a mortgage on, or to pay rent to farm that land, you're kind of in this cycle and you can't really get off, like a treadmill. And you're on it, it keeps coming and you're in it.
And those practices, we support the price of the corn and the soybeans. We're growing a lot more corn than we need. So we've invented markets like the biofuel, clean fuel mandate. We have so much corn to make biofuel that we're actually exporting biofuel, and there's plenty of research showing that actually takes more energy to harvest and turn that into biofuel than it's actually having any benefit to the atmosphere.
Michael Pisano (20:40):
Bonnie McGill (20:41):
Michael Pisano (20:49):
On one hand, it's very impressive that humans have figured out how to grow food at such a massive scale. On the other hand, big monocultures and industrial size feed lots are threatening our ability to grow food in the future. Big industrial agriculture causes lots of emissions, the kind that are changing our climate. It also extracts nutrients from the soil, like lots of nutrients, to the point where those soils can't provide nourishment for future crops. That means we have to use synthetic fertilizers. Those chemicals, along with industrial scale pesticide and herbicide use, are messing up the land and water and air that all life needs. Treating crops as commodities has made it harder to change these practices, harder, but far from impossible. Smart changes to policy could go a really, really, really long way in making a better system for farmers to grow food. And at the same time, that system can enrich soils to sequester carbon, mitigate flooding and support biodiversity. Turns out that diversity is really, really important to any healthy system. So to make good policy, we need to dig into what's broken in the current food system.
So how can agricultural practices like these industrial scale, really unhealthy ones that we're talking about, threaten biodiversity?
Bonnie McGill (22:15):
You sure you want to ask me that? So one of the ways that I'm thinking about, I work at this natural history museum, and so we talk about plants and birds and things like that. So thinking about the birds, one of the great challenges that they're facing right now is a loss of the insects that they rely on to eat. And a big part of that is coming from the pesticides that are being sprayed by industrial agriculture, but also the land use. By changing something from a wetland or a forest or a prairie into monoculture, that's all that habitat that supports the insects and the birds and the mammals and the large mammals that we need. And so we've lost both that space, but also the connectivity that allows mobile animals to adapt by moving northward to where it might be cooler in future years.
Michael Pisano (23:18):
It's essential to convert some of our farmland back into nature preserve, but it's also essential to grow enough food for humans in a way that works for us and our non-human neighbors. Regenerative farming invites that biodiversity back into the system, providing healthy soil and other ecosystem services to the farmer without introducing chemicals.
Regenerative farmers don't have to go out and buy synthetic fertilizers or herbicides and herbicide resistant seeds. By nurturing diverse non-human collaborators, they get healthy soil for free. You can see why big industrial agriculture corporations have a great interest in maintaining the status quo. There's a lot of money to be made selling fertilizers, chemicals and seeds. But these big agribusinesses could very well fall apart without farm bill subsidies and policies that prop up their shortsighted way of doing business. Thanks in part to Citizens United, agribusiness has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on elections and lobbying for policy that's favorable to them today, even if it's destroying our soil and our climate tomorrow.
Monoculture hurts non-humans. This directly impacts us. One easy example is that the same insects those birds rely on are insects that we rely on, for example, for pollinating our crops. You may have heard that insect populations are declining pretty massively all over the world. As Bonnie said, habitat destruction and fragmentation are a big driver of non-human biodiversity loss in general.
Another one of the main reasons for insect decline specifically is industrial scale use of pesticides and herbicides. You're probably familiar with Roundup, an herbicide developed by the company Monsanto in the 1970s. Starting in the 1990s, Monsanto also sells a patented line of crop seeds that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicides effect, meaning that you could just kind of spray it indiscriminately in monoculture settings.
Unfortunately, indiscriminate spraying kills bees and other pollinators, it's toxic to amphibians and other aquatic life, which is a problem when water from farm systems run off. And glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and many other herbicides, is considered a human carcinogen. Bayer, the big pharma company that bought Monsanto back in 2018, has agreed to pay $10 billion, with a B, to settle over 100,000 lawsuits to people who allege they got cancer from Roundup. Even so, Roundup is still widely used today in 2022. Here's Michael Kovach.
