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Acting on Climate through Sustainable Agriculture: White House Champions of Change

The White House honors 12 farmers, producers and educators who are making an impact in the fight against climate change.

On Monday, the White House honored 12 Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture who are implementing practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve environmental conditions while sustaining local economies. In panel discussions at the White House, the Champions shared the techniques they are using on their farm such as planting cover crops, practicing no-till, installing biodigestors, and optimizing nutrient application.

Ag Champs of Change

The Champions all recognize the important role that our nation’s farmers, ranchers, and agricultural educators can play in addressing climate change. Their actions build on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strategy, released in April 2015, to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration from agricultural and forestry practices by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent by 2025.

In addition to the panel discussion, the Champions had an opportunity to tour the White House Garden which planted cover crops this week as a demonstration of the importance of these actions in improving soil quality, reducing erosion, and increasing soil carbon. In recognition of the importance of sustainable practice, the White House announced that it will plant cover crops in the White House Kitchen Garden this week to improve soil quality, reduce erosion and increase soil carbon.

These efforts come at an important moment. In a little over a month, countries from around the world will meet in Paris on a climate change agreement. The work of our Champions and federal initiatives and programs exemplify America’s continued leadership in land-management strategies that mitigate emissions and adapt to climate change and build momentum for an agreement that takes a strong step forward toward a low-carbon, sustainable future.


In advance of the event, the Champions shared reflections on their experiences:

Anita Adalja

I always tell people that I am a social worker first, and a farmer second. In 2011, I merged my careers, committing myself to what will surely be a lifetime of work in sustainable agriculture, food access and community building.  

My way of farming is both sustainable and social.  It’s sustainable to the land, the farmers tending the land, and the community’s partaking of the land.  It’s social in that I’m always thinking of the community who will receive the food that we're growing.  I am striving to build myself and our communities to resemble the land: resilient, patient and generous. 

Anita Adalja

At Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, we work to improve equity and sustainability in our local food system.  We train beginning farmers and gardeners, teach nutrition and the wonders of farm life to students, and bring farm-fresh produce into low food access communities across Washington, D.C.  We are farmers, educators, social justice activists, market managers, and most importantly, individuals united in sustainable agriculture and food justice for all.  

Anita Adalja is the Farm Manager for Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture operating in Washington, DC, and northern Virginia.

William “Buddy” Allen

It is an honor to be selected as a White House Champion for Change in Agriculture.  I believe sustainable agriculture can be achieved by practicing good stewardship and my efforts in conservation are focused on that.  We must preserve our natural resources with innovatively crafted conservation practices that simultaneously enhance productivity.  We have more high-tech tools available to producers than ever before with new cutting edge technologies that are continuously being developed.

It is a privilege to work with the many talented partners and organizations who collectively focus on addressing our primary resource concerns such as soil health, erosion, runoff, and water consumption.  Mississippi has led the fight against hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and proactively manages its groundwater aquifer to ensure sound opportunities for future generations.  Partnerships between producers, commodity groups, environmental groups, U.S. Department of Agriculture- Natural Resources Conservation Service our regulatory community are active and vital.  We must continue to keep agriculture strong and sustainable. 

Buddy Allen is a producer in Mississippi and a member of The Macon Edwards Company, a Washington D.C. based consulting firm. 

Keith Berns

Me and my brother Brian’s connection to the land runs deep, as we have been farmers all of our lives, but only recently have we begun to understand the complexity of the soil ecosystem and the promise that it holds for better crops, healthier food, and a more stable environment.   By studying how God created soils, plants, and microorganisms to interact and thrive in nature, we have been leveraging the power of biology to improve our soils, increase our crop yields, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. 

Through no-till farming, crop diversity, and living cover crops, we are storing and building our soil carbon levels by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil where it becomes the currency for a wonderfully complex economy of plants and soil microorganisms.  We are convinced that the only logical solution to increased atmospheric CO2 levels is to farm in a manner that has more plants growing more often (cover crops)  to sequester the carbon into the soil and to avoid practices that will re-release large amounts of CO2 (tillage or burning).  This realization led us to start Green Cover Seed in 2009 and from a small and humble beginning with a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Farmer/Rancher grant to over 3,500 customers and over 1 million acres in all 50 states, we are blessed far beyond all that we could ask or think.

Brothers Keith and Brian Berns are co-owners and operators of Providence Farms and Green Cover Seed of Bladen, Nebraska.

Larry Cundall

As a Christian, having been born and raised on the land made me and most of my colleagues true environmentalists before the term became a fad. Making your living off the land and understanding where food comes from will teach most to have respect for the environment.  Living with the land certainly gives one a clear view of the effects of a changing climate. Having spent the majority of my more than 66 years living and working on my family’s ranch in Glendo Wyoming, I have found that being open to making management changes is key for increasing productivity and profits, protecting wildlife and the natural resources, and preserving rural communities. Our ranch has abundant mule and whitetail deer, antelope, elk, turkeys, small mammals, song birds, hawks, eagles, ducks, and countless other species in ever increasing numbers.

