• Climate Change,  Conservation

    Inflation Reduction Act Funding for Climate-Smart Agriculture

    The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law on August 16, 2022. Among its other aims, the act includes investments in federal programs that address the climate crisis, like those in support of climate-smart agriculture practices. As such, part of the IRA’s $19.5 billion package includes funding for oversubscribed conservation programs implemented by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In fiscal year 2023, this means $850 million will be available for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

    Additional Investments for Thousands of Farmers and Millions of Acres

    In total, the IRA will provide an additional $1.4 billion for ACEP, $4.95 billion for RCPP, $8.45 billion for EQIP, and $3.25 billion for CSP. The funding begins in fiscal year 2023 and will continue to rapidly build over the span of four years. Providing direct mitigation benefits, these programs will support climate-smart agriculture through financial and technical assistance to help farmers advance on-farm conservation practices. 

    Formerly, there have been about twice as many farmers applying for CSP as those who receive funding. The IRA will help to address the issue of oversubscription and underfunding. According to the USDA, “These additional investments are estimated to help hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers apply conservation to millions of acres of land.”

    climate-smart agriculture to conserve natural resources

    What are Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices?

    To date, the IRA is the most significant federal investment in climate-smart agriculture. It bolsters existing USDA programs that mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis while strengthening a farm operation. So, what are examples of climate-smart agriculture?

    Climate-smart agriculture practices are numerous and varied. For farmers, they include activities like resource-conserving crop rotations, buffer strips, and even mulching to improve soil health. Climate-smart agricultural examples for ranchers include rotational grazing and forage plantings that help to increase organic matter in depleted soil.

    CSP at a Glance

    The CSP helps forest and agricultural producers take their existing conservation efforts and climate-smart practices to the next level. Covering more acres on a multi-year basis than other conservation programs, CSP encourages farmers and ranchers to protect natural resources and improve the environment—while supporting profitability. 

    The technical and financial assistance targets five key conservation areas:

    1. Air, soil, and water quality
    2. Carbon sequestration
    3. Biodiversity and pollinator and wildlife habitat
    4. Natural resource concerns in a particular area (i.e., erosion, water quality)
    5. Water and energy conservation

    Agricultural producers who make use of eligible climate-smart agricultural practices can apply for CSP funding. The enrollment process is competitive. Applications are ranked based on conservation plans, which are developed with an NRCS agent. Fortunately, as a result of the IRA, more producers in 2023 will have access to conservation assistance and funding from the CSP.

    Get Paid for the Climate-Smart Practices You Use

    “The Inflation Reduction Act provided a once-in-a-generation investment in conservation on working lands, and we want to work with agricultural and forest landowners to invest in climate-smart practices that create value and economic opportunity for producers,” said Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. Payment amounts vary and are based on conservation practices, but all CSP contracts pay a minimum annual payment of $1,500 (up to approximately $40,000 a year).

    If you control land and its production, you’re eligible for CSP. This includes landowners, renters, and owners who crop share. To take advantage of CSP’s increased funding as a result of the IRA, it’s imperative to apply by your state’s ranking dates. In Ohio, the first application cutoff date for the IRA-CSP funding pool is April 7, 2023. 

    To begin the application process, contact your local NRCS office. Along with an agent, you can use Ohio’s IRA CSP activity list to determine eligibility for the program. Based on the climate-smart agriculture activities you use and plan to use, you’ll work with an agent to complete the Conservation Assessment Ranking Tool (CART). Your conservation efforts will be assessed against those from other applicants. If you rank highly, you will be offered a five-year contract and funding. Historically underserved farmers receive special consideration

    Climate-smart agriculture: how to apply for CSP.
    Adapted from NSAC. For more support, see their publication: Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program.

    The Benefits of CSP

    Thousands of people voluntarily enroll in CSP—a number that will be even higher as a result of IRA funding. They often see real results, like improved wildlife habitats, increased resiliency to extreme weather and market volatility, and a decreased spending on agricultural inputs. Do you engage with CSP and the use of climate-smart agriculture practices? If so, please contact us to share your experiences. The 2023 Farm Bill provides an opportunity for us to continue advocating for NRCS programs like CSP.

  • Climate Change,  Conservation,  Farm Bill

    A Transformational Approach to the 2023 Farm Bill

    Written by Ricardo Salvador, 2023 OEFFA Conference Keynote

    The upcoming reauthorization of the farm bill will be the 23rd iteration of this legislation. According to Jonathan Coppess and Chris Adamo—Vermont Law School teachers of a course on the “modern farm bill”—this version could be revolutionary. They see the main driver of this potential departure being the role agriculture could play in mitigating climate change. 

    A Push for Business As Usual—But a Need for Something New

    Aerial view of green combine harvester in brown wheat field

    A problem with this otherwise sensible prediction is that it would require genuine change in farm practices and the policies that incentivize and support the structure of farming.

    Already, the incoming chair of the House Agriculture Committee is on record stating that he “will not have us suddenly incorporate buzzwords like regenerative agriculture into the farm bill or overemphasize climate.” The president of the Iowa Farm Bureau—the most influential state chapter of the powerful national federation—wants the bill to stay the same, and continue to distribute public largesse without any expectation that it will return verifiable environmental benefits.

    Of greatest concern is that in its recent announcements of nearly $3 billion in “climate smart commodity” awards, the USDA has amply demonstrated that the politics of farm country and agribusiness will dilute the Department’s ability to promote and support effective climate change action through agriculture.

    There is a scientific component to this, but the most important factor is political. A patchwork of “climate friendly” voluntary practices used during any given production year will have limited ability to reverse greenhouse gas contributions—regardless of farmers’ positive intent. For this sector to meaningfully reverse its emissions, the massive changes in land use and row-crop and livestock production that are needed can only be brought about by the wide-reaching legislative power of the farm bill.