Michael Kovach (26:00):
Conventional agriculture requires, in the modern sense, requires a burn down very often of using it. Everybody's favorite glyphosate and form a Roundup. That's a chelating chemical. So it strips ions off of different things in the plant to make it die or not die, depending on how we've programmed it.
The problem with chelating chemicals is that they're durable as they're going down through that soil profile. So they're stripping ions off of different things that we're not aware of, maybe not that pathway that only plants have and not animals. But different things in that ground have a lot of things that we don't understand.
So it's imbalancing from the chemical burn down, and then we're further imbalancing by adding synthetic fertilizers in the form of NPK that's derived from the [inaudible 00:26:50] process. And just straight up NPK, it'll grow a crop, but it doesn't feed the microbiota in the soil to make the next crop. So it's a treadmill. Once you get on that NPK treadmill, you have to continue adding and its soil on life support is how I often describe it.
Michael Pisano (27:11):
NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, nutrients that plants need to grow, and the common components of synthetic fertilizers. Diversity of life in the soil, it's important for everything. Ideally, a healthy biodiverse soil provides all the things that we need for growing food. In a so-called natural or wild ecosystem, the biodiverse living soil grows plants. The plants are consumed by animals. The animals poop, which returns nutrients to the plants. When the animals die, that also returns nutrients to the system to grow more plants.
This is a reductive and simplified version, but you get the idea. By contrast, in industrial agriculture, since the fields have been kind of nuked with chemicals like Roundup and there aren't animals there to process and return nutrients, big farms have to rely on synthetic nutrients. As Michael put it...
Michael Kovach (28:04):
It's a treadmill. Once you get on that NPK treadmill, you have to continue adding and its soil on life support is how I often describe it.
Bonnie McGill (28:14):
All the chemicals that go into the soil really have a big impact on the microbial diversity of the soil. And those microbes, which just in the last 10 or 15 years has come into more popular kind of culture of farming culture to talk about the living soil and the health of the soil, and we hear about soil health a lot. And so the microbes are really have important relationships with the plants in terms of delivering nutrients or other services related to what's going on in the soil.
And having the diversity in any system is so that when those conditions change, the abiotic conditions, things get dryer, things get hotter, things get colder, you have that diversity. So one of your players on the team is able to rise up and help you out. Whereas if you lose a diversity, you're just relying on one strategy and that doesn't work when the system changes, then you're out of luck.
Michael Pisano (29:11):
Same thing with people and with ideas. Diversity breeds resilience.
Bonnie McGill (29:15):
Right. It happens in our ecosystems and in our human systems.
Michael Pisano (29:20):
This is a huge pet thing for me because I'm a bug boy. I grew up just loving bugs, nonstop. It was my whole window into science and into opening up into like, wow, there's a whole ecosystem. Wow, it's all connected. And I think about the connection between life at that scale, at undergrowth scale, soil microbe scale even, and human life, right?
Bonnie McGill (29:44):
Michael Pisano (29:46):
And I think there's also a connected issue. I guess first let's start, can you just kind of illustrate that connection? Why should I care about how many species of microbes are in the soil?
Bonnie McGill (29:58):
Yeah. So there's newer and more research coming out that's showing that
what the soil microbiota has going on in it makes more nutritious food for us. Kind of similar to our own microbiome in our gut, supporting our health you can think of the soil as another layer of that microbiome producing the food that has elements that you need, not just the carbon, not just the sugar, but the other minerals that are important for your health.
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:30:04]
Michael Pisano (30:30):
Healthy, diverse, living soil is important to growing nutritious plants, but that's not all. Healthy soil is also an essential tool in climate action. This brings us to the last big problem of the day with industrial agriculture, its relationship to climate change.
Bonnie McGill (30:46):
Agriculture is about 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions, the manmade greenhouse gas emissions from the United States. Part of that gets into, do you want me to get into that?
