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Jeff Schahczenski, MOA Board member
November, 2008

The warming of the earth over the next twenty to thirty years poses significant challenges to the ability of farmers and ranchers to sustain food production. Montana farmers and ranchers will contribute to and will be impacted by global climate change. In November of 2007 the Governors' Climate Change Advisory Committee (CCAC) released its findings and developed 54 recommendations on how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be reduced in Montana to 1990 levels by 2020. Only a few of these recommendations resulted in proposals by the Montana legislatures' Environmental Quality Council.

Below is a table that outlines the recommendations by the Montana Governors' Climate Change Advisory Committee (CCAC) that specifically address the role Montana agriculture could play in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions .1 There are two recommendations that relate to the production of biofuels and two that relate to soil carbon management. The preservation of open space and working agricultural lands recommendations along with the enhancing GHG benefits of federal conservation programs relate to keeping land in agricultural production and keeping the amount of private land not in agricultural use stable. Finally the recommendation of programs to promote local foods and fibers relate to limiting "food miles" and hence reducing GHG emissions by having Montanans provide more of their food from in-state production. Here I will address only the soil management and land use issues.

Montana's Climate Change Advisory Committee
Agriculture Policy Options:
Total Cost
Ranked by estimated cost effectiveness*
(Millions $)
Agriculture Soil Carbon Management-No Till
Ethanol Production
Programs to Promote Local Food and Fiber
Biodiesel Production
Preserve Open Space and Working Lands for Agriculture
Agricultureal Soil Carbon Management-Organic Practices
Enhancing GHG benefits of Federal Conservation Programs
  Total minus 7 (which was left out of the analysis)
  *Policy Option 7 is not ranked because it was left out of the final anaylsis
** Net Present Value
? Not quantified


Soil Management for Carbon Sequestration and Conserving Fossil Fuel

The Climate Change Advisory Committee (CCAC) focused on two major sources of reduction in GHG emissions from soil management. These are the adoption of no-till/conservation tillage practices that are assumed to increase organic carbon in the soil and at the same time lower fossil fuel consumption from less intensive use of farm equipment. The CCAC set specific goals for regarding soil management. These are:

  • Increase no-till soil management practices by increasing the total acres upon which such practices are applied to a total of 8.3 million acres by 2020. This would mean an increase in no-till of 3.9 million acres from current no-till acreage of 5.5 million acres.
  • Increase organic acreage from its current (2005) 126,450 acres to ~ 800,000 aces by 2020.

The expectation is that adding no-till soil management practices will sequester an estimated .045 tons of carbon per acre over a ten year period and that fossil diesel fuel use will also decrease by 3.5 gallons per acre with adoption of these practices.

However as is clearly evidenced by the above table, the CCAC did not include organic agriculture in the estimates because it claimed not to have the means to estimate the carbon sequestration and GHG emission reduction potential of organic practices. The report did state that:

Compared to no-till systems, organic farming uses higher levels of tillage to manage weeds to terminate cover crops and in some cases, organic farming results in lower yields (leading to diminished GHG benefits).(Montana ClimateChange Action Plan, 2007)

However, research at Montana State University seemed to contradict this statement.
According to Miller et al., 2008:

"Winter Wheat in the ORG (organic) system yielded equal or greater than in NT (no-till) systems, and had superior grain quality"

Indeed, additional research that examined organic wheat yields compared to non-organic wheat yields found that in 28 organic wheat production studies (which were done world wide over that last 25 years) found that on average organic wheat yields were 95% as productive as non-organic wheat systems. (Badgley, 2007)

Even though the CCAC report does admit that there is "a reduction in chemical usage and the embedded fossil fuels used to produce and transport these (organic) products" they also argue that "systematic studies are needed for Montana crop systems to determine where organic production methods can yield net GHG benefits" (page l-5).

While it is true that there have been limited studies of organic cropping systems in Montana, current research in Montana is suggestive that the GHG emission reduction of organic systems could be very significant. Also, research work by the International Trade Center (2007) is further suggestive of great advantages to organic production systems in GHG emission reductions. The GHG savings would come from the indirect energy saved from not using fossil fuel based energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides, as well as from the carbon-sequestration potential of the organic systems themselves.

In terms of indirect energy savings, a recent analysis by Burgess (unpublished, 2008) of data from the Montana State University Greenhouse Gas Rotation Study (GGRS), an organic spring wheat green manure rotation required an estimated total energy input of 3.9 GJ/per hectare. This was the lowest total energy input per hectare when compared to all the other tilled-fallow and chemical-fallow wheat cropping systems analyzed. The range of total energy input into the other systems were 6.9 GJ/per hectare to 22GJ/ per hectare. What is critical from this work is that the nitrogen fertilizer input and other synthetic pesticide inputs together were far more energetically significant than the diesel fuel use which did not vary significantly in all the systems studied. This, though admittedly preliminary research, would suggest that organic grain systems in Montana may easily use half the fossil fuel equivalent energy than no-till systems which lead to greater GHG emission reductions.

