Climate Change and Agriculture

Introduction

Agriculture is Montana’s largest industry, employing more than 31,000 people. According to some sources, up to 30 percent of all economic activity in the state is supported by agriculture.

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About 64 percent of the state’s roughly 93 million acres is farm and ranch land. There are about 28,000 farms and ranches in Montana and at any given time about 2.5 million cattle can be found here. Total annual sales receipts for Montana agricultural products are well over $2 billion in recent years, divided roughly even between livestock and the full range of field crops.

Not surprisingly, adverse affects that climate change might visit upon this powerhouse of the Montana economy are of great interest to people of all walks of life and every political persuasion. Perhaps as importantly, however, Montana agriculture is on the path toward a lead role to sequester carbon in soils and to help mitigate the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Agricultural soil management practices and livestock contribute about 26 percent of total Montana greenhouse emissions. Yet agricultural soils sequester a great quantity of carbon. Emerging management practices are already moving in a direction to reduce emissions and actually store more carbon in soils.

Greenhouse Gas Contributions
In the mid 1990s, the agricultural sector in Montana contributed as much as 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year. Emissions have dropped back to about 8 million metric tons in recent years (from a state-wide total of about 37 million metric tons), largely due to modern tillage practices.

The agricultural sector contributes greenhouses gases in several major ways. Untaxed farm diesel fuel (dyed) is burned at roughly 56 million gallons per, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Taxed diesel and taxed and untaxed gasoline fuels are also used in agriculture. Agricultural fuels are accounted for under Transportation.

Agricultural soils contribute greenhouse gases when plowed. Application of synthetic fertilizers and manures also contributes emissions. Soil management approaches can also sequester carbon, however. Rangeland, most hayed bottomland, and some cropping techniques actually store carbon. Consequently, Montana agricultural soils are believed to remain positive carbons sinks, sequestering a net 2.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.