Michael Pisano (30:58):
Bonnie McGill (30:59):
Okay. Part of that greenhouse gas footprint, a big chunk of it comes from nitrous oxide, which is N2O, which is actually laughing gas. One molecule of N2O in the atmosphere is about 300 times more powerful than one molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere. It's a really important gas to reduce our emissions of it. Where it comes from is that synthetic fertilizer, in most cases. It can be any nitrogen, but a lot of it comes from that synthetic fertilizer in our soils. The soils get wet, maybe you irrigate them, that also makes them wet. Maybe it's raining more intensely in the Spring right after you apply that fertilizer with climate change.
Some of that nitrogen that's in that fertilizer gets used by microbes and turned into this N2O gas. Then that goes into the atmosphere. It didn't even make its way into a plant. Another source of greenhouse gas emissions, the other big one is methane, CH4. It's the same molecule as natural gas, but it's coming from ruminants, especially cattle. The way you know that they digest things and we're feeding them corn and so then they're burping, a lot of people like to say farting, but a large part of it's burping out this methane. Methane is about 25 times more powerful than a molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere. It's really a powerful gas. It's a place where we can do things right now to cut back on methane. You'll see with these climate negotiations going on, a lot of news about what we can do with methane, both in terms of making our natural gas systems more efficient, not leaking so much methane, but also what we can do with our diets and the way we raise cattle and what we choose to eat.
Michael Kovach (32:54):
Beef eat grass. They developed this beautifully evolved four chambered digestive tract for the purpose of eating grass. We figured it out better and said, "Feed them corn, then they can get them fat fast." And that's great for on paper sketching things through. The cost of doing that environmentally and to our health and to the welfare of the animals is just unimaginable. People don't understand that. More people do now, more people than when we started get the whole idea of how destructive our food production system has become. We've just extracted to the point where it requires inputs to grow a crop in soil that was otherwise some of the best in the world. We've squandered that.
Michael Pisano (33:43):
I'm curious about in your decade and a half of farming here, have you noticed any changes in the climate?
Michael Kovach (33:49):
Yeah, very definitely. I got a degree in earth science and geology about 150 years ago, but even then the science around climate change was pretty well settled among academics and among folks who study it. Honestly, this year we had the most rainfall by a couple of inches in August here, and we were drier than most. I mean, I know south of us, they got it a lot worse. For our operation, it's really just given us a heck of a shot in the arm as far as growing grass. How it affects crops otherwise, I couldn't really say, I don't have that direct experience. I can tell you that if you got bear ground and we got a heavy storm and they're happening more often and more intensely, you're going to lose topsoil and you're going to lose that thing that we need to grow soil or to grow food rather is our soil.
Unfortunately in the Spring, you go to any river in the United States that I've seen at that time of year, at planting time or at tillage time, if there's a heavy rain, every river, every ditch, everything is running like chocolate milk. Well, that's all of what we have to grow food with. If it's going down the river, we got to either follow it and maybe start farming out in the increasingly large delta in the Gulf or we really got to look at how we're creating food to feed ourselves, which is one of the big three. Food, water, shelter we always say. Other than that, we can figure it out. How is how we're creating food impacting our ability to create food in the future?
Michael Pisano (35:43):
Let's review industrial agriculture with its monocultures and chemical burn downs and habitat destructions is contributing to climate change. It's harming our resilience to climate change by making soil less able to hold carbon and hold water and driving biodiversity loss from the soil all the way up the food chain. In turn, climate change and biodiversity loss are making it harder to grow food. Luckily, the way that we grow food isn't set in stone. There are already solutions all around us, alternatives to monoculture and feed lots and chocolate milk, rivers and all those solutions need is some support from us. I'm curious at a high level, what kind of strategies you've already seen emerging for mitigating climate change and generally making agriculture be in better relationship with ecosystems.
