Ag Secretary Addresses Farm Bureau

Vilsack Seeks to Double Cover Crop Acres for Corn, Soybean Farmers

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack used a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation on Monday to announce a new initiative to expand cover crops around the country. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

ATLANTA (DTN) -- USDA will partner with commodity groups to double the amount of corn and soybean acres that also use cover crops during the next eight years.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack used a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation on Monday to announce a new initiative with the United Soybean Board, the National Corn Growers Association and the National Pork Board, which has formed a partnership called Farmers For Soil Health. The partnership will work to double the use of different soil-health practices in the field, "especially cover crops" on corn and soybean acres. The goal is to double cover crop acres for farmers growing corn and soybeans to 30 million acres by 2030.

"We're excited to introduce conservation assistance," Vilsack said.

With that, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service tapped $38 million in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for a new pilot program to expand cover crops in 11 states "to help agricultural producers mitigate climate change through widespread adoption of cover crops. The program will be used in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota. Sign-up for these EQIP pilot programs will begin at the state level with applications being selected on Feb. 11.

Also added to the conservation announcements, USDA updated rules in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to allow an agricultural producer to immediately re-enroll in the program following an unfunded application to renew an existing contract.

Vilsack highlighted working with Farm Bureau leaders on climate-smart agricultural programs. The secretary said he and his staff "have received input, direction, guidance" from Farm Bureau and other commodity groups "on how to structure this in the right way."

He added, "We know it has to be voluntary, incentive-based, it can't be regulated. We're excited about the opportunity."

Following a year of debate with Republicans on Capitol Hill about use of the Commodity Credit Corp. for climate programs, Vilsack said demonstration projects will use CCC funds. But he told the Farm Bureau crowd that the use of the funds for the programs will be limited and not affect commodity safety nets, collectively dubbed as "Title I" in the farm bill.

"They are not going to come at the expense of anything we have to do with commodity programs in Title I," Vilsack said.

Hitting on a theme he has used a lot in the past year, Vilsack said the increased USDA focus on climate-smart agriculture is about looking for ways for farmers to generate more revenue through carbon credits or selling commodities that farmers can say were grown using practices that lower greenhouse emissions and improve soil health. Vilsack often describes it as farmers selling "climate-smart commodities."

"It's an exciting opportunity, and over the next several months, you are going to hear more about our efforts to make this money available," Vilsack said.

The secretary said he believes there will be greater market demand for commodities grown using climate-smart practices, and over time, that emphasis will help farmers when it comes to trade as well.

Speaking to reporters, Vilsack said new climate initiatives don't hinge on the Build Back Better bill, which is stalled in the Senate. That bill has $90 billion for USDA programs, roughly half of which is dedicated to conservation and forestry for climate-related program. For now, Vilsack said, USDA has funding for its pilot projects.

"We've identified the necessary resources to put these pilots together," he said.

Still, Vilsack said he is "unwilling to concede" that the Build Back Better bill is dead. He said there are still options to achieve major climate goals. He also had talked with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., about agriculture in the senator's state.

"There are multiple ways to get where people want to go here," Vilsack said.

Before Vilsack spoke at AFBF, the group also played a video message from President Joe Biden. The president highlighted his initiatives on competition to "level the playing field" for producers. Biden said, "Farmers deserve a fair price for your livestock and other products, and agricultural export services -- timely services -- to get your product goods to the market without a problem." Farmers deserve an independent opportunity to market their products, the president said.

"Capitalism without competition isn't capitalism, it's exploitation," the president told Farm Bureau members in the video.

Biden highlighted plans discussed last week to invest up to $1 billion in federal money in initiatives to expand packing capacity and markets for livestock. The president also touched on infrastructure investment in rural America that will increase with the passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill last November.

Vilsack added to the president's comments, saying many farmers don't feel confident they are getting the fairest price for their livestock.

"They believe sincerely there needs to be a level playing field," he said.

USDA has provided assistance to help small- and mid-sized processors offset the financial costs of increased federal meat inspection time with aid that will pay up to 70% or so of the inspection costs. USDA also recently provided $32 million to 167 facilities that will allow them to sell meat across state lines.

"So, we're trying to maintain the capacity that we have," he said.

Vilsack said larger facility grants and loans to expand facilities will come sometime in the next 60 to 90 days with as much as $160 million that could be released.

Farm Bureau will be debating some livestock policies on Tuesday at its delegation session to weigh in on how the group supports USDA's efforts as well as legislation. (See "Cattle, Packers and Mandated Cash Trade" at… and "Feedlots Pray Slower Processing Speeds are Just a Hiccup, Not a Long-Term Reality" at….)

The secretary also talked at Farm Bureau about work being done to reduce some of the slowdown and delays in the supply chain. He noted one of the reasons for so many challenges is how quickly the economy rebounded from the early days of the pandemic.

"Part of it is good news in that there is tremendous demand," Vilsack said.

But supply chains are strained, and companies are challenged by a tight labor force, congestion at ports and, in some cases, trade decisions that have led some countries to ban certain products -- including agricultural chemicals and fertilizers -- from being exported.

Vilsack mentioned pop-up shipping areas off-port to get containers into the economy more quickly. He criticized shippers who often leave the U.S. with empty containers, slowing agricultural exports.

"We could potentially lose markets because of spoilage or importers waiting on those products that are delayed," Vilsack said. He added, "We are working on the areas where we have control."

That includes tweaking the safety net, for instance. Vilsack pointed to the new supplemental insurance, Post Application Coverage Endorsement (PACE), for corn farmers in select counties in 11 states who split applications of nitrogen.

(See "Pace and Split Nitrogen" at….)

"So, we're looking constantly for ways to help get us through what is a difficult time," Vilsack said.

Also, in Atlanta on Monday, Vilsack met with a mix of Black producers and community organizers who are working on different farm projects across Georgia. USDA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund that will allow the cooperative to work with landowners on the requirements for USDA programs through NRCS and the U.S. Forest Service.

Various groups at the event with the cooperatives told USDA officials their stories about expanding community gardens or helping develop first-generation Black farmers. One couple working with students on gardens around Sylvester, Georgia, has gotten the school district to commit to nearly all of its students learning more about community garden projects.

"You just have to show a story to these kids showing farming and agriculture is cool," said Sam X. White, who told the story of the Village Community Garden to Vilsack.

USDA's Risk Management Agency also announced Monday that RMA is investing up to $2 million in cooperative agreements for risk-management education and training to help historically underserved producers and small-scale farmers with conservation practices. RMA will work with nonprofit organizations, universities and county cooperative Extension offices to develop training and education tools, the agency stated.

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Chris Clayton