Larry Cundall

As a steward of the land, I make it my personal responsibility to learn, critically evaluate, and apply the best of new practices. Because I believe in the importance of producer-led research that gives the tools to farmers and ranchers to put new practices into place that work for their land, I sit on the Administrative Council of the Western SARE program and Chair the advisory council at the Sustainable Research and Extension Center (SAREC) for the University of Wyoming. I helped obtain a continuing legislative grant from the state of Wyoming for producer led research projects helping producers in the face of an ever challenging environment for sustainable agriculture.

Over the last few years I have appreciated learning from and interacting with Agriculture producers from Guam and Saipan to Montana, California and New Mexico to Washington to Alaska trying to give back some of the blessings I have enjoyed.

Larry Cundall is an active rancher in Glendo Wyoming and the incoming Chair of the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

Herman “Trey” Hill

When I was growing up, it was not typical for the environmental and farming communities to get along with one another. In order to feed a growing population and manage the environmental impact of agriculture, I believe that these two stakeholders must collaborate and work together. We must both come to the table as we both have common goals. Why wouldn’t I want a clean Chesapeake Bay? My kids swim in the river just like everyone else’s kids. As a farmer, I realize I am a steward of the land, so it makes sense for me to take care of it to the best of my ability. The goal of being a good steward is to be able to pass our land onto future generations in better condition than before.

At Harborview Farms, we strive to the values of good stewardship and healthy living. We host the Colchester Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) endeavor on land that we own. I believe that small, organic operations like this CSA really complement larger grain operations by assisting with educating people on agriculture and healthy eating. Both small and large, organic and non-organic operations can coexist in the same agriculture society.

To improve the environment, I currently serve on the board of the Sassafras River Association, a local riverkeeper organization, and am a member of several other environmental groups. Additionally, I believe that sustainable farming practices such as no-tillage and cover crops can improve the quality of both our land and waterways. I do this because I am committed to bridging the gap between environmentalists, nutritionists, and agriculturalists. As long as these groups continue to collaborate, I believe that we can achieve our common goals.

Trey Hill is a Partner and Manager of Harborview Farms, a grain operation producing corn, wheat, and soybeans with a focus on sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship.

Loretta Jaus

Not long after returning to the family farm, the tenets of my training in ecology collided head-on with the industrial food system.  Finding balance between the two has been a scary, satisfying, full-time challenge. I have also found a way to devote time to my broader interest in advancing food system change, working with key organizations doing important work in that realm and bringing the subject to classrooms and community groups.

Our atypical farmscape has proven a valuable tool in opening discussion on difficult agriculture-related issues.  Now, once a year, the good china comes out to the pasture where fifteen or so women, largely farmers, gather over wine and a fine meal.  There’s no charge, just a request to consider and share thoughts on the food-related question included with their invite.  This dialogue reassures me that the moral wisdom that at times seems lacking in higher-level problem-solving efforts, is alive and well with those whose feet are planted solidly in the soil.

Loretta Jaus is an organic dairy farmer in Gibbon Minnesota board member for The Land Stewardship Project, and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA).

Martin Kleinschmit

After a tour in the United States Army, I returned to the farm where I was born. I followed traditions until 1978 when I participated in the Small Farm Energy Project, sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs.  The goal of the project was to reduce energy use.  While hearing about many different practices and ideas, we also learned to be critical thinkers.  So, instead of expanding acres to increase profits, we decided to adopt the organic model to cut costs and sell for a premium. 

From the organic farming principles, I learned the importance of soil carbon.  It increases natural fertility, raises the moisture holding capacity, and reduces the treat of erosion, making for a more resilient soil.  The threats and risks of climate change became more evident to me in 1997, as part of the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the Great Plains Region, US Global Change Research Project (  Taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in the soil through photosynthesis (carbon sequestration) is a win-win, it reduces the threat of climate change and makes soils more resilient to anticipated weather extremes.

After 10 years of mentoring, the farm management is now in the hands of a younger farmer that shares my views, goals, and principles.  And, after 27-years, still wanting to cut energy use, a friend and I—who is transitioning his organic farm and shares my views, started a local company to design and build solar systems.

Martin Kleinschmit is the owner of an organic farm in Nebraska that produces grains and raises grass-finished cattle on annual and permanent pastures.

Jennifer “Jiff” Martin

When I came to Connecticut 13 years ago, I advocated on behalf of environmental leaders and farmers in Connecticut whose common cause was the preservation of working farmland.  This coalition, Working Lands Alliance, taught me the vital link between our quality of life and the land that sustains us.

Now I work with Cooperative Extension, connecting people to the farmland, farmers and flavors of local food. I am just one of so many champions for change in our food system. Through our new farmer trainings, I have met bright, new farmers that are driven to feed their communities while sharing the realities of small-scale farming. I respect our partner organizations that use innovative food projects to improve their communities’ health and equity. And I am full of hope, thanks to the young emerging leaders that I meet through our AmeriCorps programs, FoodCorps CT, and Connecticut Food Justice VISTA Project.