Bonnie McGill (36:41):
Yeah. If we look at large scale industrial agriculture, big corn soybean systems, incorporating diversity into their rotation is a really big win for climate. It's using less nitrogen fertilizer over the span of that rotation. We talked about that nitrous oxide gas that causes climate change. Also, looking at where we're doing agriculture, what that food is being used for. In a lot of places it's used for livestock. If there's less demand for livestock because people are eating less meat as part of supporting change in climate change, we won't need that.
Corn, soybeans that is not feeding the world, it's feeding like CAFOs of animals. Putting those lands back into prairies, back into wetlands would be great for sequestering carbon, great for biodiversity, great for water quality. Other things that we can do is raising the animals that we do grow for meat, because I don't think it's realistic to tell people to stop eating meat, but is this work that people like Michael Kovatch are doing in growing livestock out in the field, eating grass the way that they've been evolved, but also domesticated to live so that livestock's not separated from where we're growing the plants, because if we put those two things together, we have a source of nutrients from the manure, from animals that can go to serve the plants.
Michael Kovach (38:27):
There's always diversity in nature. We strive to increase the diversity of our pastures through a variety of means, from frost seeding different times to just the way that we graze them in the species that we graze on them makes a big difference in how those things respond and how much carbon we can accumulate in that soil and how much water we can capture as a result. It used to be that there were two very distinct wet spots in this pasture right here when we first [inaudible 00:38:54] I buried the big tractor there one time to the point where I had to unhook and it was rough. Nowadays, since we've been building up the soil in this pasture over the last 12, 15 years, 14 years now, it holds water a lot better than it ever did. We're always going to have some wet spots because we're in a paraglacial terrain here.
There are clay lances everywhere at perch aquifers, and I have one in the farmhouse that runs through the block wall, even with a French drain, like a spigot every time it rains, there's just no avoiding them. We can do things to mitigate on top of that and build that soil up to catch every drop of water when it rains. Even the gully washers don't bother us so badly here. In places especially where it's dry and it's incredibly important to catch every drop of water, building soil is a great strategy for mitigating climate change in the form of long periods of drought like we're seeing out west at the moment. For every 1% of soil organic matter that you increase in an acre of ground, you can hold an additional 20,000 or 25,000 gallons of water. It's an amazing statistic that even that alone should drive us to want to cover crop, to build soil organic matter in any form or fashion that we can.
Rather than treating in such a way that harnesses the power of it doing its thing as soil, as a perennial cover, there's so much life going on underneath there that's providing services to those plants that are growing in it that we just ignore and say, "Okay, if we put NPK on, we can grow a crop." We're incentivizing the wrong practices through our policies.
Michael Pisano (40:37):
You brought up policy and I'd love to hear a little bit about that.
Michael Kovach (40:41):
I am farmers' union's defacto policy [inaudible 00:40:43].
Michael Pisano (40:43):
Oh, excellent. I'm so glad.
Michael Kovach (40:45):
Actually policy director, but I say de facto policy [inaudible 00:40:48].
Michael Pisano (40:48):
So I'm going to want to back up and talk about what the Farmers' Union is and get some establishing stuff. While we're here, what does have to happen at that, in your opinion, at that policy or system level change to enable climate sensitive farming practices?
Michael Kovach (41:04):
We have to really take a hard look at the whole paradigm around which we've produced food for the last century. We've further industrialized with every passing year, and it connects to that consumer part. Consumers are disconnected so they don't pay attention. Not everybody, I'm not painting with a broad brush here, but widely, we saw an awful lot of Chicken McNuggets in the United States, and that's the direct result of being complete. If people knew how Chicken McNuggets were made or the conditions that those animals that contributed to the protein to making them were raised, I think there would be a lot less Chicken McNuggets sold. People are starting to recognize that.
That's how the consumer can jump into the fray besides talking to their legislators about looking at legislation and through the lens of how will this help to increase the soil, which is a universal resource. It needs to be looked at as all of our resource, even though it's on my property here, I look at this as being everybody's carbon sink. It's the only carbon sink on the planet that we really have control over and ability to improve drastically just by some changes in our policy and our practice.