    Revolutionary Farm Bills Throughout History

    A New Mexico farmer meets with a county representative in 1934 to discuss provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) farm program. The farmer's son stands by closely as planting decisions—following the the first, and arguably most transformational farm bill—are talked about. Photo Source: USDA (Public Domain)

    This brings us to the Coppess and Adamo analysis. On their telling, there have only been three truly revolutionary farm bills. They define these as legislation that completely shifted the direction of farm policy.

    The most recent was the disastrous “Freedom to Farm” bill of 1996. It attempted to eliminate farm subsidies through a transitional program, but instead led to the consolidation of farmland into larger operations, and the failure and displacement of thousands of family farms. The system of government support was rapidly restored in the subsequent 2002 Farm Bill.

    The first farm bill in 1933 was revolutionary precisely because it recognized the government’s essential role in agriculture: to manage the market for agricultural products in a way that farmers could not accomplish on their own. Farmers, and all of U.S. society, have lived since then with the reality of the determinative role of government programs in farming. All farm bill debates have largely been about whom and what to support with this massive public intervention (the current bill is a $428 billion package of tax dollars).

    This brings up the remaining revolutionary farm bill, and a lesson for how to break the impasse created by powerful organizations and corporate interests dependent on government support—and which therefore have a stake in shaping and controlling “status quo” farm bills. The 1985 Food Security Act expanded the traditional interest groups vying for public tax dollars by bringing in the anti-hunger community.

    This is what Coppess and Adamo identify as the beginning of the “modern” farm bill era, since the “Farm Bill Coalition” created to pass that bill has not only persisted, but the new “nutrition programs” they sponsored have become the lion’s share of the bill, capturing 76.1 percent of the most recent farm bill spending. The “farm side” and “nutrition side” need one another to be politically viable. And this is the ultimate lesson that Coppess and Adamo drew: it is all about the coalitions you bring to the debate.

    Shaking Up the Status Quo

    A transformational farm bill can support a farm like this one, with sun setting over a green field of corn

    At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have been working with a large number of partners, including OEFFA, to shape a new, broader coalition for the farm bill debate. By definition, a status quo approach to the farm bill begins with the existing legislation as a template, and is about making minimal adjustments.

    A transformational approach calls for us to ask what we need from a 21st century food system, and to then craft that legislation without the constraints of programs designed to answer different questions from a different era.

    The new coalition is led by the notion that many have a stake, in particular groups representing large communities historically excluded from shaping farm and food policy. We see the bill as a vehicle to center the racial justice issues accounting for farming being a dominantly white occupation, with the labor side of the farm and food system being a conspicuously Brown and Black work force.

    This is why the coalition marks the return of the labor sector, which was an essential partner with farmers—as a grassroots, working-class coalition—in shaping the original agricultural policies embedded in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act. 

    No matter your perspective, we can agree this is indisputably a transformational approach to the traditional “farm bill debate.” Accordingly, the coalition’s priority demands are seen as a package, a set of issues so interrelated they cannot be effectively addressed by breaking them apart. They are:

    • Center racial justice
    • End hunger
    • Meet the climate crisis head on
    • Increase access to nutritious food
    • Ensure safety and dignity for food and farm workers
    • Protect farmers and consumers
    • Ensure the safety of our food supply

    All of us who are involved are pragmatic, and understand this approach is a long shot. This is because of powerful entrenched interests (the agribusiness lobby is larger than the defense lobby), and not because this suite of issues is not well-framed, urgent, and relevant to the times in which we live.

    The status quo interests have vulnerabilities, key among which is the difficulty they will have in making the straight-faced argument that they need more of the lavish public support that has led to historical farm profits and farmland values. Coppess, who has authored what I consider to be the landmark book on the farm bill’s history, has been warning Midwest farm groups that the sailing might not be smooth for the “bipartisan approach” (code word for status quo) that such groups would like to see in the bill.

    At the upcoming OEFFA conference, we will discuss the prospects, strategy, and progress of this transformational campaign, and the key role that OEFFA can play in advancing this work. After all, the farm bill is legislation in which every person in the nation has a stake, and no effort to take part in the farm bill process can be credible without the genuine and active participation of farmer groups.

    Ricardo Salvador is an agronomist and the director and senior scientist of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His keynote address, A Transformational Idea for the 2023 Farm Bill, will take place on Saturday, February 18 at the 2023 OEFFA Conference. Learn more about OEFFA’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform.

  • Climate Change

    Two Things You Can Do NOW to Support Climate Solutions in the Next Farm Bill

    The 2023 Farm Bill presents an important opportunity to increase support for sustainable, ecological, and organic farming practices.

    OEFFA members know this kind of farming is a real solution to the climate crisis. We know that good farming respects and enhances the health of the land, people, and the natural world—and we need policies that reflect that knowledge.

    We have a choice. We can continue the status quo and hope things don’t get worse. Or we can act now to address the threat, including the more frequent extreme weather events farmers are facing. We can each be champions of organic, sustainable, and regenerative solutions to the climate crisis.

    Here’s the TWO things you can do right NOW to make sure climate solutions are in the next Farm Bill:

    Climate Solutions in the Next Farm Bill Letter

    Sign the National Farmer Letter on Climate Change!

    Please add your name to this farmer letter on climate change and send Congress this message: the next farm bill must be a climate bill.

    Farmers need funding, research, and risk management tools to implement climate-friendly farming practices. The Agriculture Resilience Act is a comprehensive plan to implement these solutions in the next Farm Bill. Sign on to show your support now.

    Not a farmer yourself? Share this page with someone in your network.

    Climate Solutions in the Next Farm Bill Rally for Resilience

    Save the Date for the Rally for Resilience!

