In some red-state pockets of the U.S., farmers are embracing regenerative practices to shore up against an uncertain future. Just don’t ask them to make it political.
Les Seiler is driving a black Chevy pickup along Fulton County, Ohio’s dead-straight roads, cutting sharp edges through endless plots of corn and soybeans. He’s giving me a tour of the patchwork of Seiler lands, a combination of what he and his brother have put together through purchase or rent over the past 37 years.
Pulling into the driveway of the farm he grew up on, across the street from his brother’s home, Seiler points out nature-based interventions he’s implemented on the old property: a cluster of honeybee hives behind a barn, an unpruned band of native plants and wildflowers that runs alongside a stand of trees. But what he really wants to show me is a patch of soybeans in the front yard.
There’s a clear line through it, demarcated by an abrupt incline in the crops’ topography. Suddenly the round-leafed plants jump in height by about a foot, like a seventh-grade class photo where half the kids have hit puberty and half are still waiting. This, Seiler tells me, is because the land under the taller stretch of plants was never farmed for crops, but a pasture where cows would sometimes graze. The soil under the more stunted crop, he explains, was stripped and weakened by decades of conventional farming; he’ll be waiting years to get that quality back.
From there we pull into a clover field, deep green dotted with lavender, and Seiler pulls up a plant to shake the dirt off and examine a cluster of white roots. They’re legumes, he explains, and their narrow white cones take nitrogen from the atmosphere and use it to enrich the soil.
Seiler started converting his lands to an entirely no-till system in 1986, and he’s become something of an evangelist for this style of farming. He speaks at conferences, he participates in a program with the Nature Conservancy to share practices with other farmers. He rhapsodizes over the importance of “working with Mother Nature,” fostering life in farmland ecosystems, and the all-important foundation of rich, healthy soil. The way he puts it, he doesn’t “want to be a miner of the land.”
But Seiler would not describe himself as a climate activist — in fact, he says climate change is not a major motivating factor for his nature-informed, land-stewarding school of farming.
Climate change — particularly as a political cause — is rarely mentioned on Seiler’s farm, and not eagerly discussed. In an early conversation, when I asked him about his position on climate change, he said: “Do I think climate change is real? Yes. I also think the climate has always changed.”
To the climate-conscious, it may be unnerving to hear a talking point frequently employed by climate deniers — particularly from someone so deeply invested in caring for his local environment. And Seiler is not a climate denier; he recognizes that extreme weather events are more frequent due to climate change, and talks passionately about the importance of sequestering carbon in the soil and the perils of rampant deforestation. But it is the political tone of the issue, he says, that makes him shy away.
Those concerned with the climate impacts of agriculture are desperate for more farmers to adopt the practices that Seiler has carefully and passionately implemented on his land for decades. But what happens when those very farmers are turned off by climate politics and the culture surrounding them?
All Eyes on Soil
Soil health has, perhaps unexpectedly, become a rather hot topic in our national conversation on climate mitigation. President Biden’s Department of Agriculture recently committed $3 billion to “climate-smart” ag, funding programs that incentivize farmers to adopt much of the same practices that Seiler uses on his farm. Furthermore, a poll by the Yale Center for Climate Communications found that such incentives are the most popular piece of climate policy across constituents of both political parties, with 82 percent of respondents expressing support for funding of cover crops and other soil carbon-boosting practices. It’s one of very few proposed climate policies to receive such bipartisan support.
Robyn Wilson, a researcher with Ohio State University, studies behavior change among farmers with regard to climate-positive interventions. “Our data show that 70-75 percent of our farmers believe climate is changing, not a question,” said Wilson. “They just question the role of humans, [especially] relative to the U.S. population at large. What we’ve found to be useful is to engage around adaptation and the question of resilience: How are you going to continue to produce food under changing conditions in a way that provides yields in the way you’ve been doing, but also sequesters carbon and protects water quality and protects climate at the local level?”
As a voting bloc, farmers tend to lean conservative. Fulton County, which is mostly agricultural, is a reliably deep red stronghold. Sara Nicholas of the Pennsylvania farming organization Pasa Sustainable Agriculture said that it’s less likely that farmers will identify with so-called progressive issues. “And progressives are out talking about climate change or saving the planet. Some of these folks literally just recoil from that, and say ‘that’s not me.’”
“Progressives are out talking about climate change or saving the planet. Some of these folks literally just recoil from that, and say ‘that’s not me.’”
In 2022, Pasa sent a survey to its members that asked if they used or would be interested in using a number of climate-positive farming interventions — agroforestry, cover crops, riparian buffers — without leaning on the phrase “climate change.”
“And we got a tremendous response,” she said. “Not only were people doing these practices already, but there was a real hunger for doing more if there were funding and technological assistance available. We also knew if we said, ‘Do you want to be a climate protection farmer?’ we probably would have gotten a different result on the survey.
If you ask Seiler why he started doing no-till farming, it was the erosion. When he and his brother started farming conventionally in the early 1980s, they noticed that they were losing a huge amount of earth from their lands every season. Soil from bare fields would blow away or wash into waterways. Deep gullies would form in the clay earth, trapping tractors and other machinery. It was simply not sustainable. As a farmer, soil is the foundation of your entire business, and you can’t afford layer after layer of it shrinking away every year.
Seiler had first learned about no-till at a conference, and bet that reducing disturbance to the soil would keep more of it intact. He bet correctly.