Jiff Martin

In New England we have the capacity to produce and consume more of our own food through locally owned farming, fishing, and food enterprises. I see hundreds of endeavors across the region, from school gardens to incubator farms to food hubs to mobile markets. Without a doubt, our food system transformation is well underway.

Jiff Martin is an Associate Extension Educator in Sustainable Food Systems, at University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

Jesus Sanchez

In the early years, farming was conventional, we used a substantial amount of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to keep the soil productive.  I knew that there could be a better way to produce a higher quality crop without the heavy use of these conventional methods. I implemented an idea of using cover crops after harvest. The results were notable in the following production year – we saw higher yields and higher quality crops.  After years of refining and implementing these methods into the farming structure, Conservation Tillage (CT) has improved the soil in ways that were thought to be impossible. CT uses less water, less fertilizer, and the yield crops are consistent year after year.  With conventional farming, I have had zero to .5 percent organic matter, now, with CT, organic matter has increased up to 2.5 percent.  I have had farmers from various countries visit our farm. They want to know how we work, what we do to improve the soil, and to see the transformation of our farming system.

I am very pleased to share what we have done to transform our way of farming throughout the years.  Our aim is to take care of the soil which in turn will take care of us.  

Jesus Sanchez is the Farm Manager for Sano Farms, Firebaugh, CA.

Erin Sexson

I am humbled to be recognized as a Champion of Change in Agriculture, but the true champions are the American dairy farmers I am privileged to work for every day. When we set out on our sustainability journey eight years ago, farmers taught me two valuable lessons.  

The first thing I learned is that words can create worlds.  The word “sustainability” is typically defined as the ability to maximize for a “triple bottom line” which balances economic, environmental and social considerations.  Our farmers taught us that the concept should also include stewardship. Stewardship is the commitment to care for and pass the land on to the next generation in better shape than we found it.  Sustainability, then, is about putting that commitment to work every day so that our businesses, communities and people can prosper. Today, putting this commitment to work is more important than ever.

Farmers often say “get your boots dirty” and that points to the second valuable lesson that I learned from them: how to walk in someone else's shoes and see the world from their perspective.  That inspired an amazing collaboration among dairy farmers, scientists, academics, dairy companies, brands, retailers, government and non-governmental agencies as we worked together toward common goals.  Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary and necessitates diverse thinking. This contagious collaboration will help us solve for the unprecedented challenges agriculture faces in the 21st century and beyond. 

The simplicity of the phrase “to walk," also reminds us that if we each take small steps to solve for climate change, our collective steps will add up!  

Erin Fitzgerald Sexson is Senior Vice President of Global Sustainability at Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Timothy Smith, Eagle Grove, Iowa

Although I am honored to be a part of this group of “Champions Change,” I am simply an Iowa farmer doing his best to raise crops as sustainably and as environmentally-friendly as possible. Conservation isn’t a buzzword for me. It’s how I farm after understanding how I truly play a part in the whole system. To me, conservation means protecting and improving soil quality. It is not done through one single practice, but includes addressing the complete system. That mindset not only helps to protect the present state of soil and water quality, but considers the long-term sustainability and improvement of those precious natural resources.

The tile water testing I do on my farm allows me to measure the effects of implementing new practices. This helps me understand the movement of nitrates from fields and allows me to adjust my practices to mitigate and work to prevent that loss.

When we talk about changes, it’s important to consider dealing with a system. You can tweak, improve and add to the system. General farming practices are seasonal and cyclical and affected by climate. In order to make improvements, changes must be made to the system and analyze those changes to identify enhancements.

By working with associations and other groups, including the Iowa Soybean Association and the Soil Health Partnership, I’m learning new methods and I’ve been encouraged to share what I know with other farmers. I’m not perfect, and I don’t know it all. But I do know that farmers must be open to change and understand their effects on the soil and water.

Tim Smith is a farmer from Wright County, Iowa.

Donald Tyler, Beech Bluff, Tennessee

I grew up on a small farm in western Kentucky. We grew tobacco and also had a few beef cattle. I had the opportunity to go to college at Murray State University, and then went on to graduate school at the University of Kentucky. No-tillage agriculture, planting the crop in untilled soil, was just beginning in Kentucky then, and I was very fortunate to work under Dr. Grant Thomas, a pioneer in no-tillage cropping systems.

At the end of my graduate training I was hired in a new position at the University of Tennessee to develop cropping systems to control the severe soil erosion problem in the western area of Tennessee. At the time, this area was considered to have the highest soil erosion rates in the U.S. erosion was extreme, and I saw fields devastated by gullies resulting from intense tillage. Over my career, no-tillage adoption has gone from 0 to over 70 percent for all of our row crop acreage and erosion has been reduced by 95 percent.  This was a team effort, involving researchers, extension specialists, and others from various agencies. No-tillage has resulted in more economically and environmentally sustainable crop production in Tennessee and the Southeast, U.S.

Dr. Donald Tyler is a Professor of Soil Science in the Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Angela Barranco is Associate Director for Public Engagement at White House Council on Environmental Quality.