    Farmers, farm workers, and farmer allies—including OEFFA—will be converging on Washington D.C. March 6-8 to urge Congress to make climate change policy a priority in the 2023 Farm Bill.

    The three-day event will include a rally and march, as well as an opening ceremony, grazing demonstration, press events, and a lobby day.

    Save the date! Opportunities to participate and register are coming soon. Contact OEFFA Grassroots Organizer Heather Dean to learn more.

  • Climate Change

    Tell the USDA Investments in Organic and Regenerative Agriculture Will Help Address the Climate Crisis

    Time is running out! Comments are due by Thursday, April 29!

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now requesting input on agricultural solutions to climate change through this open docket.

    We know that organic and regenerative farmers use the kind of holistic, systems-based practices necessary to limit greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions, sequester carbon, and mitigate the damaging effects of increasingly severe weather. Certified organic agriculture has a 20-year track record as the only USDA-accredited, voluntary, system-based approach to ecological agriculture that has soil health at its foundation and limits outside inputs that contribute to GhG emissions.

    As sustainable farmers and organic advocates, this is our opportunity to support organic and regenerative agriculture solutions to the climate crisis, share their benefits, and shape the USDA’s climate agenda for years to come.

    Specifically, the USDA is seeking your input on these two important questions:

    1. What can the USDA do now with existing programs to encourage voluntary adoption of farming practices that sequester carbon, reduce GhG emissions, and ensure resiliency to climate change and what can be done with new resources and strategies?

    Suggested Talking Points

    The management practices associated with organic agriculture focus on soil building techniques and reducing the need for off-farm inputs which are a persistent emitter of nitrous oxide, a long-lived GhG. Long-term studies demonstrate that organically managed soils have increased water holding capacity and better water infiltration, which are also key adaptations necessary for farmers to survive and thrive in the years ahead.

    The USDA can address this crisis by:

    • Providing increased investment in Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation programs that, with a focus on reduction of GhG, carbon sequestration, and climate mitigation, will help organic and regenerative farmers to significantly amplify their practices and support conventional farmers looking to improve their stewardship and be part of the solution;
    • Elevating and promoting organic management systems as a premier approach to address climate change and create a plan for significant increases in organic research at the Agricultural Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture;
    • Abandoning the policy that it cannot extol the benefits of organic management for fear of offending conventional agriculture and instead promote the good work that is being done by organic producers across the country;
    • Creating a new Conservation Reserve Program agroforestry initiative to encourage transition to perennial production;
    • Offering insurance premium subsidies for the adoption of climate-smart regenerative agricultural practices; and
    • Increasing the minimum payment for participation in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CS) and rewrite the CSP rule to emphasize and encourage the holistic systems of practices that work synergistically to address climate and ecological health.

    2. How can the USDA ensure that the funding, programs, and outreach effectively reach and equitably serve all landowners, producers, and communities?

    Suggested Talking Points

    The USDA can improve access by:

    • Identifying and engaging communities of color at all stages of the USDA process;
    • Engaging diverse farm groups in gathering input and enlist them in disseminating information and resources; and
    • Cross-training USDA agency staff to be able to speak to programs within other agencies and to connect these communities, landowners, and farmers with the USDA staff who can address their needs.

    The USDA needs to hear your voice. Please take a few minutes to submit brief comments to the Federal Register today and help create a more sustainable agricultural agenda for the future.

    Writing effective comments only takes a few minutes! Here are some tips:
    • Put suggested talking points in your own words. Unique comments stand out.
    • Share related personal experience, if any. Personal stories make comments more impactful.
    • The best comments are brief and to the point. Bullet points can be a useful way of conveying information at a glance.

    Read OEFFA’s comments to the USDA, submitted April, 27, 2021.

  • Climate Change

    Can a Carbon Bank Help Solve the Climate Crisis?

    By Guest Blogger Eve Gleeson

    With the new Biden administration comes the emergence of fresh ideas to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. A potential “carbon bank” for farmers has begun to gain traction, which would be able to reward farmers for sequestering carbon into soils by selling the resulting credits to corporations who wish to offset their emissions. While well-intended, there is no shortage of obstacles to creating a carbon bank that is as equitable, sustainable, and effective as its proponents suggest.

    A carbon bank would be a product of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), a U.S. Department of Agriculture program responsible for financing agricultural support programs like subsidies and aid payments. In a perfect world, the program would be equipped with the technical and logistical dexterity to monitor soil carbon levels on farms, calculate “credits” and pay farmers according to each ton of captured carbon, and serve as a mediator between credit-producing farmers and credit-buying corporate entities.

    Despite the challenges, a carbon bank may impart considerable benefits.

    First, advocates claim that if only $1 billion were dedicated to the program annually (CCC is authorized to lend up to $30 million), there could be atmospheric carbon reductions of around 50 megatons per year with carbon prices at $20 per ton. As we will see, the environmental impact of this program is far more complicated than these figures suggest. For this reason, the program may be more useful in a symbolic sense, encouraging a movement toward cultural and behavioral norms that embody sustainability, especially within the food system. Commoditizing a natural resource (in this case, soil carbon) is understandably controversial, but it has great power to convey the value of ecosystem services to a profit-oriented financial system.

    Lastly, though likely to falter in its early stages, a carbon bank may offer a short-term solution to a time-sensitive climate crisis, as the systemic and institutional changes we really need may take decades we simply do not have. Given its potential, healthy criticism shouldn’t precipitate a premature dismissal of government-backed carbon markets. As with most innovation, this program might just require several years of troubleshooting before coming into its own.

    Unfortunately, this carbon bank does pose some structural and conceptual challenges that may make it a non-starter.