Bonnie McGill (42:23):
There's already in the farm bill a lot of taxpayer dollars that go into funding conservation practices. Right now there are a lot of farming groups that are saying, "Hey, if you want us to do more sustainable practices, help us do it and put more money into that." The reason they're saying that is because the other option is to make a program, a marketplace to sell carbon credits for farmers. That's of great relevancy because storing carbon in soils can help mitigate climate change. The trouble with that is the one thing, a lot of farmers have already been doing that and they won't be getting paid because the carbon's already locked in to perversely could incentivize someone to plow up their soil, lose the carbon, and then pay them to start again doing the things.
The other problem with that, and this is sort of the holy grail right now in soil science, is how do you measure or estimate accurately how much carbon is actually being stored in the soil? And it would be really nice if we just had a simple formula for where you live, the soil type, how the land has been used, how you farm it now, and then to tell you you're sequestering this much. That would work really well on a spreadsheet. But soil scientists, we know soils are so heterogeneous even within one field. Then this field might be very similar to that one, but that one was grown. It was a hay field for the last 50 years and this one's been corn soybeans for the last 50 years. And so they're doing different things and they're all owned by the same farmer, and so you kind of just want to give them a payment for soil carbon.
The other trouble, the tricky thing is with soil carbon sequestration and agricultural systems is that farmer might then sell the land and then the new farmer could plow it all up. It can be seen as kind of temporary to store the carbon that way. There's a lot of excitement around the issue, but I also like to kind of put it in scale. We're not going to no-till or soil carbon our way out of climate change. We need renewable energy, we need to change transportation industry, but that can be part of a situation. There's sort this conversation in agriculture and agricultural policy and economics of how do we incentivize this carbon.
The other potential thing then is once you've made a market for it, that carbon can be commoditized just like the corn and the soybeans, which has made it very extractive on farmers. They bear all the risk. So if they get a cold snap, or there's hail, and it ruins their crop, that's on them. The people, the corporations that buy their crop, they don't face any of that risk.
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:45:04]
Michael Pisano (45:34):
Excellent. And so when you're speaking with farmers about this range of solutions, what's sticking? What do you find gaining traction with the folks who are actually doing this work?
Bonnie McGill (45:44):
Yeah, I think, right now, it can be difficult to talk about climate change. And so one of the things we're trying right now is, what if we use the term weather extreme, which they are largely comfortable talking about. They're living it, they're seeing it. And avoid the political conversation about, "Well, I need you to understand and use the term climate change," and instead talk about these weather extremes, that there's a pattern to them and that they're continuing into the future. Some people think climate change is here right now, but it'll go away, or maybe you don't understand, it's going to keep getting worse. And so helping them understand, or supporting their knowledge in, conservation practices that build resilience in their soil. So help them adapt to these weather extremes. Building more soil organic matter in your soil helps both in the wet and the dry times because it helps with create infiltration pathways in the soil when there's too much water. But also that carbon in the soil helps hold on to water, so that in the dry times, your crops have access to a little more soil moisture than a crop in a field with less soil organic matter. A lot of these practices are both building resilience to hold onto the soil during these extreme weather events, but they're also helping mitigate climate change. So for one farmer, they might be interested in mitigating climate change, and that might sell them on a practice. That's a lot less common. But serving the farmer and supporting their resilience in this time of change, I think is a great way to build knowledge about what are these ways of building resilience in their system.
Michael Kovach (47:35):
The thing about it is, it's bizarre to me that you need to have this discussion. I mean, farmers in my mind are the most resilient, adaptable, roll with the punches, type. Let's look at a market and see how we can explore that market. And we've lost that. We're down to marketing being calling up the guy who you're going to front sell your corn to, or that's ag marketing now. And it's bizarre. When we commoditized, we took a lot of... It helped to further remove us from the actual process of making food. When we turned everything into commodities, and started building economies around commodities. It fosters grand consolidation, which we've seen terribly in the last 50, 60 years in the United States. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle and Teddy Roosevelt went trust busting. There were six companies controlling about 80% of the meat in the United States. And that was a call to action. I mean, that's a big problem. Now, four companies control about 85% of the meat, 85% of the beef.
