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Soil is a finite resource and a program helps farmers prevent erosion


Agriculture in the U.S. accounts for 10% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, polls show most traditional farmers don't believe they contribute to climate change. Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports on a program designed to get farmers in the fight against climate change by focusing on a different environmental issue they do believe in.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: The Midwest is losing soil at an alarming rate. Conventional farming practices, like heavy tilling, have cost the region about a third of its topsoil. That's really concerning for farmers like Lin Warfel, who's grown corn and soybeans in Illinois pretty much his whole life.

LIN WARFEL: And all of a sudden there would - you know, a whole bunch of the soil would be gone. There would be a ravine there, kind of - you know, a small ravine where I used to have soil.

CRONIN: Some farmers are taking action, like Joe Rothermel, who I met up with at his favorite pancake house in Champaign, Illinois.


JOE ROTHERMEL: Soil's a finite resource. We've already lost half our organic matter.

CRONIN: Rothermel also grows corn and soybeans, and he's so concerned about soil erosion that he and a colleague, Steve Stierwalt, started a program a few years ago to save the soil. It's called STAR, which Stierwalt says stands for Saving Tomorrow's Agriculture Resources.

STEVE STIERWALT: So many people understand, you know, rating things by stars. You may have been to a restaurant, and then you check to see what the star rankings of it are before you go.

CRONIN: Here's how it works. If you're a STAR farmer, you farm with as many STAR practices as you can - things like planting cover crops, limiting plowing and reducing the use of chemical fertilizer. The more you use, the higher rating your individual farm fields receive. So what does this have to do with climate change? Well, from Steve and Joe's perspective, not much.

STIERWALT: We don't use the word climate change. In the agricultural community, that becomes a political term.

CRONIN: But even though they don't talk about it, the type of farming STAR encourages helps to mitigate climate change because preventing soil erosion also keeps carbon in the ground. To demonstrate that, let's go back to Lin Warfel's farm. He joined STAR a couple years ago and started planting cover crops on some of his land to protect his soil.

WARFEL: So what you see right there is cereal rye.

CRONIN: Cereal rye is a winter crop that goes in between harvesting and planting corn and soybeans. The cover crop's root system helps keep his soil in place and also sequesters a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. So the STAR program is somewhat inadvertently enlisting conventional farmers in the fight against climate change, and that aligns with President Biden's goal for American agriculture to capture the same amount - if not more - of carbon as it emits.

Paige Buck is with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Illinois. She's been glad to see STAR spread into other nearby states, including Iowa, Indiana and Colorado. Buck says what makes STAR so effective is that it's farmer led and farmer trusted.

PAIGE BUCK: Sometimes getting advice from the government or from getting it online - sometimes that's not what a farmer needs. What they need to do is they need to hear it from another farmer.

CRONIN: Buck and others want more programs like this one. Programs, they say, could help mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change. For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

MARTIN: This story comes from "Hot Farm," a new podcast from the Food and Environment Reporting Network about the intersection of agriculture and climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dana Cronin