    If designed correctly, [a carbon bank] could successfully incentivize ecological stewardship. But at present, this program may only serve to enrich corporate landholders, stagnate genuine land regeneration, and neglect more integrated movements toward a sustainable food system.

    First, there is a general absence of objective and affordable measurement tools for monitoring changes in soil carbon. This results from a poor understanding of how carbon functions in soil, frequent incremental changes in carbon levels, and high variability in soil carbon across soil types. Consequently, there is immense variability in soil carbon measurements across farms, putting additional pressure on a carbon bank to standardize and assign value to something that is by nature highly variable and volatile.

    Like other carbon markets, this carbon bank could cater to corporate and industrial operations, while disadvantaging the small-scale independent farmers that are truly regenerating damaged lands through holistic practices. Because this program would pay landowners for capturing atmospheric carbon, it could also exacerbate land-grabbing practices by corporations seeking to profit off the program. Small and diversified farms, who provide various ecosystem services and other benefits for the food system, could be overtaken by industrial operations that profit better in a carbon marketplace. This could worsen the struggle many new farmers face in accessing affordable farmland.

    More generally, a carbon bank could further benefit a small group of corporate landholders, who already own over 75 percent of all agricultural production in the U.S., while overlooking the system that caused too much atmospheric carbon in the first place– the manufacturing and fossil fuel industries. This brings me to my last point.

    There may be legitimate environmental costs associated with this program.

    Exclusive attention is often paid to greenhouses gases, particularly carbon, in climate change discourse, pointing to our obsession with siloing the often complex causes of and solutions to climate change. This carbon bank is no exception. Assigning value to carbon but not other forms of natural capital narrows our understanding of ecological health both on and off the farm. Carbon can be sequestered into soils even with the continued use of pesticides and monocropping, practices that damage biodiversity, produce nutrient-depleted crops, and pollute the environment.

    A carbon credit program like this one also entitles corporations to continue their emissions-intensive practices, though they may now effectively greenwash their products and operations. There is also no indication that these programs can significantly reduce greenhouse gas levels in the long run; the volatility of soil carbon means that changes in land practices or weather events could release stored carbon that has already been credited.

    How might a carbon bank impact farmers in the Midwest?

    Existing carbon marketplaces like Indigo Ag or Nori are designed around collecting credits racked up by large landholders. The average size of these corporate farms is 1,000 acres; approximately 90 percent of OEFFA farmers hold less land than this. As such, most small-scale farmers in the Midwest are unlikely to be included in a carbon bank, as the high cost of the program requires participants that can demonstrate soil carbon changes substantial enough to amass credits. Even if they were included, profiting significantly would be a struggle. With the cost of carbon at just $20 per ton, and most Midwest farms capable of sequestering between half a ton and one ton of carbon per acre, independent farmers are unlikely to strike gold the way industrial farms might.

    If we look hard enough, we might just be able to see the opportunity a carbon bank bestows for sparking a greater movement toward sustainable cultural and economic trends.

    If designed correctly, it could successfully incentivize ecological stewardship. But at present, this program may only serve to enrich corporate landholders, stagnate genuine land regeneration, and neglect more integrated movements toward a sustainable food system.

    Born and raised in Cleveland, Eve Gleeson is a sustainability consultant, freelance writer, and an intern at Food Tank. You can find her spreading knowledge and resources about sustainable food on Instagram, Twitter, and her website. She can be reached at evegleeson@gmail.com.

  • Climate Change

    Growing Support for Farmer Solutions to the Climate Crisis

    A growing number of farmers are making the connection between more frequent, extreme weather events and the climate crisis.

    Last year, OEFFA, as a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), began circulating a letter written by and for farmers: the Farmer and Rancher Letter on Climate Change and Agriculture. The letter expresses deep concerns about climate change impacts on U.S. agriculture and calls for solutions that invest in rural and agricultural communities.

    As a result, more than 150 OEFFA farmers joined thousands more farmers from across the nation in a clarion call for investments in sustainable agriculture.

    Agriculture is on the Front Line of the Climate Crisis

    Agriculture is on the front lines of a changing climate with greater weather extremes, like flooding, drought, and heat waves, threatening workers, crops, and livestock. As temperatures continue to rise, new pest and disease pressures are impacting crop yields and quality. Farmers and ranchers are accustomed to adapting to change, but today’s weather extremes are unprecedented and threaten the future of farming.

    Agriculture can be part of the solution to the climate crisis through increased investments in existing conservation practices and farm programs that make agriculture and rural communities more resilient. Good soil health practices like cover crops, crop rotation, improved grazing management, and reduced tillage can sequester much of the carbon contributing to climate change. These practices also help ensure farmers adapt to weather extremes by increasing the water holding capacity and water infiltration rates of the soil needed when there is a drought or flood. Sustainable and organic farmers reduce potent greenhouse gasses, like nitrous oxide, by reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers.

    Agricultural Resilience Act

    Large-scale adoption of these practices will require significant investment to reduce the risk to producers as they shift to new climate-friendly practices. Technical assistance, financial incentives, and research are also key and are currently being advanced through H.R. 6851, the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA).

    The ARA offers a comprehensive set of farmer-driven solutions to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by 2040 by setting a national goal and investing in research, soil health, farmland preservation, farm viability, pasture-based livestock, on -farm renewable energy, and reducing food loss and waste.

    The only Ohio member of the U.S. House of Representative currently supporting the ARA is Congressman Tim Ryan (D-13). Contact OEFFA for information on your member of Congress and their position on this issue.

    Farmers Share Stories with House Select Committee, Senator Brown

    NSAC shared the Farmer and Rancher Letter on Climate Change and Agriculture to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on August 27. Signatories of the letter shared stories of how climate change affected their lives and spoke of their commitment to be part of the climate solution. They urged legislators to continue their work in Congress to support programs and increase conservation incentives to help others implement climate stewardship practices on their operations.

