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Max Armstrong Leads Panelists in Discussion of Carbon Farming

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, March 25, 2022

An all-star list of speakers was on hand last Wednesday in Goshen to talk about carbon credits and water issues. The Elkhart County Soil and Water Conservation District welcomed farm broadcaster Max Armstrong, online influencer Michelle Miller, Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Bruce Kettler, and former NACD President Gene Schmidt of LaPorte County.

Armstrong, director of broadcasting for Farm Progress and a longtime broadcaster with WGN Radio, served as the moderator for panel discussions held throughout the afternoon.

Jim Hess, Elkhart County SWCD manager, introduced the first panel discussion on carbon markets. He said farmers can participate in carbon markets by documenting their stewardship practices, such as no-till and cover crops. They can even earn money from these practices.

"As we grow and build these programs, there is a market out there," Hess said. "We live in a community right here that sends out more trailers than anybody else in the world. Those companies all need to be net-zero. These are things that you, as ag professionals, need to start thinking about.

"There is a market out there," he added. "These companies are gaining monies and recognition for net-zero. Guess what? You're it. You can step into that."

Thanks to the conservation practices of Elkhart County farmers, 42,000 tons of soil were preserved last year through the use of cover crops, according to Hess.

During the morning portion of the program, Miller talked about agriculture advocacy and offered advice on how farmers can represent farming in a positive way (see related story on this page). During the afternoon discussion, panelists reacted to her presentation and also offered their own thoughts on conservation.

For his part, Armstrong said conservation is "one of the least known stories of agriculture." He applauded U.S. farmers for having a strong "conservation ethic."

The radio broadcaster is a Hoosier native, growing up in Gibson County. He is also a Purdue University graduate.

Schmidt, former president of the National Assn. of Conservation Districts, said Indiana is a national leader in cover crops. While there are financial benefits for farmers, he said the real payoff from cover crops is from having healthy soil. As we see major weather events, like floods, occur more often, farmers play a key role in helping to minimize the impacts of those events.

"Most everybody wants to help make a difference," he said. "Just give them an opportunity to do that."

Kettler said farmers' conservation efforts are indeed making a difference, but it's also important to share their success stories with the public.

"The other part of that, then, from my perspective is, we also know it has to make economic sense," Kettler said. "What is sustainability? We all have our definitions of sustainability. In my view, if a farmer can't be sustainable in terms of making money and passing the farm on down to the family, (then) that's not sustainable."

Armstrong asked Schmidt to explain how to tell a positive story when the person you're talking to doesn't have the facts.

"Gene, in all your flights across America over the years, I'm sure you sat by some nut who didn't know what they were talking about," Armstrong said, "and they were lurching into something you knew very well. And you probably felt your temperature rise."

Schmidt said he has indeed had those experiences.

"It's about education," he said in his response. "As I was taught leadership, you have to read people. If you're talking with a stranger, you first have to find out what the hot button might be. And then whatever subject you're trying to discuss, you see if you can't mold it around that hot button."

If the conversation goes well, the person will ask a lot of questions.

Echoing comments from Miller's presentation, Schmidt added that it is important to be sincere.

"When you're walking the halls of Congress, if you speak from passion you get a whole lot more attention than if it looks like you're there trying to sell the message."

Schmidt said if you hear something five times, you tend to believe it. He said that provides ample reason for farmers and conservationists to share the facts about farming.

Kettler agreed.

"Because you care and because you are local, telling your story and getting involved in sharing that story is so, so critical," he said. "It comes right from where the source of the good information is."

Regarding carbon markets, Schmidt said there will be many opportunities as farmers look to capture value. There will be challenges along the way, he said, but he believes "we will learn as we go."

Kettler said whether those programs are at the local, state or federal level, the goal should be to avoid having "short-lived programs."

"This is one of those things that takes a while to figure out," he said. "It doesn't just happen overnight."

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