Michael Pisano (48:37):
Michael Kovach (48:38):
It's different for each, but there's massive consolidation with each. So during the pandemic, when that one plant in Souderton, PA went down was a JBS plant, incidentally one of the big four there. When one plant went down, it took down 5% of the capacity of the United States to process beef, and there were shortages in the grocery stores. People started going, "Hey, what are we doing here? We got a lot of eggs in a very few baskets."
Michael Pisano (49:03):
What about locally? Are there policies that you would see for specifically farmers in this region, or Pennsylvania, that would help them take the next step supported towards more regenerative or sustainable practice?
Michael Kovach (49:14):
We're very fortunate in Pennsylvania to have a great Department of Agriculture and an excellent Secretary of Agriculture. And Russell Redding, he's the ultimate pragmatist, as best a pragmatist as I can imagine. And he can kind of see how things are going, and he's really incentivized a lot of what we're doing and what a lot of other farms like us are doing in Pennsylvania, to the point where we're number two in organics, I think, and number one in on farm sales, I think. So direct sales off farm. Which is a brilliant strategy for incentivizing this, but also building resiliency in our food system. And when a crisis hits, when somebody gets hacked, and there are shortages at the grocery store, that's a real sign that we've done all in the name of cheap, and none in the name of how can we keep doing this for another couple of hundred years?
Michael Pisano (50:07):
What do you see as the future of food production in our region? I mean, what is at least a good direction to strive for in the next decade?
Michael Kovach (50:16):
The president putting an executive order out around rebuilding that local infrastructure, the regional and local infrastructure so that we can decentralize and regionalize our food system. I think I'm expecting to see a lot more of that moving forward. Again, Pennsylvania's number one in direct sales, but love to see a bunch of states coming up behind us fast.
The highest probability, in my mind, is that we're going to continue to see that sort of initiative, that drum beat, based on the disruptions that really cause consumers to go, "Wait, what do you mean I can only buy one pound of beef?" Or, "Wait a minute, how are we out of meat?" It's my hope that that'll continue. And it seems like based on the legislation that's moving and these executive orders, and sort of thing, I think that's what we're going to see a lot of.
The opportunity for climate smart agriculture in that context is unparalleled. There's no other sector that we can promote to really have as big an impact. Unless we could talk folks who are growing corn and soy in a rotation to give it three years break with perennial cover. But other than that, this is our best hope for really making a big splash and putting a lot of carbon into the ground.
Michael Pisano (51:43):
Great. Taking it out of the atmosphere where it's causing trouble and putting it into the ground where it's holding water and feeding plants.
Where you love to see it.
Michael Kovach (51:50):
Exactly. I like it down there. I don't like it up there.
Michael Pisano (51:55):
A huge fan.
So to address the environmental and equity problems in our food system, we need policy that incentivizes healthy carbon capturing soils that don't rely on harmful chemicals. We need to change up what crops and products and practices get subsidized, and who gets those subsidies. And then we need policy to address consolidation and monopolies in the industry. How do we fight for that policy? It's simple. We fight together.
I guess first of all, for someone who's never heard of it, what is the Farmers Union?
Michael Kovach (52:28):
Farmers Union is the second largest membership agricultural organization in the United States. Pennsylvania Farmers Union's one of 26 chapters that cover 33 states. So there are some conglomerates like New England Farmers Union, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Pacific Northwest. But we advocate for policy that's set by our membership. So our membership votes on and ratifies policy positions on a... And it's neat to see at the national convention, all the things that the different states come with policy-wise because what's important in North Dakota might not be important in Ohio or Pennsylvania. So it's a really cool thing.
We do go advocate on the Hill once a year, en masse, that they're 300, 350 farmers from all over the country that descend on Washington DC, and visit every single office on Capitol Hill, and preaching the family farmer credo that our membership adopted. And then we do it on a state level in Harrisburg as well. Very often provide letters of support to legislators or op-eds. We're very active in getting the voice of the small family farmer out.