    Following the delivery of the letter to these Congressional climate leaders, a handful of OEFFA farmers shared their climate concerns with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Chelsea Gandy and Jesse Rickard of Fox Hollow Farm, Mardy Townsend of Marshy Meadows Farm, Betsy Libby of Blackbird Meadows Farm, and Lauren Ketcham of Down the Road Farm joined OEFFA Policy Director, Amalie Lipstreu, Senator Brown, and two of his staffers, Jonathan McCracken and Ross Griffin, to talk about how climate is affecting their farm businesses.

    While climate change may not be the term used by many farmers, the conversation made clear that most farmers in Ohio are experiencing extreme and damaging weather beyond the normal fluctuations faced over the decades. Even more pressing is the cost of these weather fluctuations on the farm business. Whether it is having one less cutting of hay, having to buy shorter season corn, or losing vegetable crops or livestock to extreme heat, these changes are real and affect the viability of farm businesses.

    Be the Change

    Thank you to our OEFFA farm leaders for speaking up to move our members of Congress to action on issues that affect farmers and food systems across the globe. If you are a farmer experiencing unprecedented weather impacts on your farm business, let us know. Even if you don’t farm, but feel this is an important issue, contact us today. We need your voice, more than ever.

  • Climate Change

    Agriculture Underscored in House Climate Committee Report

    This blog is from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), written June 30 following the release of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis report and provides detailed analysis and resources on the recommendations in the report related to agriculture and related programs and legislation.

    Major comprehensive federal legislation to deal with the global climate crisis is long overdue.  While no bills are likely to become law this year, the time is ripe for piecing together the key components of a new law for consideration in the 117th Congress (2021-22).  Even before next year, the House of Representatives will engage in a trial run, voting on climate-related bills yet this year, though with the knowledge the bills are unlikely to be considered in the Senate or become law.

    While transportation, energy, and economic development generally get top billing in climate legislative discussions, food and agriculture has a major role to play in addressing climate disruption, as NSAC has stated in our Climate and Agriculture position paper, a farmer sign-on letter that is making the rounds, and in a new NSAC blog series on the Agriculture Resilience Act (HR 5861).

    Farmers are on the front lines of climate disruption and can play a substantial role in providing climate solutions. From a farmer perspective, it is worth celebrating the inclusion of an agriculture chapter in the long-awaited action plan (one-pager of full report) of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis that was released today.  Chaired by Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL), the Select Committee was empaneled back in February 2019 to pull together this national plan of action.

    The Select Committee’s action plan lays out the steps Congress needs to take to put the country on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The roadmap would kick start economic recovery by investing in clean energy and jobs that value workers. The report centers around 12 key pillars, including investing in clean energy infrastructure, transforming domestic manufacturing of clean energy technology, investing in workers and a fair economy, advancing environmental justice, protecting and restoring U.S. natural resources, and promoting climate-resilient agriculture.

    The release of the Select Committee’s report was originally scheduled for late March but was delayed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is intended to serve as a template for eventual comprehensive legislation.

    NSAC released a press comment on the report earlier today.

    Agriculture Recommendations

    The agriculture section of the Select Committee’s report includes seven major components – increasing carbon sequestration and resilience, decreasing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, improving technical assistance and research, supporting on-farm renewable energy and energy efficiency, supporting the next generation of farmers, preserving farmland, and reducing food waste.

    These topic headings line up very well with the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) introduced earlier this year by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and endorsed by NSAC.  In fact, the new report makes repeated references to the ARA legislation, a bill which puts into detailed legislative language many of the recommendations highlighted by the Select Committee.  When it comes time for the Agriculture Committees of Congress to write their sections of comprehensive climate legislation or the climate-relevant sections of the next federal farm bill, the ARA will serve as a model to work from and further develop.

    Highlights from among the scores of Select Committee agriculture recommendations follow.  Provisions included in the ARA are denoted by an asterisk (*).

    1. Increase Agricultural Carbon Sequestration and Resilience Through Climate Stewardship Practices

    By providing financial and technical assistance for conservation tillage, cover crops, rotational grazing, resource-conserving crop rotations, perennials, advanced nutrient management, and agroforestry, Congress can help America’s farmers and ranchers implement climate stewardship practices while increasing profitability and making their farms more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Specific recommendations include:

    • Greatly increase funding for working lands conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), adding climate adaptation and mitigation to each program’s purposes. *
    • Restore automatic renewals under CSP to allow for continual improvement in farmers’ carbon sequestration efforts. *
    • Direct the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to establish region-specific climate change mitigation bundles within CSP that include both soil health and emissions reduction practices.
    • Increase funding for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials, including Soil Health Demonstrations.*
    • Increase conservation funding set asides for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. *
    • Increase acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and administer the programs with an emphasis on climate benefits. *
    • Require ACEP participants to complete and maintain a conservation plan, including climate benefits, with the option of automatic enrollment in conservation working lands programs. *
    • Direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to target CRP and ACEP to areas at risk of conversion to non-agricultural uses as well as flood-prone lands, peatlands, or other areas where climate benefits are substantial.
    • Create regional agroforestry centers to support silvopasture, alley cropping, and other excellent agroforestry systems to increase carbon sequestration and improve production. *
    • Set national climate stewardship practice goals and direct USDA to update these goals at least every four years to restore and maximize soil carbon in working lands. *
    • Improve conservation compliance enforcement and make ‘sodsaver rules’ apply nationwide. *
    • Encourage cooperative agreements and data sharing between farmers and federal, state, and local agencies, land grant universities, nonprofits, agricultural retailers, and conservation organizations to coordinate and support the implementation of measuring, quantifying, evaluating, and reporting levels of carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reductions on farms.
    • Study the feasibility of developing a federal tax credit to incentivize carbon sequestration and abatement on farms. *
    • Create a national organic agriculture transition program, including farmer-to-farmer mentorship opportunities, financial and technical assistance, and initiatives for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
    • Establish a state soil health grant program to provide states and tribes with funding for soil carbon sequestration programs. *
    • Establish a new mechanism such as a “climate-based producer” certification to provide markets and incentives for improved climate stewardship, including auditing and certification services through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
    • Direct USDA to align conservation practices between NRCS programs and crop insurance programs and provide crop insurance premium discounts for farmers who use risk-reducing, climate-friendly farming practices. *
    • Increase outreach and incentives for Whole Farm Revenue Protection insurance to encourage diversification.

