Individuals can adopt many sustainable practices that add up to make a big difference in mitigating climate change, but those efforts need to be done in concert with policy changes at the institutional level. Sarah E. Eichler, BS ’00, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the horticulture program, based at Kent State University at Salem, develops policy recommendations for sustainability efforts in agriculture/horticulture, food systems and climate mitigation. 

“Looking at broad-scale solutions, we have to pull in many different seemingly unrelated aspects of our life, our work and our community to make progress toward sustainability,” Eichler says. “We’re not just talking about planting an environmentally friendly vegetable garden, we’re talking about a landscape that is managed to foster a healthy community, healthy local economy and a healthy environment.”

While researchers have studied the agricultural industry’s effect on climate change for years, farmers are understandably hesitant to take on unfamiliar practices that require new management skills or equipment investments, despite long-term improvements to their bottom line. When speaking with local farmers, Eichler tries to convey how climate-positive practices can benefit the environment and farmers alike. Reduced tillage is one example of a climate-positive farming practice that’s been widely adopted over the past 30 years. US Department of Agriculture incentive programs have helped encourage farmers and ranchers to implement such newer methods to minimize impacts on the environment.

“We’re talking about a landscape that is managed to foster a healthy community, healthy local economy and a healthy environment.”

By tilling the ground less frequently, farmers allow the soil to stay in place, carbon stays in the soil and provides better absorption and fewer nutrients wash away. The carbon in the soil also dissipates more easily. And, because less fuel is used, it saves energy and money. Some farmers use cover crops to help control erosion and improve soil fertility while reducing the leaching of nutrients—and this means better water quality in rivers and lakes, including major drinking-water sources.  

“We’ve known for years that carefully managing nutrient inputs can be a huge climate positive,” Eichler says. “But with recent increases in the price of nitrogen fertilizer and some of the chemical pesticide controls, it now has much larger economic benefits for farmers, too.” 

In her current research, Eichler is looking at how managing agricultural fields could affect albedo, a surface’s ability to reflect solar radiation back into the atmosphere. Increasing the amount of reflected energy helps to counterbalance global warming because the Earth absorbs less heat. 

“We’re exploring whether practices like reduced tillage and winter cover cropping might increase the amount of energy reflected back,” she says. “We don’t know enough about it yet to know if it could be a significant climate impact or perhaps an opportunity for farmers to earn better global warming mitigation credits in some future carbon market.”

Eichler emphasizes that when it comes to mitigating climate change, personal choices and individual actions can combine to influence business practices. For example, Ohio dairy producers did not readily convert to offer organic milk initially. But when more consumers started buying organic products, farmers realized there was a market and organic dairy products grew from a niche offering to a grocery-store staple. Some climate-forward producers face additional challenges in getting their distinctive product to market. Our purchasing decisions—even the brand of milk we buy—have a real impact on many of the family farmers in our region.

“In terms of policy, it matters who we vote for not just on a national level but on a local level, too,” Eichler says. “We can also be thoughtful about the foods we consume. What impact would it have if we purchased more local foods directly from growers? If we consumed one less serving of meat per week and made sure to use those left-over meals? Educating ourselves on the impact of our purchasing decisions is one step towards more sustainable habits.”  

Read a Q & A with Sarah E. Eichler, PhD.
Learn more about the Department of Biological Sciences.