In terms of carbon sequestration potential there does seem to be great promise for carbon sequestration in organic grain systems in Montana. After all, maintaining organic certification requires a system of production that improves soil organic carbon as well as general improvement in soil health. Also, evidence from corn and soybean farming systems trials done over 23 years by the Rodale Institute (Hepperly, P. et. al, 2006) are also suggestive of great potential in organic grain growing systems. As they state:

Additionally, in the organic systems, soil carbon has increased 15 to 28%. Over the 23 year lifespan of the FST (Farming System Trials), the conventional system showed no significant increases in either soil carbon or nitrogen. This demonstrates that organic farming methods increase stored carbon and retain other nutrients because organic soils hold these nutrients in place for uptake by plants. In the process, reduce nitrate and other nutrient runoff into streams and water aquifers. These findings can be beneficial to all farmers by helping them to increase crop yields while decreasing energy, fuel and irrigation costs.

In addition organic systems may also lead to a reduction of nitrogen oxide (N2O) because of its use of green manures and crop rotations instead of synthetic fertilizers. N2O and methane are two additional greenhouse gases that result from agricultural production. Indeed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Soil management (or perhaps mismanagement) which relates to the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer is the most significant source of GHG emissions from the U.S. Agricultural production sector.

Finally, historic work done in 1994 showed between 48% and 60% reduction in CO2 emission in organic wheat production systems when compared to similar conventional wheat systems. Recent work by Nemecek, et. al (2005) which is reviving this earlier work, found that the potential for GHG emissions in organic systems to be 29 to 32% lower per hectare then other conventional systems.

Taken together, this evidence would seem to warrant placing a greater emphasis on organic systems as a means to meeting GHG emissions reduction from agriculture in Montana. At the very least it would suggest an immediate need for research to examine Montana organic systems to provide estimates of GHG reductions which appear likely to be much more significant then those that can come from the adoption of no-till systems.

Costs of Implementing the Change

The CCAC estimated that the cost of farmers adopting no-till practices for an additional 3.9 million acres would be zero based on two studies, one in North Carolina and one in Iowa. In the North Carolina study the costs savings from adopting no-till systems ranged from $3 to $14 per acre. In the Iowa study it was estimated that it would require at least a $3 dollar incentive payment (cost) to get farmers to transition to continuous no-till systems. The CCAC simply "averaged" the lower end $3 dollar saving from the North Carolina study with the $3 dollar cost from the Iowa study and assumed no cost to adoption.

The underlying assumptions of such a procedure seem to truly underestimate the costs of such adoption. First, if adopting no-till systems were to be such a cost saving in Montana, then why haven't economically rational farmers adopted the system? Second, the North Carolina study was based on cotton production systems and there seems no reason to assume that similar cost savings would apply to grain systems in Montana.

Perhaps more to the point, recent research at Montana State University suggests that the economic gain to no-till farmers as energy prices increases (25% in the study) for a "typical" 4500 acre grain farm is an additional $8,000 to 10,000 dollars(~ a $2.23 gain per acre). Still the researchers were not willing to suggest that this incentive was sufficient for farmers to make the change to no-till. Finally, this study also suggested that even future carbon credit revenue may not motivate this change. Hence, it seems that getting farmers to transition to no-till production systems will not be costless. 2

It is also important to note that the cost of motivating farmers to adopt an organic production system would also not be costless. One proxy might be the current Montana NRCS EQIP benefit for the adoption of organic crop systems of $35 per acre (maximum of $3,500 per year) for a total of three years. However similar arguments for current economic benefits from organic premiums and lower energy costs would also seem to be sufficient to motivate change without a public subsidy, but given these benefits change has not been forthcoming.

Land Use Policies

Preserving Open Space and Working Lands

This recommendation is motivated by the simple logic that keeping land in current uses (open space/wild and in agricultural production) will result in greater soil carbon sequestration than other "developed" uses. In short, the reduction of forestland and agriculture lands, particularly range and pasturelands, may release significant CO2 currently sequestered in those lands. However the analysis in this part of the CCAC report only concerns itself with the potential CO2 loss of agricultural lands to non-agricultural development. A separate analysis for forests is done but not included in this paper.

To estimate the GHG emission reduction from this policy, the CCAC analysts assumed a potential "average" loss of .008 MMtC per 1000 acres of agricultural land "developed". The current rate of agricultural land conversion to development in Montana was estimated to be 7, 200 acres per year. Thus the potential GHG emissions from such land use change can be estimated at .06 MMtC per year. However, the analysts further assumed that only 50% of the land would be "covered" (roads, driveways, parking, lots) and that only the 75% of the carbon in the top 8 inches of covered land would be lost which lowered the total reduction to .12 MMTCO2e over the entire period.

Costs of implementing

The average cost to preserve land in agriculture use was estimated to be $730 per acre, based on the recent costs of 8 large easement projects. The report further assumed that 50% of this cost would be available from non-state resources (federal and local). Even with this assumption the, this policy is one of the most expensive in terms of GHG emissions.

