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RIPE leaders applaud USDA conservation list expansion

Twenty additional practices have been added to climate-smart activity list.

Forrest Laws

December 7, 2023

4 Min Read
Anaerobic Digester
The updated smart-climate list will increase the ability of large and small operations to significantly improve their individual environmental stewardship efforts, according to Minnesota dairy farmer Eunie Biel. CreativeNature_NI/Getty Imagea/iStockphoto

The Rural Investment to Protect our Environment or RIPE says USDA’s recent addition of 20 practices to its Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Mitigation Activity List is a big step toward making U.S. agriculture more sustainable and climate friendly.

But some activist groups disagree, voicing their displeasure in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that claims the practices will increasingly “support factory farms and the proliferation of factory farm gas.”

RIPE is the farmer-led organization that has been working to persuade Congress to provide more realistic incentives for farmers, ranchers and forestry landowners to adopt proven conservation practices to protect the environment. RIPE studies show most of the practices provide $100 or greater per acre or animal unit in public benefits.

Eunie Biel, RIPE president and a dairy producer from Minnesota, said she believes the activists’ letter does not accurately account for climate and other environmental benefits provided by the newly approved practices.

“USDA’s decision to include high value, climate-smart conservation practices for animal agriculture should be celebrated,” said Biel, who operates a 210-head dairy herd and farms 1,200 acres of crops with her husband, Bob, and other family members. “This will increase the ability of large and small operations to significantly improve their individual environmental stewardship efforts.”

Activists’ letter

The activists’ letter, signed by nearly 200 organizations, contends the newly approved practices will incentivize “large factory farms to maximize their waste generation and even expand their herd sizes,” although dairy herd numbers have hovered around 9.4 million cows for the last 20 years.

“For many years, advocates, farmers and members of Congress have raised the alarm about how funding for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and manure biogas entrenches factory farms, worsens market consolidation, deepens environmental injustices with air and water pollution, fails to address climate change and is a waste of taxpayer resources,” the activists said.

“These CAFO practices already dominate a huge share of conservation dollars, ranking as some of the most expensive conservation practices and taking resources away from farmers wishing to implement truly regenerative practices through these programs.”

The activist letter offers no alternatives for reducing methane emissions from livestock and other farming operations, which EPA estimates total slightly more than 10 million tons per year. That would put them on a par with the U.S. energy sector for greenhouse gas emissions.

Apparently, those 10 million tons should be allowed to escape unfettered into the atmosphere along with the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from the estimated 290 million vehicles that use America’s streets annually.

Anaerobic digester

The letter cites an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy analysis that said seven anaerobic digesters in California used nearly $2 million in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding – “enough to support the average cost of 238 farms planting cover crops.” (An anaerobic digester is a system that breaks down organic matter in manure or food wastes and produces gas that can be used for fuel or fertilizer.)

“Conservation funding should not advance a ‘get big or get out’ agenda,” the letter said. “Digesters are expensive. Costing up to $5 million each, and, in the case of dairies, requiring at least 3,000 cows to operate profitably.”

The groups signing the letter range from well-known national groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club to lesser-known local groups such as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and the Locust Point Community Garden in Maryland.

“As a conservation organization representing farmers, livestock and dairy producers, RIPE applauds the steps taken by the USDA to simultaneously protect the environment and economy,” a spokesman said.

RIPE’s research, which is leveraged from peer-reviewed articles, suggests that Feed Management provides an annual environmental and economic return of $705 per animal unit for beef, $274 per animal unit for swine, $196 per unit on dairy cows and $172 per unit on poultry. “Similarly, covers for lagoons in swine operations provide an annual return of $1,008 per animal unit and dairy at $1,089 per animal unit.

“We are extremely pleased with Secretary Vilsack and the USDA for deeming these critically important conservation practices as ‘climate-smart,’” RIPE board member Stratton Kirton from Maryland said. “We are all about the win-win and this is a win for the environment and a win for taxpayers who will get the greatest possible return on their investment.”

To view the USDA’s Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Mitigation Activities List for FY 2024, visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/2023-10/NRCS-CSAF-Mitigation-Activities-List.pdf.

About the Author(s)

Forrest Laws

Forrest Laws spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.

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