At one point, Minnesota Representative Todd Lippert was hoping to be a farmer. He grew up in a small town of 700 people in northwest Iowa, and while he didn’t grow up on a farm, agriculture was all around.
Summers spent on his uncle’s farm proved to be formative to the young Lippert. After being ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ, he sought out rural communities to live in and work. Many in his congregation were farmers, which inspired Lippert to become increasingly involved in the local food movement. At one point, he even took a Farm Beginnings class, thinking he’d start a grass-based livestock operation of his own.
That didn’t pan out. But fast forward to today and while Representative Lippert isn’t a farmer, he is putting his passion for agriculture to good use in the Minnesota State Legislature, where he is working to advance policy that not only helps farmers, but is good for our climate.
This year, Representative Lippert worked with local farmers and the advocacy group Land Stewardship Project to write and introduce HF 701. HF 701 establishes healthy soil farming goals and incentives for farmers to engage in practices that are good for the climate.
Lippert has seen the direct impacts climate change can have on a community. Northfield, MN, where Lippert lives, is home to the Cannon River, which has seen three separate “500-year” floods in the last 10 years, all of which have wreaked havoc on the downtown. But it isn’t just downtowns that are being damaged by climate change, it’s the local farms too.
“I am hearing from farmers in my community on a regular basis that their soil is being pummeled by heavier and heavier rains and that they are seeing their fields wash away to flooding,” says Rep. Lippert. It’s stories like these that drive him to action.
He points out that centering soil health and incentivizing practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage, perennial crops, and managed rotational grazing will help not only to sequester more carbon into the ground, but also help the soil absorb more water and prevent local farm fields from washing away.
“Farmers are always telling me that they didn’t get into soil health because they were environmentalists. They see that the practices they employ to protect soil health save them money. And now, they see they are also part of the climate solution.”
While there are a number of soil health bills popping up around the country, HF 701 is one of the few that centers race and equity. Minnesota is a state where there are a number of emerging farmers of color, new immigrant farmers, and farmers who have been historically marginalized who are entering agriculture through the local foods community.
“Agriculture in Minnesota has been a place where farmers of color have been historically excluded. As we move this bill forward, we need to make sure that we are supporting those farmers and that dollars coming through this program are flowing to them. We don’t want this to be another program where farmers of color are excluded,” he says.
Another unique aspect of the bill is a tiering program that puts managed rotational grazing at the top of the list for funding. While there is some debate in the research community about the carbon sequestration rate of some of the other practices on the list, the science is clear that managed rotational grazing provides significant climate benefits.
“This is a place where agriculture is clearly mimicking the prairie ecological system and we are seeing the climate and environmental benefits. If we are thinking about the climate impact of agriculture, we really wanted to see if we could incentivize this practice the most where we know the carbon sequestration benefits are the highest.”
Lippert would like to see more animals out of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and on pasture, and more Minnesota cornfields transition to perennial grasses to be grazed by livestock.
He says Minnesota farmers are telling him that they are excited to move in this direction, but there are two obstacles: 1) funding 2) technical assistance.
With HF 701, Lippert seeks to address these challenges. “I am really inspired by the farmers that are taking a risk and doing things differently,” he says. “They are universally so excited about these practices, but this is a new way of farming and mistakes are expensive. Our bill is trying to address those costs and help farmers move into these new systems. ”
Lippert feels that agriculture is a climate solution wherever there can be changes to practices to make food producing more ecological, such as keeping the landscape covered in plants, allowing plants to do what they do to keep carbon in the ground, and supporting smaller farms that are managed in a much more climate-friendly way.
“A side benefit to healthy soils is that these practices are the same as those we need to rebuild the food system to create community-scale agriculture with fewer food miles. And that, too, goes a long way to improving our impact on the climate,” says Lippert.
The Legislator: Representative Todd Lippert, a second term legislator from the district that was home of the late Senator Paul Wellstone
The Bill: HF 701
Co-sponsors: Members of the House Climate Action Caucus
Where it’s at: HF 701 has passed out of the House Ag Committee and has strong support in the House. Now it resides with the Environment Committee.
Where it’s expected to go: No movement in the Senate yet; when it gets to the conference committee, the bill’s sponsors expect to be in a strong place to negotiate.
An Earth Day Memory: “Northfield, MN has a long environmental tradition and Earth Day is a real linchpin of it. I usually go and speak as a state legislator. It’s a big community day!”
Advice to other legislators: “As a citizen legislator, it’s rare that I have any expertise in an issue I am passionate about. There is always going to be a lot to learn, but there are people there that can help. We all eat food and have food as an access point into agriculture policy, even if we don’t come from a rural background. There’s a lot of places to engage — food waste, thinking about ways that the system as a whole can be more climate friendly — and we need more people working in this space. It is the really the leading edge of the climate response. Find farm field days, go talk to farmers — that’s what I do, and it works!”