On average, agricultural land is losing 4.5 tons of topsoil per acre while only replacing it with about a half a ton per year, according to a White House study conducted in 2016. The talking point shared by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is an important one as he works to establish the proper incentive to allow farmers to continue to be productive while also encouraging them to take actions that address key environmental concerns on the climate front.
Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat what is now coined the “climate crisis.” And for farmers, USDA wants to hear your thoughts on how the agency should put together its climate smart agriculture and forestry strategy.
USDA published a Federal Register notice on March 16 seeking comments on four topics: climate-smart agriculture and forestry; biofuels, bioproducts, and renewable energy; catastrophic wildfire; and meeting the needs of disadvantaged communities through USDA’s climate strategy.
I recently was privileged with a one-on-one with Vilsack to discuss many topics, including climate change. Over the years, I’ve been impressed with his dedication to make sure farmers are at the center of any climate discussion. While serving as the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, he even testified at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about the many ways farmers can benefit from new income streams and their actions taken to improve the environment.
With the renewed emphasis on the climate, Vilsack looks to continue to seek farmer input and ensure their best interests are kept front and center.
Vilsack says first and foremost, it’s important for USDA to have the resources within the normal programs USDA offers to incent and provide the focus and direction on climate smart agricultural practices and regenerative practices that actually will make a difference in terms of climate. This includes ways to encourage cover crops, diverse crop diversification, crop diversity, crop rotation, rotational grazing, and all of those practices that we know are good, he says.
Vilsack recognizes that you can’t ask a farmer to embrace practices that will cost money unless there is a return on that investment above and beyond better soil health. This requires creating a vehicle in which the farmer is paid to incentivize adoption. But this vehicle must be designed with the farmer in mind to be most beneficial to farmers.
“Many of the carbon banks and markets that exist today were not designed with the farmer in mind but were designed with an investor or an entity that sought the ability to offset the carbon emissions from some industry or business they were in. And that’s not necessarily attractive to farmers,” Vilsack says. “The challenge I think is for us to figure out ways in which we can create the compensation system and structure it in a way that allows us to adequately compensate farmers.”
The secretary also explains there is a challenge of the high costs of certain technologies whether producers are trying to capture methane and converting it or converting agricultural waste into something more valuable. “Who’s going to bear that capital expense,” Vilsack questions. “How can we partner with farmers to make sure that they can as well be encouraged to participate in those kinds of activities?”
As revealed by recent climate hearings in both the House and Senate agriculture committees, farmers offer an important voice in directing what farmers are finding on the ground in terms of success and problems in adopting climate mitigation measures and participating in ecosystem markets.
As the government balances the carrot versus stick approach, those who offer boots on the ground provide the right voice to encourage the government to offer the carrot.
The notice represents an important step toward implementing President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The Order, signed January 27, states that, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”
The order directs Vilsack to solicit input from stakeholders as USDA develops a climate-smart agriculture and forestry approach.
“USDA is committed to addressing climate change through actions that are farmer, rancher and forest landowner-focused and that create new market opportunities for the sector in a fair and equitable way,” says Vilsack. “We want your ideas on how to position the agriculture and forestry sectors to be leaders on climate smart practices to mitigate climate change. This includes making the most of USDA programs, developing new USDA-led climate strategies, strengthening existing markets and developing new markets that generate income.”
USDA currently requests public comment on:
1) How should USDA utilize programs, funding and financing capacities, and other authorities, to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices on working farms, ranches, and forest lands?
2) How can USDA leverage existing policies and programs to encourage voluntary adoption of agricultural practices that sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ensure resiliency to climate change?
3) What new strategies should USDA explore to encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices?
4) How can partners and stakeholders, including State, local and Tribal governments and the private sector, work with USDA in advancing climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices?
5) How can USDA help support emerging markets for carbon and greenhouse gases where agriculture and forestry can supply carbon benefits?
6) What data, tools, and research are needed for USDA to effectively carry out climate-smart agriculture and forestry strategies?
7) How can USDA encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices in an efficient way, where the benefits accrue to producers?
Find out more about the questions being asked and how you can offer your input at the Federal Register notice. Those interested are invited to submit comments on or before 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time April 29, 2021.