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USDA nominee promises production, conservation balance

Farm Production and Conservation undersecretary nominee Robert Bonnie defends how his role can encourage farmer participation in climate crisis.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

July 30, 2021

5 Min Read
Robert Bonnie nomination hearing.jpg
CLIMATE-SMART AG: FPAC Undersecretary nominee Robert Bonnie says he will ensure whatever climate policies are pursued by the government also supports ag producers. “Whatever we do on climate has to work for producers; it has to work on working lands.”Hearing webcast

Commodity, disaster and lending programs as well as crop insurance, conservation programs and technical assistance are all critical components of USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation mission areas. In a nomination hearing for the FPAC undersecretary role on July 29, nominee Robert Bonnie defended the need for a balance between production agriculture and conservation in meeting the needs of the climate crisis and extreme weather and providing a proper safety net for farmer’s continued success.  

Bonnie currently serves as the deputy chief of staff for policy and senior adviser on climate change, in the Office of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Like the secretary, Bonnie is no stranger to USDA, having previously served as undersecretary for natural resources and environment under President Barack Obama.

Bonnie’s prior service and work in the private sector should be helpful if he is confirmed as FPAC undersecretary, as the mission area includes the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency, in addition to overseeing the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., notes Bonnie brings decades of experience in building partnerships and closely collaborating with farmers, ranchers and foresters. “I want to underscore that in our conversations, Mr. Bonnie has stated his commitment to tackling the climate crisis and boosting farm income at the same time with voluntary measures.”

And throughout questioning and in his opening comments, Bonnie did promise to carefully balance the long view and as well as production and agriculture.

“Production and conservation are the flip side of the same coin. Agricultural production is vital to meet the food and fiber needs of a growing world, but that production relies on healthy soils, clean water and a stable climate. Conservation is vital for productivity. Likewise, productivity is vital to conservation. Maintaining and enhancing the profitability of agriculture – that is, keeping working lands working – is necessary to meet our conservation goals,” Bonnie says.

He continues by saying conserving our natural resources means keeping farmers, ranchers and forest owners on the land. And, to do that, agriculture and forestry need to be productive and profitable. “USDA can help maintain that profitability by providing a safety net that cushions agriculture from the challenges of markets and extreme weather and by promoting conservation practices that contribute to long-term productivity,” he says.

Crop insurance

Bonnie defended crop insurance and notes it is the “most important safety net” and says he hopes to continue to expand opportunities for making crop insurance available to more producers and more types of agriculture.

In questioning from ranking member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., he asked whether in overseeing RMA if Bonnie would prioritize the development of policies that incentivize climate-smart agricultural management practices that could distort the actuary soundness of the program.

Bonnie response explains that anything that USDA does in this area, or more broadly on climate policy, has to have the support of producers and farmers. Crop insurance is also a public-private partnership between USDA and crop insurance providers.

Related: Farm Service Agency Administrator talks programs

The pandemic assistance provided a $5/acre premium incentive for those who planted cover crops in 2021. Bonnie says this incentive-oriented approach received significant interest. “Those types of approaches that work with the insurance industry are absolutely critical,” he says.

Carbon as a commodity

Some Republicans on the Committee voiced concern with administrative policy initiatives that may attempt to use the Commodity Credit Corporation in ways not prescribed by statute. The CCC funds traditional farm bill programs, but in recent years has also used funds to pay farmers for trade mitigation and coronavirus aid payments.

In a line of questioning with Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Bonnie says carbon does have value, but he doesn’t view carbon as a commodity in the context of the CCC. If you want to think about using the CCC to advance climate smart agriculture and forestry, whatever USDA does within the CCC has to be about commodity production and traditional agricultural commodities, he explains.

“How you take advantage and create opportunities for producers who may grow commodities using climate-smart agriculture and forestry is the potential link with the CCC,” Bonnie says. “It’s those opportunities and new markets is what I think is consistent with the CCC.”

Bonnie says across all climate policies, if it creates challenges for agriculture and things don’t work, it won’t be pursued. “If it doesn’t work for producers, it doesn’t work for the climate,” he says.

CRP enrollment

Several questions directed at Bonnie challenged the administration’s positions on working lands versus idled lands such as the Conservation Reserve Program. Boozman voiced concerns in USDA’s recent CRP rental incentive increase to encourage additional sign-ups and says it may be “creating undue and avoidable problems for producers.”

Congress established lower CRP payments in the last farm bill to ensure the government wasn’t bidding against young and beginning farmers. Bonnie defended the legality of the actions and also says the agency must continue to focus CRP funds and enrollment on those highly sensitive lands.

When asked about the Biden administration’s 30x30 plan to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands by 2030, Bonnie says from USDA’s standpoint meeting that goal is building on the history of voluntary, incentive-based, locally-led initiatives.

He mentioned his family’s farmland has endangered species on it, so he’s aware of the challenges on meeting those requirements for landowners. He also cited the sage grouse partnership between state and local leaders and ranchers on improving habitat offers a prime example of the power of locally-led initiatives.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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