So we're looking for members all the time, and especially active members. So come on.
Michael Pisano (53:49):
Excellent. Well, and so I mean, I guess a theme that's running through the entire series that we're hoping to uncover, depending on what people actually have to say about reality, is collective action, and the idea that people working together are more powerful than us split up. So can you talk about that in the context of farming? I mean, what can a lot of farmers working together accomplish?
Michael Kovach (54:14):
Huge things, huge things. Actually, just to blend the last topic and Farmers Union, I was privileged to be the one who presented and got written into the national policy, the idea that climate change is happening and it's anthropogenic. So it was a big thing. We're the first on record to actually be quoted as saying, "Yeah, this is a problem, and what we're doing is contributing to it." And conversely what we're doing in the future has the ability to help remediate it. So it was a huge proud moment for me and it was a cool thing.
Michael Pisano (54:48):
You should be incredibly proud of that. That's huge. I'd give you a hug if I were less sweaty and less far away from you.
Michael Kovach (54:53):
But I appreciate the sweaty and far away.
Bonnie McGill (55:00):
Farmers have a lot of sway, I think, with politicians. Politicians in general underestimate how much their constituencies care about climate change because we're not talking about it. And so when they hear about concerns related to that from farmers, when farmers are asking for funding support for programs that provide cost share or grant money to them to try a new practice, to take on a risk of trying a new practice, I think that can be really convincing to policy makers. So I think together, they can have a big important voice in this story.
Michael Pisano (55:33):
Farming power. Excellent, excellent. And then what about individuals, people who might be watching this, people at the museum, is there a way that we can help support the transition to better, more sustainable agricultural practice?
Bonnie McGill (55:46):
Yeah, I mean, I think knowing where your food comes from. Going to a farmer's market, going to a farm, visiting a farm. If you're able to afford it, buying your meat and eggs, vegetables from those farms. But I think also knowing what you're voting for, knowing who you're voting for and what their stance is on sustainable agriculture and supporting farmers in your area. Most of rural Pennsylvania has some farming happening in it. And if supporting solutions to climate change is important to you, the way you vote is very important in general. Knowing who you're voting for, what policies they support,
Michael Kovach (56:29):
Every bite that you take is a vote for what kind of food system you want to see. So Michael Poland or somebody said a long time ago, "Vote with your fork." And I think that's a really important thing for consumers to remember. Get to know your farmer. Go find a place locally that's doing things that make a difference, that you're passionate about. You want to see a better food system, you want to see a more resilient food system, you want to see a food system that puts carbon into the ground instead of leaking it back out or down the river, go find that person and support them because they need you.
Michael Pisano (57:04):
Yeah, they do. Excellent. Perfect words to end on. Thank you so much, Michael.
Michael Kovach (57:08):
Michael Pisano (57:20):
Many thanks to Michael Kovach for the excellent conversation, for showing us around Walnut Hill Farm, and for introducing me to the Happy Turkeys. You can learn more about Walnut Hill's mission and how to stop by their farm stand at thewalnuthillfarm.com. You can also learn more about the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and learn about policy and programs that benefit our food system at PAFarmersUnion.org.
This week, I'm also very grateful to Bonnie McGill, who not only was generous with her time and in teaching us today, but who's writing and input has been a cornerstone of this series of stories about climate action in rural Pennsylvania. Thanks, Bonnie, for all your thoughtful feedback and help and for all the work that you do.
Thanks also to Taiji Nelson, Ciara Cryst, and Nicole Heller at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The music in today's episode was made by two of my most talented friends, Mark Mangini and Amos Levy. There's also a companion series of videos about climate change mitigation in rural Pennsylvania. You can find a link to those in the show notes.
Until next time, here's some wise words to help us all get off of these infernal industrial treadmills. "In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance, rather than scarcity, undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction. It comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike." That was Robin Wall Kimmerer from her book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
I've been and hope to remain your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.