North central Kansas farmer featured in New York Times knows plenty about conservation

Feb 6, 2017

Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

Perhaps no one is as aware of the climate and its impact on the earth than a farmer.

The New York Times recently featured one such farmer in north central Kansas, Doug Palen, a fourth-generation farmer who the Times reports has choked through the harshest drought to hit the Great Plains in a century, punctuated by freakish snowstorms and suffocating gales of dust.

To adapt to the ever-changing climate, Palen has embraced an environmentally conscious way of farming that guards against soil erosion and conserves precious water and can talk for hours about carbon sequestration, which is the trapping of global-warming-causing gases in plant life and in the soil – or the science of the beneficial microbes that enrich his land.

In college, Palen learned of a farming technique called “no till,” which is intended to more closely mimic the natural prairie ecosystem, and was intrigued by its promise to protect his family fields from Kansas’ relentless winds and sudden downpours.

The idea behind no-till farming, Palen said, is that plowing the soil destroys its natural structure, causing it to lose precious moisture and nutrients, making it vulnerable to erosion.

The residue of plants from previous plantings still carpets the earth, offering a layer of protection, and his fields are never bare even after the harvest. He alternates wheat and other crops with what he describes as a cocktail of grasses and leafy plants, like grain sorghum, sunflowers and alfalfa, a gesture toward the diversity of the wild prairie. 

“They say there’s more organisms in a handful of soil than people on the planet,” Palen said.

No-till farming addresses a dire problem facing American farmers: Almost 1.7 billion tons of topsoil are blown or washed off croplands a year, according to the Department of Agriculture, resulting in billions of dollars in losses for farmers. Keeping the soil healthy and covered also reduces evaporation by 80 percent, helping farmers conserve water, the department estimates.

Farmers like Palen also happen to be protecting a vast and valuable carbon sink. The soil traps far more carbon its depths than all plant and animal life on earth’s surface, scientists estimated. A 2013 study estimated that no-till and other restorative farming methods could achieve up to 15 percent of total carbon reduction needed to stabilize the climate.

These, and other practices, make Palen a climate change realist but don’t expect him to utter the words “climate change.”

“If politicians want to exhaust themselves debating the climate, that’s their choice,” Palen said. “I have a farm to run.”

In America’s breadbasket, the economic realities of climate change are a critical business issue, but politics and social pressure make frank discussion complicated, so it gets disguised as something else.

Farmers like Palen focus on the practical issues – erosion or dwindling aquifers.

“When you don’t get rainfall, it’s tough times,” he said.

Miriam Horn, author of a recent book on conservative Americans and the environment, called “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman,” told the New York Times that people are talking about climate change without talking about it.

A science teacher at a community college speaks to his class, made up of deeply religious students, speaks to his class about the positive discoveries like electricity to ease into more controversial topics like climate change.

Gil Gullickson, editor of the agricultural magazine, Successful Farming, recently drew a flurry of angry letters when he broke with longstanding policy to address climate change head-on.

“Some readers thanked us,” Gullickson said. “But some wondered whether we’d been hijacked by avid environmentalists.”

The consensus of former Republicans like Richard Nixon, who formed the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ronald Reagan, who signed the Clean Air Act, has broken down, in no small part because of a well-financed push by fossil-fuel interests, along with influential Republican allies, to attack well-established research on topics like global warning and push back on environmental regulation.

President Donald Trump has said that he believes climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, and his administration has purged nearly all mention of climate-change programs from the White House and State department websites and has also ordered a freeze on federal grant spending at the EPA and other government agencies.

Because climate change discourse has become dominated by liberals, it has alienated some conservatives, including Palen and many resent how conservative Americans have been painted as hostile to the environment.

And the Trump campaign successfully seized on that schism by painting Democrats as overzealous environmentalists with little sympathy for the economic realities or social mores of rural America.

“Many of our federal environmental laws are being used to oppress farmers instead of actually helping the environment,” Trump said in a Q and A article on FarmFutures.com. “Farmers care more for the environment than the radical environmentalists.”

But Horn said it would be a mistake to think people who voted for Trump were voting against the environment.

If Trump follows an aggressive anti-environment agenda, she said, “there will be a big backlash in the heartland.”

Palen feels vilified for some of the practices he employs, including his use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. (Some organic farmers control weeds by tilling the soil, which Palen argues causes more ecological harm.) And he remains suspicious of any expansion of government regulations that ignore realities of rural America and said farmers want to be left alone.

He singled out the Clean Water Rule, an E.P.A. regulation designed to protect streams and other waterways, as regulatory overreach. Washington types wanted to dictate what he could do with every creek, every puddle, on his farm, he said, putting impossible burdens on farmers.

“We’re the ones working to protect the environment. We’re the ones whose lives are tied to the earth,”
Palen said.

Read the New York Times article for more, including the way the science teacher at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo., has learned ways to talk about climate change without alienating his skeptics, and a Democratic Kansas state representative who has pushed for renewable energy for years in a Republican-controlled Statehouse.