“It was instant, the erosion thing stopped,” he told me in his office, which is festooned with badges and mementos from years and years of no-till and regenerative agriculture conferences. “But then when we started putting cover crops into the land, we found out we could build our soils up better than what we ever thought we could.”
It was pollution in Lake Erie, however, that made Seiler more acutely aware of the environmental ramifications of conventional farming. One morning in August 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, awoke to a warning that they could not drink, bathe in, or even touch water from the municipal supply. An algae bloom in Lake Erie had produced dangerous toxins that had migrated into the city’s water plant, threatening to poison a half million people.
“Because you’re thinking climate change, we’re thinking the next level down. We’re thinking cover crops, keeping the land green, improving the soil.”
The Maumee River anchors the largest river basin in the Great Lakes watershed, and 80 percent of the land in that basin is farmland — including roughly 1700 acres of Seiler land. The tributary runs from Fort Wayne, Indiana, into Lake Erie, and farms all along its length have leached in tons and tons of phosphorus from commercial fertilizers. Lake Erie began to develop a neon-green, oil-slick algae bloom due to the phosphorus imbalance, which led to the Toledo water crisis of 2014.
“No producer around here can say they didn’t play a role in that,” said Seiler. “And that really resonated with me — we were part of that problem, and I just look at that as a bad deal. We can’t do that to people.”
Seiler has implemented a number of interventions on his land to prevent contamination of the watershed: phosphorus monitors, installed and tracked by Ohio State University; two-stage ditches to guard against erosion; a mechanism that turns off drainage when fertilizers are put down or pesticides are being sprayed. But the health of his soil, he said, keeps his need for commercial fertilizers low, and the continuous “armor” of cover crops limits runoff. When it rains, the water that runs over the top of his land is clear; the water that runs out of the drainage tile is clear.
Most of these are climate-positive interventions, insomuch as they strengthen the ability of the soil to sequester carbon. But when I asked Seiler if carbon sequestration in the name of climate mitigation is at all a motivating factor for the type of farming he does, he said: “I don’t know that there is one factor that motivates me at all, I just know it’s what we need to do.”
Lonely but Sustainable
The community of farmers who use regenerative methods is pretty small in Seiler’s corner of northwestern Ohio. He’s in a low single-digit percentage of farmers in the area, by his estimate, and they’ve formed a fairly tight-knit network to share their experiences. One morning I met Seiler and his friend Kent Sonnenberg, who farms corn, soybeans, and dairy about 30 miles south, for breakfast at the Blue Ribbon Diner in Wauseon.
Seiler and Sonnenberg met at a no-till conference about 10 years ago, and forged a friendship on their shared commitment to regenerative farming practices in their region. Both of them have given public talks and had private conversations to explain the rationale for their practices to neighboring farmers, and they’ve both been somewhat disappointed by the interest it’s generated.
There is an almost proselytizing quality to the way Seiler and Sonnenberg discuss their method of farming. Seiler, at one point, describes the process of soil testing for nutrients and pollutants as a sort of religious ceremony. Prominent figureheads in the movement like Alan Savory and Ray Archuleta are discussed in reverent tones. David Brant, an early and well-respected adopter of regenerative farming in Ohio, tragically passed away this spring, and Seiler eulogized him as “a god for us to worship.” Sonnenberg explained his own motivation for preserving soil health with phrases that wouldn’t be out of place on a church marquee: You want to leave something better than what you started. You want something for the next generation.
But farmers are driven by increasing yields, and with a conversion to a no-till cover-crop system, some can expect an initial drop in productivity as the land adjusts. (Notably, critics of no-till as a climate solution posit that the potential expansion of farmland necessitated by smaller yields could actually erase any climate benefits accrued by carbon sequestration in the soil.) Seiler and Sonnenberg describe how they’ve seen farmers take money from federal and state programs that incentivize experimentation with environmentally conscious farming, but when that funding dries up they may just return to their old methods.
And invoking the urgency of climate change, certainly, does not seem likely to earn any converts.
“I don’t bring these things up, it’s not a good conversation,” said Sonnenberg. “It’s more like, how much rain did you get? We got this much on this farm, this much at that, down the road we got six-tenths. That’s a conversation we’ll have. We won’t have: ‘What do you think about climate change today?’”
In a couple of phone conversations in advance of meeting in person, Sonnenberg haltingly answered my questions about his opinions on and understanding of climate change. He asked if I was familiar with William Happer, the Princeton physicist who believes that the vast majority of global warming can be attributed to natural causes and not growing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; he also expressed concern that climate change was used by politicians as a ploy to accomplish other goals. But he seemed largely reluctant to discuss the issue at all.
On a brilliantly clear morning, after our breakfast at the diner, Sonnenberg drove me around all corners of his farm. He invited me to pet calves in the dairy barn — “I find the women like to do that” — and he dug up shovelfuls of soil to show me, in the palm of his hand, the difference between what was tilled and what was not. We talked about the dynamics of passing a family farm from generation to generation, the environmental hazards of an underfunded rural plumbing system, and the musical Fiddler on the Roof (he’d played the role of Tevye, the Jewish milkman protagonist, in a local production). When I tried to ask a question or two about climate change, he demurred.
I was surprised to get a call from him early in the morning a couple of days after my visit to his farm. He said that he found himself awake in the middle of the night wondering why he’d avoided my questions.
“We do what we want to do, and you don’t want to get in a political discussion with your neighbors that’s negative,” he said, after some more hesitation. “Our goal is to have a better environment, a better place to live, a healthier society, and a free world. That’s all what we want, I think, anyhow. We want to live a good life, and have the next generation do the same.”