Farmers differ on climate change path

Mark Hines' farm field, with a neighbor's farm in the background.

A machine shed and fuel pump on Mark Hines' farm in Downs, Ill.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Assuming they finish financial reform this week -- and yes, we know that's quite an assumption -- next up on the Senate's agenda is a climate change bill. It could be introduced as soon as Monday. Details are sketchy, even at this late date. But we can safely say it's going to extract some kind of a price from industrial America for burning fossil fuels that are linked to global warming.

Thing is, industry means different things depending on where you are in this country. A fact not lost on Congress in its deal making. Today, we're going to look at the farming industry.

Jay Field reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.


JAY FIELD: The story of agriculture and climate change is really a tale about two farmers. Both farm corn and soybeans. Both come from families that have farmed for generations. But spend time with each, and you hear two very different takes on global warming and what cutting carbon emissions would do to farming.

Mark Hines: The truck to the left is a semi we use to haul grain to the elevator in the fall.

Mark Hines and I are talking climate change next to an eighteen-wheeler on his farm in Downs, a small town in Central Illinois. No matter how the legislation shapes up, the price of fuel will rise. Hines doesn't like that idea one bit.

Hines: I mean everything from natural gas, which is used to make fertilizer, LP Gas which we use to dry grain, the diesel fuel we use to run our equipment. All those things should be appreciably higher.

It costs Hines about $14,000 a year just to run his tractors, semis, and other machines. The last thing he wants is to pay even more to fight global warming, a problem he doesn't believe is worth worrying about right now.

Hines: Maybe 100 years out there will be a larger effect, but I don't see any problem with it in the near future.

Lots of farmers feel like Hines does and for them the fight over climate change is a fight for survival.

Rick Krause: Our costs are going to increase.

That's Rick Krause, chief congressional lobbyist for The American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest organization representing farmers in the U.S.

Krause: We're kind of put at a disadvantage in world markets because our costs are higher, and we can't sell our products.

But sources in Washington say lawmakers know a quick transition to a clean economy is impossible. So, they're offering farmers some financial help. Congress plans to limit carbon emissions. That means big polluters will have to have permits. But these polluters will also be able to cancel out some of their emissions by, say, paying farmers to burn switch grass instead of coal in their boilers or swap out some cropland for trees.

Rick Krause at the Farm Bureau says those proposals aren't good enough.

Krause: While they might help people, they are not really going to fully defray all of the cost increases that we are going to see.

Dan Esty: The stakes for agriculture are not as high as they have sometimes suggested.

Dan Esty runs the Yale Center for Law and Environmental Policy. He says some industries will need more of a cushion than others in making a gradual transition away from fossil fuels. But he says farmers who've gotten generous federal subsidies for years are well-positioned to make the switch.

Esty: And I think it's really critical that agriculture be asked to play a role, as everyone else is, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Which brings us to the second farmer in our story.

Jaran Rundahl: My name is Jaran Rundahl. And I'm 83 years old. I'll be 84 the 14th of June.

Rundahl and his sons farm more than 2,000 acres in Coon Valley, a small town in Southwestern Wisconsin, not far from the Mississippi River. Rundahl has a very different view from Mark Hines down in Illinois. Rundahl believes the science on climate change and says America is the biggest polluter in the world. He knows a bill to cut carbon emissions means higher fuel prices. He's not thrilled about it. But...

Rundahl: If you do nothing, things get worse. And if there is a real problem, whether it's my problem or my neighbor's problem, we have to work on it.

It's something Rundahl has been trying to do for years now.

Rundahl: We're no-till farmers. So we don't till the soil. We just go in and plant. Fertilize, plant. Then put in our herbicides, then go back in and harvest.

The method traps carbon in the ground instead of releasing it into the air.

Rundahl: A number of years ago, my son said there's something called carbon credits. So I said, "I'll check that."

Rundahl called the Chicago Climate Exchange, where polluters can volunteer to cut greenhouse gases by a certain amount. If they fall short, they buy credits from farmers like Rundahl who get paid for their no-till planting.

Rundahl: We were the first in Wisconsin to sign up for carbon credits.

That was in 2006. The farm made several thousand dollars that first year. Rundahl welcomes a financial carrot to help him in his transition to a carbon-free world. Some believe the free market was the cause of all this pollution in the first place. And they also believe the free market can play a role in cleaning it up.

In Coon Valley, Wis., I'm Jay Field for Marketplace.

A machine shed and fuel pump on Mark Hines' farm in Downs, Ill.

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