ORLANDO, Fla. (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday used the Commodity Classic show to sign a pair of agreements with farm groups to boost soil-health practices under USDA's Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.
Vilsack called Friday's rollout the beginning of a "transformational chapter in American agriculture, revival of rural America as well."
The secretary added, "It is the beginning of a process of a number of projects that are going to transform how we farm where we farm, what we do to produce sustainably produced crops and livestock products. It's an opportunity for us to celebrate what happens every single day on the farm."
While there are skeptics about whether agriculture can achieve national goals to reduce emissions, Vilsack said the 141 pilot projects sharing roughly $3.1 billion in funding will help drive farming and ranching toward greater emission reductions.
"I think agriculture is on the cusp of being the first major industry of our overall economy to move aggressively towards a net-zero future," Vilsack said.
The two projects spotlighted at Classic included Farmers for Soil Health, a partnership that will look to increase cover crops by 1 million acres over 20 states led by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, as well as the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, and the National Pork Board. That project includes support from the National Center for Appropriate Technology, National Association of Conservation Districts, Soil Health Institute, University of Missouri, Sustainability Consortium and The Walton Family Foundation, as well as DTN.
The second project funded was the Midwest Climate-Smart Commodity Program, led by the Iowa Soybean Association, but includes other partners such as PepsiCo, Cargill, Renewable Energy Group, Ingredion, Target, JBS, Coca-Cola, Mano y Ola, FarmRaise, Rural Community Assistance Partnership. That program will reach out to farmers in 12 states.
Each of the two projects spotlighted Friday by Vilsack will receive grant rewards of up to $95 million.
In his speech at Classic, Vilsack highlighted that the 141 pilot projects are expected to reach more than 60,000 producers and will "establish a new concept" to pay farmers for how they produce their crops and livestock. Producers will ideally take the support they receive in these projects to then go out and qualify for markets to sequester carbon, improve water quality or increase wildlife habitat.
"That's a new revenue source that didn't exist before," Vilsack said.
He also touched on renewable energy funds from the Inflation Reduction Act at USDA that will allow farmers to expand their potential to generate renewable energy for their operations such as solar through funds such as the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP). "And maybe they produce excess energy that they put on the grid and get paid for it as well," the secretary said. He added this is a "massive opportunity" as Rural Electric Cooperatives move to decarbonize as well.
In a panel discussion, some of the leaders of Farmers for Soil Health also highlighted the purpose and importance of the project, stressing that it is led by farmers.
"One thing that sticks out in my mind is that it's undeniable that when you plant cover crops you stop erosion," said Jim Douglas, a farmer from Indiana and leader of the United Soybean Board.
Brandon Hunnicutt, a Nebraska farmer and board member for the National Corn Growers Association, said the climate-smart projects will help corn farmers meet their goals to reduce erosion and reduce emissions 13% by 2030, as well as increase irrigation efficiency 15% as well.
"This initiative will definitely help that process," he said. Hunnicutt added the projects will help farmers ensure that their practices are economically sound as well. "Farmers have a lot of questions -- whether it's myself, my neighbors, people walking around this trade show -- is that if I go through this whole process of cove cropping or reduced tillage, or whatever else I am going to try, am I going to be able to stay economically sustainable?"
Farmers for Soil Health will start an enrollment process ideally this fall. There are still a few questions about enrollment, but farmers said there will be different levels of cost-share enrollment based on whether a farmer is just starting out with cover crops or already has used them on their farm.
"Any farm, no matter what state they are at using cover crops, can sign up for this cost share," said Neal Bredehoft, a Missouri farmer and also a member of the United Soybean Board.
Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation at USDA, said an important aspect of the programs comes down to "measuring, monitoring, reporting and verification" of practices and their impact on reducing agricultural emissions. "One of the best we're making here is that agriculture can make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions," he said.
Tim Bardole, an Iowa farmer, asked about how farmers will be rewarded if they have been farming no-till for a long period of time and using cover crops. Bardole said those early adopters could find themselves at a "competitive disadvantage" financially to others who are just now willing to embrace these practices because of the money involved.
Bonnie replied the issue of ensuring incentive reward to early adopters "is a really, really important equity issue." Bonnie added, "The worst outcome we could have is a perverse incentive for someone to go tear up what they have been doing for a long time."
Another challenge going forward is how the climate-smart commodities will play into the next farm bill debate. Beyond the $3.1 billion provided by USDA grants, the IRA also gave USDA $19.5 billion in funding for its large conservation programs specifically to address the backlog of demand and incentivize farmers to adopt more practices that lower emissions or sequester carbon. Still, that $19.5 billion pot of money looks attractive for lawmakers who might want to move money around in the farm bill.
On Thursday the House Agriculture Committee also mapped out its budget views for the 2024 fiscal year. Within a letter, the committee called for more resources to write the next farm bill. The Agriculture Committee cited the inflationary pressures farmers are facing and the repeated ad-hoc aid that Congress has been forced to pass in recent years. The committee also pointed to the $19.5 billion and suggested that the committee could shift some or all of those funds elsewhere in the farm bill. The lawmakers stated the committee, "will be working to ensure they are targeted to address the most critical conservation needs to maximize their environmental impact or address other related funding concerns within the farm bill."
Asked by DTN about the potential of Congress shifting those conservation dollars elsewhere, Vilsack said he had not seen the committee's budget letter, but added, "It would be ill-advised to reduce the opportunity that those resources create to support what we just signed, and the opportunity that farmers across the United States who are looking forward to, which is finally dealing with the backlog of conservation projects that will now be funded because of this. I think it would be ill-advised and we'll continue to work obviously with our friends in Congress to make sure they understand the importance of this resource."
Also see, "Ag Emissions Projected to Decline More Slowly Than Other Sectors of Economy," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
USDA Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities https://www.usda.gov/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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