    2.   Reduce Agricultural Emissions

    Climate stewardship farming practices, including improved nutrient management and rotational grazing, can help reduce the nearly 10 percent of U.S. emissions that stem from agriculture.  Specific recommendations include:

    • Increase financial incentives to improve nutrient management through EQIP, RCPP, and CSP.
    • Expand research, development, and deployment of precision agriculture technologies to apply fertilizer more efficiently and invest in rural broadband to support these technologies.
    • Provide technical and financial assistance for farmers to adopt alternatives to synthetic fertilizer, such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and the use of non-synthetic fertilizers such as compost.
    • Create an alternative manure management program to provide grants to farmers for non-digester manure and methane management strategies to reduce emissions, including conversion of non-pasture dairy and livestock operations to pasture-based management and alternative manure treatment and storage practices. *
    • Provide funding for the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative and amend the program purpose to add soil health and grazing system resilience. *
    • Provide support for producers transitioning from confinement and feedlot systems or continuous grazing to managed grazing-based systems and require a significant portion of EQIP funding spent on livestock go toward climate-smart grazing systems. *
    • Increase research and development to examine different feeds and feed additives and their impact on methane emissions from enteric fermentation.

    3.  Increase Federal Capacity to Provide Technical Assistance to Farmers

    USDA, land grant universities and extension, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) and retailers should collaborate to provide farmers and ranchers with technical assistance to increase adoption of climate stewardship practices.  Specific recommendations include:

    • Significantly increase support for the NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance program and increase technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to mitigate and adapt to climate change as well as research and deployment of agricultural climate solutions. *
    • Support public-private partnerships to facilitate adoption of climate stewardship practices.
    • Prioritize climate-specific research within competitive grant research programs. *
    • Authorize the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) Network and make climate research a priority. *
    • Facilitate farmer-to-farmer education and outreach programs on climate practices. *
    • Authorize and increase funding and staffing for the regional USDA Climate Hubs. *
    • Increase funding to develop seeds, trees, and animal breeds adapted to climate change, accounting for regional differences, and establish a USDA Public Breed and Cultivar Research Activities Coordinator. *

    4. Support On-Farm Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

    Farmers can reduce emissions, reduce costs, and earn more through energy efficiency improvements and the production of on-farm renewable energy.  Specific recommendations include:

    • Significantly increase funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), adding greenhouse gas pollution reduction to the program’s purpose and prioritizing projects that achieve the largest net decrease in emissions. *
    • Direct USDA to study dual-use energy systems and establish a program to provide education, outreach, and technical assistance for farmers to integrate renewable energy projects on land shared with crops or livestock. *

    5. Support the Next Generation of Farmers to Create a Fair and Equitable Food System

    With over 370 million acres changing hands in the next 15 years, the nation has an opportunity for the transition to prioritize climate stewardship in all communities.  Specific recommendations include:

    • Provide support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to undertake climate-friendly farming, including –
    • Increasing funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers (Section 2501).
    • Make government-owned farmland available as incubator farms.
    • Provide a farmer tax credit for taxpayers who sell farming property to new, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers, and tax credits for new and beginning farmers who purchase agricultural property. *
    • Establish a federally-backed land trust to buy land from retiring farmers and sell it interest-free to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
    • Ensure that tribes have fair and equitable access to, as well as representation and participation in, all climate stewardship initiatives, programs, and funding in which states, local governments, and other interested entities can participate.
    • Engage with and support environmental justice communities on climate stewardship practices, programs, and policies.

    6. Preserve Farmland From Development

    Saving farmland results in multiple benefits – reducing emissions from development, retaining opportunities for carbon sequestration, and reducing pressure to put more marginal lands into production with all its attendant carbon loss.  Specific recommendations include:

    • Increasing funding for ACEP and CRP, including for farmland preservation, wetland restoration, and restoring cropland to grassland where there is high carbon sequestration potential. *
    • Prevent the federal conversion of farmland by limiting conversion of productive farm and ranch land by federal agencies or by projects using federal funds. *

    7.  Reduce Food Waste and Transportation

    In the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of food goes uneaten through loss or waste, increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. More regional food systems have the potential to reduce transportation and energy use.Specific recommendations include:

    What’s Next?

    The recommendations of the Select Committee will be debated in Congress and help focus attention on practical steps that can be taken at the federal level to combat the climate crisis. The House will be taking up a major infrastructure measure that includes a wide variety of green energy and transportation provisions in the coming weeks. Later, it may turn to additional climate-related legislation. However, little Senate action, if any, is expected this year. From here on out, most of the attention will be focused on the November elections. 

    What comes afterward remains to be seen, but the prospects for comprehensive climate legislation may improve, and if so, the new report will provide important template for legislative efforts, which will hopefully include a major agriculture title. 

    Add to that prospect the scheduled rewrite of federal food and farm programs as part of the 2023 Farm Bill, with increasing talk about the possibility of the new farm bill happening sooner than that.

