October 26, 2022
Farmers in four states will soon be able to apply for payments of $100 per acre or animal unit for conservation practices under an $80-million USDA-funded pilot project led by Rural Investment to Protect Our Environment or RIPE.
Leaders of RIPE and its partner organizations, meanwhile, are trying to expand that pilot project into a national program to help growers across the country establish more carbon-sequestration and other environmentally-friendly practices when Congress writes the 2023 farm bill.
They are hopeful USDA will begin signing farmers up for the pilot project in selected counties in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Virginia this winter. The project is one of 70 announced by USDA in September using Commodity Credit Corporation funding and money from the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Farmers operate on such thin margins that no matter how good a practice may be for the environment, most producers won’t implement it because of the financial cost,” said Brandon Hunnicutt, a grower and chair of the RIPE Steering Committee. “With the RIPE platform we can move beyond cost-share and make conservation practices more economically feasible for farmers and ranchers.”
Hunnicutt, who grows corn and soybeans near Giltner in central Nebraska, is one of dozens of RIPE producer-leaders from across the country who have been working to develop a program that would reduce the risks farmers take when they plant cover crops, no-till or other such practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Currently, most USDA conservation programs pay only a small share of the total costs of such programs or require farmers to invest in multiple species of cover crops or other inputs that can run $50 to $60 per acre or more. RIPE’s $100-an-acre proposal would offset those costs and the risk farmers take in implementing those practices.
“No one expects the clean energy industry to invest in climate-smart practices with a cost-share model,” said Aliza Drewes, RIPE’s executive director. “Clean energy policies are designed to enable a reasonable return for investments that deliver public benefits. Why not offer the same opportunity to farmers and ranchers?”
RIPE has compiled analyses from studies showing climate smart practices, including cover crops and no-till can return public benefits of up to $214 per acre in a corn and conservation crop rotation.
This is the time of year when farm organizations are drafting resolutions for what their members are seeking in the next farm bill. The resolutions are introduced at the local level and then advanced to the state and national gatherings such as the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in January.
“I think it’s important for farmers to take the lead on this,” said Hunnicutt, who is a member of the National Corn Growers Association board of directors. “We need to make sure there’s a strong voice in the farming community to say ‘we need this.’
“We know from experience that our members of Congress listen to their constituents. I think it’s important for farmers to look at this and take it to their local organizations in a grassroots effort to move it up to the state and then the national level. Hopefully, we can get some movement on it.”
Drewes says RIPE representatives have been meeting with congressional staff and with the staffs of national farm organizations. USDA’s announcement it was providing $80 million for a $100-an-acre-or animal-unit pilot project was a major step forward.
“Conversations have been going well with additional stakeholders,” she said. “The interest is growing, especially since the $80-million pilot project news was shared. We had been hearing the $100 an acre was too ambitious or not realistic. When USDA said: ‘This is a great idea that we’re happy to endorse,’ it helped others see this is a viable path.”
So far, RIPE is one of the few groups talking about how a federal Climate Smart Agriculture program can be designed. Most of the others involve private sector opportunities or how can you complement the private sector with a public program.
“I believe we’re the only pilot that was funded to have national conversations and roundtable discussions and to bring in technical experts to work out the details of how a National Climate Smart Ag Program could be designed,” she said. “And core to our principles is it be designed around the concept of equitable payments above costs?”
Leap of faith
Growing and managing cover crops or planting no-till or changing irrigation practices takes a leap of faith for growers who have never tried them before.
“Sometimes it’s the equipment costs; sometimes it’s the agronomic challenges,” said Hunnicutt, who is growing a blend of cover crops on his family’s farm. “Some might say ‘well, I’ll just stop tilling the soil,’ but it’s not that simple. My planting window may be a little different because the soils may be colder. Different herbicides or crop protection products or fertilizer timings may be needed.”
“Most producers are eager to get involved as long as they are being fairly compensated for the risks,” said Drewes. “We already reward clean energy companies for delivering public benefits. There is broad support on both sides of the aisle for that type of program design.
“From our conversations on the hill we know members of Congress are receptive to the concept,” said Drewes. “The message we continuously hear, especially from the leaders of the committees, is they need to hear from farmers and their associations.”
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