I grew up on a modest small family farm an hour away from Philadelphia.
Every summer, when the International Harvester small square baler would break down for the 100th time, I would be sent out to the field in the old GMC farm pickup with a three-prong pitchfork to pitch the hay into the bed to unload on the barn floor.
Working up a sweat, building a farmer’s tan with the blazing sun beating down on me, I would groan, wishing I was in my cousin’s swimming pool. The humid temperatures made it feel as if I was like a loaf of bread baking in an oven. But as I worked alone in the hayfield, wiping away the sweat from my brow, my thoughts would wander. Is climate change the cause for this unbearable heat?
Thinking climate change had to be a joke, I shrugged off the thought to focus on the task at hand: getting hay in the barn before the oncoming rainstorm.
But climate change is real.
Over the last decade, Mother Earth has been reacting to alterations in the atmosphere. A drastic change is the increase in the number of days in a growing season for most states, especially California, which had its season increase by two days. In the last 30 years, the average length of a growing season in the United States has increased by two weeks, according to the Environment Protection Agency. The agency also lists farming/agriculture contributing for only 10% of the total U.S. Greenhouse Emissions.
The narrative around agriculture’s role in climate change hasn’t always been favorable. In high school, too often, I would hear, “By not drinking cow’s milk, I am one step closer to helping make this place a healthier planet,” circulated among my classmates. I also remember the trash-talking genetically modified organisms would receive for their adverse effects on the climate and diets.
However, farmers and ranchers have been able to join conversations focused on the changing climate through social media, sharing what is happening on their farms or answering common questions and misconceptions about practices.
Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to share my family’s beef cow-calf farm story and address the concern of livestock’s effect on the environment through a cover story for the Penn State Berks campus’s magazine “Berks Beat.”
Conveniently, it was published in time to celebrate National Ag Day in 2015, and the headline was cleverly dubbed “For the Love of Beef.”
On one visit to our modest 80-acre tract, I watched the student journalist rapidly take notes as she listened to me explain how our farm plays a role in protecting the environment. I illustrated how my father was a no-till practitioner, as he said it was good for the soil and his schedule. To him, plowing always seemed to be a time suck.
In the interview, I spoke on how a part of our total mixed ration used pretzels and candy discounted or deemed unsuitable for human consumption from a local manufacturer that was sending it to the landfill. Because Pennsylvania is a significant snack food producer, many farms like mine source feed stuffs from local snack manufacturers to reduce feed costs. Still, the action is helping reduce energy spent to compost food waste in the area’s ever-growing landfill.
A few years later, the family farm took another action that would make it even more sustainable. My father, like most farmers, had a lot of pride in the ground he stewarded. A big white-tail deer and small game hunter, he valued the woodlots and hedgerows that lined our fields. His passion was also why he agreed to work with the local Natural Resource Service and environmental groups to receive funding for stream bank fencing, to plant riparian buffers, and put land into easements.
I’ve learned over the years that these small steps in our farm management, such as using cover crops, a prescribed grazing program, and streambank fencing, has not only been profitable for the farm but also has been essential to telling the public about the many ways farmers are doing their part to help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
My family farm’s contribution to the challenge of climate change might be small compared to others, especially with a carbon credit program. But, when we work together as a community, we are making a difference, which is a story we need to continue to share with the public.
So, today when celebrating National Ag Day, I encourage you to share the many management practices you use on your farm to stay sustainable for the environment and future generations.