USDA continues the push for ‘climate-smart’ projects

It seems like almost every policy discussion about crops and livestock these days comes around to the discussion of climate, whether it’s the need to address methane emissions from cows or extreme weather fluctuations that can sometimes devastate crops.

In some cases, agriculture is blamed for being a big part of the climate problem, even though agriculture emissions account for about 11% of United States emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency says, with about a quarter of that coming from methane produced by livestock.

But at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is an ongoing push to figure out how agriculture can be a bigger part of climate solutions, as part of the agency’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program.

In announcing the program earlier this year, Tom Vilsack said the program will allow “American agriculture to take a leading effort in the development of climate-smart commodities and allows us to meet the market where it is here domestically, and also make sure that we maintain a competitive edge for exports.”

“Their function will be to provide the structure and the set of incentives to producers to encourage participation,” he said. The program is voluntary and incentive-based and applying organizations will determine how to compensate farmers.

“It’s not a carbon market, although it’s possible that by the adoption of these climate-smart practices, the group of farmers who are participating could participate on their own in private carbon markets,” he said.

In response to criticism from some Republicans on Capitol Hill that the Commodity Credit Corporation is not the right vehicle to fund such an effort, Vilsack pointed to statutory provisions that authorize use of the CCC to “support the prices of agricultural commodities … through loans, purchases, payments, and other operations” and to “increase the domestic consumption of agricultural commodities” by developing new markets.

“So, just in case anybody asks you have the power to do this, we’re very confident we do,” Vilsack said.

For the last few months, Vilsack has released over $3 billion in “climate-smart” projects, which are designed to accomplish several goals, including the creation or expansion of new revenue streams for farmers and ranchers, improved management of cropland, pastures and forestry and more than 60 million metric tons of carbon sequestration. USDA says this is equivalent to removing more than 12 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles from the road for one year.

The list of projects announced thus far read like a “who’s who” in American agriculture. For example, the Midwest Climate-Smart Commodity Program, led by the Iowa Soybean Association, received up to $95 million to “build markets and provide funding to farmers via outcome-based contracts for the reduction and removal of carbon dioxide through the adoption of new climate-smart practices, according to USDA. The remaining project funding will support farmer enrollment assistance, carbon quantification, technical assistance support, measurement, reporting and verification, and underserved farmer outreach and enrollment.

Major partners for this project, which spans across most Midwestern states include: ReHarvest Partners, PepsiCo, Cargill, Renewable Energy Group, Ingredion, Target, JBS, and Coca-Cola.

The Rice Stewardship project, which can receive up to $80 million, is designed to build climate-smart rice markets and work to reduce methane emissions in rice production. The lead partner is the USA Rice Federation, but also includes the National Black Growers Council, Ducks Unlimited, Walmart, Anheuser-Busch, Corteva, Mars, Kellogg’s and other partners across key rice growing states.

Recently, Vilsack announced a new round of climate-smart commodities projects, funding smaller initiatives that target niche markets and often have a greater role for minority farmers and institutions.

Some 71 projects will share up to $325 million, with most of them receiving close to $5 million, the limit for the latest round.

The projects are designed to measure and verify the impact of climate-related farm practices and to test ways to market commodities that are produced with a smaller environmental footprint.

“We recognized in developing and designing of this program that it wasn’t enough to create large projects, that we also had to address and attend to the needs of small-sized family operations, as well as those who have been historically underserved,” said Vilsack, who announced the latest round of funding during an appearance at Tuskegee University, a historically Black institution in Alabama.

The broader initiative will involve 60,000 farmers. Vilsack said the projects, which will be carried over one to five years, should collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 million metric tons during the period they are in effect.

The commodities targeted in the latest round of projects include buffalo, sheep, goats, eggs, dairy products, hemp, leafy greens, wheat, chestnuts, pecans, walnuts, tomatoes, peaches, prunes, elderberries and wood products.

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Corn and soybeans also figure into a few of the projects, including one led by Yale University, which will use basalt dust, rather than agricultural lime, to increase soil pH through a method known as “enhanced rock weathering” to accelerate carbon sequestration. Other projects in the latest round include one led by the University of Illinois to employ minority farmers across five states in scaling up robotic cover crop planting and the verification of soil carbon levels through robotic sensing technology.

A Chickasaw Nation project in Oklahoma is aimed at marketing pecans verified as climate smart. Farmers in the project will receive incentives for reducing chemical applications on pecan trees and converting pastures to multiple species of native grasses.

A project led by the American Lamb Board will measure the soil health and greenhouse gas benefits provided by prescribed grazing at four demonstration sites. Historically underserved producers will get funding and technical assistance as part of the project.

Tuskegee is involved in several projects and is the lead partner in two, one in agroforestry and the other aimed at developing “silvopasture systems and climate-resilient forage systems” for sheep and goats. That project’s goals include creating a mobile processing and marketing system to support sales to farmers’ markets and local restaurants.

Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.,