Keeping Farmers on the Farm

Rather than compensating farmers to keep land in production, one might take the alternative approach and ask the question of how to keep farming profitable so that there is limited desire by farmers to exit this business. While there is controversy around the exact long-term implications of current federal agricultural policies, there is good reason to believe that increasing concentration of the post farm food and fiber industries along with cheap foods policies have contributed to the low profitability of particular the commodity agricultural production represented in this state. Organic agricultural provides one of the best alternatives to increasing profitability even in commodity production typical of Montana. Thus, encouraging a shift to organic production could make agricultural more economically viable while reducing GHG emission and lowering fossil fuel energy use and thus keep agricultural land from converting to development.

Conservation Provisions of Federal Farm Bill Programs

This policy attempts to also address the way land is used by examining federal conservation programs that keep land in permanent cover and hence prevent release (and slow expansion) of the carbon stored in the soil. The principal policy lever that is discussed is the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This program pays farmers for up to ten years to retain marginal and highly erodible land in permanent cover rather than use it for agricultural production. The major worry from a GHG emission perspective is that this land will be re-used for agricultural production when contracts end and thus release the CO2 that is sequestered in that land. For example, in 2007 is was estimated that 89,903 acres left the CRP program and such a loss represents a GHG emission estimated at 2 thousand tons of CO2e per acre. Thus the policy objective is to keep land in CRP and thus retain its carbon sequestration service.

Costs of Implementation

Estimating the cost of implementing this goal is done by multiplying the estimated cost of keeping land in CRP (~$34 per acre) times the estimated acres leaving the program over the 2007 to 2020 period. The key assumptions of this estimation are a stable $34 per acre cost and that the current level of participation in the program will remain stable.

Why Not Counted as a Net GHG emission gain?

The GHG reductions that come from keeping land in CRP were not included in the CCAC plan because the GHG benefits that were assumed to continue even if no additional Montana policy actions are taken. In other words as long as the federal government provides resources to farmers to prevent any net loss of CRP acres, then the GHG emission remain constant.

Motivations for Access to Land

It does seem that not only keeping existing land in CRP but perhaps expanding such land may be a fairly viable way to encourage even greater GHG emission reduction. The problem is that with any significant increase in price and demand for food and fuel crops there will be an incentive for farmers not to re-enroll or participate in CRP unless the payments rise to match the economic gain farmers may now have from farming CRP land. Thus, it seems very unlikely that the cost of keeping land in CRP will remain constant from 2007-2020, particularly as the very policy recommendations in the report are likely to increase demand for new acreage to grow food and fuel. For example there have been calls for the use of CRP land as source of land for organic wheat production because of the relative ease to transition those acres to organic production. While taking the most marginal land to produce organically is perhaps not the best way to start a new system of production, none the less the cropping of that land may increase GHG emissions. Sustainable harvesting of cellulose or grazing may be a far better use of CRP in terms of GHG emission impacts and conservation programs could be developed to support them.

Finally, by limiting the role of federal conservation programs to a discussion of CRP and its to impact on GHG emissions in the state, many other programs that could help reduce GHG emissions on working lands were ignored. For instance as discussed earlier, the EQIP program in Montana supports transition to organic and no-till farming in Montana, improved riparian area management, good grazing practices, methane capture through bio-digestion, improved energy efficiencies all of which would lessen GHG emissions from agriculture. Clearly increased support generally for federal conservation programs, particularly if targeted to practices to lower carbon emissions would be helpful.

  1. These policy recommendations are taken fgrom the Agricutlure, Forestry, Waste recycling (AFW) section of the CCAC report taking out those recommendations that relate to forestry and waste recycling.
  2. Additional evidence includes a recent $1.1 million dollar project by Montana NRCS to encourage no-till adoption.


Badgley, C et al. 2007. Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 22(2); 86-108

Burgess, M. 2007. Unpublished Thesis Proposal. Montana State University

Hepperly, P. et al. 2006. The Rodale Farming Systems Trial 1981 to 2005: long-term analysis of organic and conventional maize and soybean cropping systems. In: Long-term field experiments in organic farming. Raup, J., Pekrun, C., Oltmans, M., Kopke, U. (eds). pp 15-32. International Society of Organic Agriculture Research (ISOFAR), Bonn.
International Trade Center, 2007. Organic Farming and Climate Change. Monograph by Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

Miller, P et al., 2008. Transition from Intensive Tillage to No-Tillage and Organic Diversified Annual Cropping Systems. Agronomy Journal 100:591-599.

Montana Climate Change Action Plan, 2007.

Nemecek,T., et al. (2005). Life cycle assessment of Swiss farming systems for arable crops and forage production. SDSFRSAEE/CH (Switzerland)

Jeff Schahczenski
Agricultural Economist
Conservation Specialist
3040 Continental Drive
Butte, MT

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