Norlin Mommsen is a third-generation farmer in Iowa, using techniques for raising corn and alfalfa passed down from his father and grandfather.
But he sees the writing on the wall when it comes to a particular aspect of farming: soil. Longstanding practices such as tilling deep into the soil after harvest, leaving black, bare dirt until spring, and growing the same one or two crops have stripped out nutrients and contributed to huge erosion problems.
Scientists say this is getting worse as climate change brings deeper droughts and more intense rainstorms that flush away topsoil. One recent study estimated that 35 percent of the farmland in the Corn Belt has no healthy topsoil left. Other areas are thinning dramatically.
While soil is falling victim to climate change, it also has the capacity to help head it off because soil naturally captures and stores carbon.
Since Mommsen is also a representative in the Iowa House of Representatives, he proposed a measure this year to make healthy soils a priority in the state. It’s part of a wave of healthy soils initiatives being debated in 28 state legislatures this spring.
Mommsen’s measure, House File 646, would add language to the soil and water conservation code to promote healthy soil practices. The code guides soil and water conservation districts, which help farmers with conservation of natural resources, but as Mommsen notes, the code is silent on soil health. The new language ensures it is accounted for, which could mean educating farmers and possibly providing incentives for them to return to old practices that research shows can help. These practices include no-till farming, crop rotation and planting cover crops to hold down and nourish the soil. Indigenous peoples in North America used methods like no-till or minimum till long before industrial agriculture changed the way we farm.
Mommsen is a newcomer himself to these practices, and he says his early attempts to use them haven’t been easy after years of using a more “conventional” approach.
“I messed with some cover crops trying to make them fit into the system, make them simple and easy,” Mommsen says. “We’re geared to plant in spring and harvest in the fall. With cover crops, you are harvesting and planting in the fall.”
But he knows more change is coming to his own farm. This summer, his son Glen will return from serving as a captain in the Army to help run the farm, and Mommsen says Glen is very keen on restoring the soil health.
These healthy soils measures are in response to a growing body of research zeroing in on the value of robust topsoil to protect against the ravages of climate change. Also, states are eyeing the Agriculture Resilience Act, first introduced in Congress in 2020 and reintroduced this session. It’s a sweeping measure that aims to achieve net-zero emissions in agriculture by 2040, with a big focus on soil health. It would provide grants to states that have enacted and funded some form of a healthy soils program, and it provides another incentive for states to adopt these measures. It didn’t get a hearing its first year, mostly due to the pandemic. But this year it includes a sponsor in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Separately, the Biden administration is working on a plan to leverage soil’s carbon-storing capacity to help address climate change. Farmers who implement healthy soil strategies could get credits for the carbon they are trapping in soil, and sell those credits to polluters to offset their carbon emissions. Several major environmental groups are strongly opposed to the plan, as they say it could allow industries to get away with more pollution than farmland could realistically offset in the long run.
Advocates for soil health point out that not only can these practices help with carbon capture, but they are also good for farming overall. They note that a single teaspoon of the good stuff has more microorganisms than there are people on the earth. That includes a billion bacteria of various kinds, fungi threads, nematodes and microscopic insects.
Crops thrive in that kind of soil. Several studies have shown best practices for soil health increase farm productivity and income, while limiting erosion. What’s more, healthy soil acts as a sponge, capturing water that would normally run off after heavy rains, taking soil and fertilizers with it. And farmers can use less fertilizer when the soil is in good shape. All of this helps offset a major problem: Fertilizer runoff pollutes local waterways and flows down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. These fertilizers cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen; the result is a “dead zone” about the size of New Jersey where the Mississippi meets the Gulf.
“Building the health of your soil is useful for all kinds of reasons,” says Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior strategist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Stillerman has been working on soil health issues for years and noted that climate change is giving the issue new urgency. “Farmers are already seeing grave impacts from climate change, the amount and severity of flooding and drought, and having healthy living soil on your farm provides a buffer,” she says.
Norlin Mommsen works on his farm with his son, Glen, two grandsons, Cooper and Beau, and daisy the dog.
It might sound like a no-brainer, that farmers would jump at an approach that could increase their income, never mind the chance to help the climate. But Stillerman says for farmers who learned their practices from their parents and grandparents, old habits die hard, especially when it will take time to reap the benefits.
“Farmers are humans and humans fear change,” she says. And remember conventional farming has a big reach and is entrenched in the economy. Ag-related industries such as equipment manufacturing and sales, seed and fertilizer production and other farm services would face change, too, if new practices are widely adopted.
The healthy soils measures at play now vary state to state. In some places, they simply require that the phrase “healthy soils” be added to state rules about soil conservation, leaving officials to figure out the implications, like the Iowa measure.
Other states, such as Vermont and Massachusetts are weighing financial incentives for farmers who restore soil health as payment for what’s considered an environmental service. Both Illinois and South Carolina are considering Black Farmer Restoration Programs that would provide land and training to Black farmers and would include education about healthy soil practices. And Hawaii may increase a fee on petroleum products to help farmers who adopt the practices.
So far, the healthy soil measures are getting support in both red and blue states.Two states controlled by Republicans, Utah and Arizona, have already signed bills into law.
Steven Keleti is a long-time conservationist who has been helping activists and state lawmakers draft these bills and educate the public about them. While Keleti might want much more aggressive measures to address climate change, he understands the value of baby steps.
“The first stepping stone is acknowledging there’s a different way of doing it that’s both beneficial to the environment and farmer productivity,” Keleti says.
Activists have actually avoided using the phrase “climate change” when talking about soil health in some states. Rui Xu, a Democrat sponsoring a healthy soils bill in Kansas, says some conservative lawmakers, who are also farmers, actually told him privately that they could support the measure if the language wasn’t so “climate-changey.”
The phrase can be even more toxic in Iowa, where the whiff of a climate change agenda killed Norlin Mommsen’s bill.
Ken Rozenboom, an Iowa State Senator who believes climate change is “a hoax,” helped block the healthy soils measure. (He later emailed to say he wished he hadn’t used such a volatile phrase in our interview, but he stands by his mistrust of science’s dire predictions about climate change and feels no need to enact measures that seek to address it.)
Rozenboom says he opposed the bill because it was an example of “the camel’s nose under the tent”—that is, creeping government control of farmers. His family has farmed since 1934 and his brother has run the place for 52 years. Rozenboom also is a partner in a major hog operation there with his brother.
“As I was listening to presentations, I was imagining myself going to my brother saying, ‘We’ve got this great government program to help you with your soil health,’ and he would either laugh me off the place or kick me off because his whole life is spent growing crops and livestock on Iowa soil,” Rozenboom says. “The idea the government is going to come in and tell him what to do on his farm doesn’t make sense.”
Rozenboom thinks the state is already adequately addressing healthy soils as part of a $280-million plan to address that other massive ag problem—the fertilizer runoff that is contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf.
While Mommsen is a Republican in a GOP-controlled legislature, his Iowa healthy soils measure is effectively dead for now. It was passed by a preliminary committee with unanimous, bipartisan support, but it didn’t get a vote in the full legislature, as leadership knew enough representatives shared Rozenboom’s opposition to kill it.
Mommsen says he plans to introduce the measure again next year, and activists in other states say they’ll try again, too, if their proposals are rejected. If he isn’t ultimately unsuccessful, Mommsen believes the next generation of farmers, like his son, is primed to implement changes when it comes to healthy soil initiatives. He’s optimistic that even the established farming community will come around, especially as these practices are revived more broadly and farmers see more productive land.