    Regardless of the specific timing, Congress may well have at least two major opportunities – a comprehensive climate bill and the next farm bill – to re-orient federal farm programs toward much greater support for climate-resilient conservation farming and away from subsidies that foster overproduction, specialization, consolidation and even greater climate disruption.  The agriculture section of the report of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis begins to provide some clues as to what that may entail, and is therefore an important contribution to the ongoing effort to create policies to support a more sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

  • Climate Change

    Answers to Your Questions About Agricultural Carbon Markets

    Understanding voluntary private carbon markets can be confusing.

    Will selling carbon credits generated by farmers help mitigate climate change? Will new legislation creating a certification program for carbon markets solve existing problems and confusion?

    Thankfully, one of our partner organizations in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has some answers. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) works locally and globally on fair and sustainable food, farm, and trade systems and IATP’s Tara Ritter wrote the article below to help us understand this complicated issue.

    With Tara’s permission we are republishing her blog post about carbon markets and a new bill called the “Growing Climate Solutions Act.”

    Senate Climate Bill Prioritizes Markets Over the Climate

    By Tara Ritter

    Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Braun (R-IN), and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill that would create a certification program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to facilitate farmer participation in voluntary carbon markets. Although farmers should be incentivized to adopt practices that boost resilience and sequester carbon, carbon markets have a failed and wasteful track record compared to public investments in proven conservation programs. This bill would tee up a framework incentivizing false solutions to climate change that benefits private companies over farmers.

    The Growing Climate Solutions Act is designed to help farmers overcome barriers to participation in voluntary carbon markets. It would do this by establishing a USDA certification for third-party verifiers, which would include standards for measurement, verification, monitoring, and reporting. It would also create an online “one stop shop” to provide information for interested farmers, offer explanations on how to get started with generating carbon credits and connect farmers with USDA-certified entities to provide technical assistance. The bill also contains provisions to keep USDA up-to-speed on the rapidly-expanding landscape of carbon markets.

    Voluntary carbon markets are privately-run schemes that pay farmers for carbon sequestered in their soils to generate carbon credits. Then, the company running the carbon market sells those credits to other companies or individuals interested in reducing their carbon footprint. Companies such as Indigo Ag and Nori are starting up voluntary carbon markets, claiming that they will increase farm profits while addressing climate change, all without imposing government regulations on farmers. Yet, Indigo Ag also plans to sell farmers proprietary seed coatings and collect farm data, raising questions of who will benefit most. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest backers of these schemes are large agribusiness companies, including ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and more, that will be able to generate, buy, and sell carbon credits to boost their profits and greenwash their own operations.

    The Growing Climate Solutions Act sets up a weak verification system for the markets. The system relies on third-party entities to both provide technical assistance and verify the carbon credits. Allowing an entity to both consult on best practices and certify adherence to those practices could lead to conflicts of interest. In addition, verifying entities may self-register in the program simply by notifying USDA that they will “maintain expertise in and adhere to the standards published.” This type of self-reporting will almost certainly be abused, and without strict enforcement it will weaken the results of already flawed carbon markets. The bill states that USDA will periodically conduct audits of the verifiers, although the bill does not say how often or rigorously these audits will happen, and the penalty for noncompliance is simply “equal to such amount as the Secretary determines to be appropriate.”

    In addition to weaknesses around verification, carbon markets do not effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and should not be supported by policy. Soil carbon storage is extremely impermanent; any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices or through severe weather events. Since voluntary carbon markets do not require farmers to engage in conservation activities permanently, carbon credits cannot serve as a permanent offset for emissions elsewhere. Furthermore, the tools to measure soil carbon to the degree of accuracy and reliability that a market would require do not currently exist. The Growing Climate Solutions Act attempts to standardize measurement across carbon markets, but without certainty that the measurements used are accurate, quantifying soil carbon is a guessing game and does not guarantee actual emissions reductions.

    Despite claims that voluntary carbon markets will incentivize climate-friendly agriculture, paying farmers for soil carbon offsets treats agricultural land narrowly as a carbon sink. Production for local food systems becomes a secondary function of farmland, bringing with it a range of social, economic, and food justice concerns. Agriculture should be viewed holistically; there are multiple benefits of a climate-friendly agricultural system, including healthier soils, clean water, wildlife habitat, and farm resilience to drought and flooding. Integrated systems of practices based on agroecology have the greatest potential to build resilience in the face of climate change, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and sequester carbon in the soil. Practices designed narrowly to generate carbon credits will not lead to comprehensive, systems-based changes.

    As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, agricultural consolidation has led to weaknesses in the supply chain and a food system that’s unable to withstand disruptions. Climate solutions for agriculture must address and lessen corporate concentration in the agriculture sector. However, offset projects work best for large-scale farms that have the economies of scale to implement practices on enough land to actually profit from generating carbon credits. This raises concerns that carbon markets will contribute to further consolidation of agricultural land and disadvantage small to mid-sized farmers.

    Today’s downturned farm economy has left farmers struggling to hold onto their operations. There’s an urgent need to reward farmers for practices that address climate change while increasing their operations’ resilience to climate change. However, successful and stable approaches cannot be linked to dysfunctional and volatile markets. Instead, predictable public funding can support farmers to implement conservation practices for the long term. Federal programs including the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program are examples of such funding sources. These programs are routinely over-enrolled and require additional funding to meet the demand of farmers. In addition, some states have created their own programs to address these challenges, including the cover crop program through the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the California Healthy Soils Program. These types of approaches should be expanded and strengthened to build forward-thinking public investment in a decentralized and resilient agricultural system.

    There are better bills on the table to meet the goals of maximizing soil carbon sequestration and reducing emissions from agriculture, including Representative Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME) Agriculture Resilience Act and Senator Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) Climate Stewardship Act. To support farmers while meeting the urgency of the climate crisis, Congress should take proactive efforts to scale up public resources for conservation practices while enacting common sense checks on corporate concentration in the agriculture sector.

  • Climate Change

    Comprehensive Climate Bill Invests in Farm-Based Solutions

    Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME)

    One of very few farmers in Congress, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) recently introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), the most comprehensive climate and agriculture bill ever introduced.

    It lays out 12 bold and necessary goals to meet over the next 20 years to restore lost soil carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost on-farm renewable energy, and reduce food waste, among other laudable goals.

    According to the Congresswoman, “Farming has always been a risky business, but unpredictable, extreme weather patterns are creating immense challenges that threaten our nation’s food production and jeopardize the livelihood of American farmers.”

    Currently, agriculture contributes more than 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., but the sector is uniquely positioned to draw down massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. To help achieve this, the bill focuses on six concrete areas based on science and driven by farmers:

    Improving Soil Health

    The ARA would create a new soil health grant program for states, authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer performance-based crop insurance discounts for practices that reduce risk, and explore new ways to reward farmers for soil carbon sequestration. The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has worked for years to increase adoption of good conservation practices and this bill will significantly increase funding for NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP, the nation’s largest working lands conservation program, would see funding increase four-fold.

    Protecting Farmland

    The ARA would increase funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program championed by Pingree and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and create a new part of the program that would focus on farm viability and local climate resilience centers to help farmers reach new markets. It would also increase funding for the permanent protection of farm ground through the Agriculture Conservation Easement program and make sure any proceeds from the sale of an easement or farmland to beginning, socially disadvantaged, veteran, and young farmers would be excluded from gross income.

    Supporting Pasture-Based Livestock Systems

    The bill would create a new alternative manure management program and a grant program to help very small meat processors cover costs of complying with federal meat inspection guidelines. These costs can be prohibitive and have limited the number of meat processing options in Ohio and elsewhere.

    Investing in Research

    The ARA would prioritize research relate to climate and increase funding for USDA’s Regional Climate Hubs. The bill also supports much needed public plant and animal breeding.

    Investing in On-Farm Energy

    The Rural Energy for American Program (REAP) provides guaranteed loan financing and grants to farmers for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements. ARA would increase funding to REAP and provide technical assistance to farmers interested in reducing methane emissions.

    Reducing Food Waste

    The ARA would standardize food date labels to reduce consumer confusion and create a program within USDA to reduce food waste in schools and increase federal support for composting and anaerobic digestion.

    While bills like this usually move forward as one complete piece of legislation, the ARA marker bill is likely to be broken out into smaller pieces that address the areas highlighted above. This comes as we wait for the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to release their policy recommendations at the end of March.

    OEFFA supports this comprehensive roadmap for climate and agriculture and appreciates it being led by an organic farmer who understand first-hand the challenges of farming and the benefits of best management practices. Representative Pingree’s inclusion of farm viability is a case in point. If farmers are not profitable, that land will be lost and become housing subdivisions, roads, or commercial space which leads to more carbon emissions. We are also poised to see the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the coming years and we all want that land to stay in agriculture, and be as environmentally and economically resilient as possible.

    We are thankful to have the voice of farmers represented as climate discussions move forward. Let us know if you are interested in adding your voice to address the climate crisis and, if you are a farmer, sign the farmer statement on climate change today!

  • Climate Change

    New Report Provides Roadmap on Climate Solutions in Agriculture

    Multiple adverse effects of the climate crisis have been documented in U.S. agriculture, including:

    • Intensified droughts, floods, and storms;
    • Stresses on crops, livestock, and farm personnel from higher summer temperatures;
    • Disruption of seasonal development, flowering, and fruiting in horticultural crops;
    • Shifting pest, weed, and disease life cycles and geographic ranges; and
    • Disproportionate impacts on economically disadvantaged rural communities

    Certainly, farmers in the Midwest experienced some of these impacts this spring and summer with hurricanes, record setting rains, and summer drought.

    Although agriculture currently affects our climate through direct greenhouse gas emissions and the indirect loss of carbon in our soil, a report released this week demonstrates how organic and ecological farming can be a critical part of the solution to climate change.

    The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s new report, Agriculture and Climate Change: Policy Imperatives and Opportunities to Help Producers Meet the Challenge offers policy and program recommendations, including:

    • Remove barriers and strengthen support for organic and sustainable production systems;
    • Support climate-friendly livestock production systems and end subsidies for CAFOs;
    • Fund public plant and animal breeding for climate-resilient agriculture;
    • Increase the emphasis on climate mitigation and adaptation through Natural Resources Conservation Service working lands and easement programs, and the Conservation Reserve Program; and
    • Apply a whole farm emphasis across U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programming, including Whole Farm Revenue Protection insurance

    As a member of NSAC, OEFFA supports the immediate transition to a resilient food and agriculture system based on the sustainable and organic practices detailed in the NSAC report. If you are an OEFFA member who would like to be active in our climate change work, contact us today. If you are a farmer on the front lines of this issue, please consider signing on to this national letter on climate change from farmers to members of Congress and the current administration.

    Helping farmers build the resilience of their operations to withstand the effects of climate change will be the focus of OEFFA’s 41st annual conference: A Climate for Change, February 13-15, 2020 in Dayton, Ohio. Friday keynote speaker Laura Legnick is the author of the 2015 book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, and contributed to the third National Climate Assessment as a lead author of the USDA report Climate Change and U.S. Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. Saturday keynote speaker Eric Holt-Giménez, an agroecologist, political economist, activist, and author of the book, Can We Feed the World without Destroying It? He will explore the need to harness our diversity to forge the political will to achieve climate justice.