Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press call Thursday to explain several government announcements regarding conservation and climate.

On his first day in office, President Biden signed the order to bring the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Agreement. The move became official on February 19. As part of rejoining, Biden announced an aggressive emissions reduction target for the country by 2030.

“This is going to allow us to reclaim global leadership in this important area. Agriculture and forestry, I think, plays a pivotal role,” Vilsack said Thursday. “Part of our efforts will focus on enhancing climate smart agricultural practices, the development of biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, better forest management and reforestation.”

This week the department made three announcements along those themes.

CRP expansion

First, USDA announced the expansion of the CRP program. It will be adding 4 million acres to that program, gradually increasing the cap to a total of 27 million acres by 2023.

“Those 4 million acres will allow us to store 3.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, prevent 90 million pounds of nitrogen entering into our waterways, and ensure that 33 million tons of sediment and top soil are preserved for productive agriculture,” Vilsack said.

He summarized other program updates saying, “We’re going to utilize the opportunity to increase rental rates with a focus on highly erodible lands, the expansion of pilot projects that have worked well. The ship program in the upper Midwest, the clean 30 program that has been utilized in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes and will now be expanded nationally. We’ll utilize incentives for climate smart practices, and we will also provide more resources for technical assistance through NRCS as a result of this expansion effort.”

Regional conservation and innovation projects

Second, USDA announced $330 million to fund 85 Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) projects on Thursday. These projects are spread across 45 states and over eight critical conservation areas. These are locally driven, public-private partnerships designed to address climate change and other natural resources challenges. NRCS will announce more details on the RCPP project selections on April 26.

“This resource will help to leverage and attract an additional $400 million into these projects with a focus on drought relief, enhanced soil health, and expansion of wildlife habitat,” Vilsack said.

NRCS has a companion effort that includes $25 million in conservation innovation grants. A significant percentage of that will be invested in soil health practice trials, Vilsack said.

Rural infrastructure

Third, USDA announced a $487 million investment in rural water, energy, and biofuel infrastructure on Thursday. USDA is making the investments under the Water and Environmental Program, the Rural Energy for America Program, the Electric Loan Program, and the Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program.

“When we invest in accessible and modern climate-smart infrastructure in rural communities, we invest in rebuilding the middle class by creating good-paying jobs,” said Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Justin Maxson. “The investments we are announcing today demonstrate how the Biden-Harris Administration has put rural communities at the heart of climate action and climate-smart solutions.”

“These resources will essentially allow us to aggressively begin a process over the next four years of investing in a variety of projects and activities focused on making the best utilization of the climate opportunity that we have,” Vilsack said.

Q&A

Following his explaination of the recent USDA announcements, Vilsack answered questions from the press.

Q: What youve announced yesterday and today is using obviously your existing authority and funding. Are you prepared to ask Congress to increase funding substantially for conservation programs or do the administration and the White House prefer you to use your CCC authority for additional payments to producers?

A: There are a couple of responses to that question. I think you have to take a look at the comprehensive nature of activities the administration has announced and will continue to announce.

First of all, there are resources in the American Rescue Plan, which looks at food supply resilience, that could be invested in shortening supply chains. That would obviously have an impact on emissions as they relate to food and agricultural production.

The American Jobs Plan contains a significant amount of investment proposals in climate-smart agricultural practices, in credits for bio-based manufacturing, in a tax credit for aviation biofuel, and a tax credit that will be extended for carbon sequestration and capture. There are a variety of opportunities within those two pieces of legislation that complement the budget the president has put forward.

We’ve obviously just seen the discretionary budget. The mandatory budget, I think will also send a strong message and support for additional conservation efforts. I think there is an opportunity to take a look at other tools.

As we develop and look at other tools, there are a couple of key aspects of this. First, whatever is done, whether it’s through the budget, or whether it’s done through the American Jobs Plan, or when it’s done through the American Rescue Plan, or whether it’s done through the CCC, it has to be designed and directed to provide benefits to farmers, ranchers, and producers. It has to be structured and implemented in a way that is beneficial to producers.

Number two, whatever is done has to be done in a way that does not compromise or make more difficult the ability to do the job that we have to address immediate concerns. For example, we know that there is significant drought taking place in the Northwest. We recently announced the utilization of EQIP plus resources to be able to provide some assistance to producers in the area. We obviously need to be able to make sure that we have the resources, and the tools, and the flexibility available to respond to what we know will occur from time to time, year to year. Whatever is done needs to be done in a way that doesn’t compromise our capacity to do our job and to make sure that the farm bill programs are in place and adequately and fully funded and available for farmers.

Finally, whatever we do we have to make sure that we walk before we run. We need to make sure that whatever we do in this space, we do intentionally and thoughtfully, and in a way that allows us to learn from experiences so that we can make adjustments. We can make modifications so that this works as well as possible, comprehensively, to address the goals that we’ve set for ourselves to reduce emissions, and to ultimately take significant steps toward the president’s ultimate goal of net zero agriculture by the year 2050. I think agriculture is ready for this. I think if we are thoughtful about it, and if we reassure folks this isn’t going to jeopardize or compromise our ability to do many of the things that we’re currently doing that farmers and ranchers and producers rely on, that they will see there’s significant benefit, financial benefit, to agriculture. It’s really important for us to do this. We’ve got to create additional revenue streams. I think there are opportunities here from a variety of ways, a variety of sources and resources that need to be used to create new opportunities for farmers.

Q: With crop prices as high as they are, what kind of response to CRP expansion does USDA expect and how would that play out?

A: The focus of CRP is to encourage consideration of highly erodible, marginal, less productive land being put to a productive use. We’ve taken a look at ways in which we can provide encouragement for folks to take a look at marginal lands, highly erodible lands for participation in this program by increasing rental rates, and by providing new and additional incentives for climate-smart agricultural practices. By also taking a look at pilot projects, as I mentioned the ship program, which is a short-term option, is something that potentially could be used and available in prairie pothole states. We found that there may be interest in that program, but we’re going to have to adjust the rent payment and calculate it a little bit differently in order for folks to be interested in participating in that program.

With the additional rental increases, additional incentives, additional flexibilities that some of these pilots create and with additional technical assistance, I believe that we will see interest in additional sign-ups in CRP. There’s always a balance. I think it’s critically important that we continue to create a multitude of ways for land to be productively used to contribute to our efforts in climate-smart agriculture, and also to create additional revenue opportunities for producers.

Even with high commodity prices, we still see a significant number of farms that don’t necessarily generate the majority of income for the families that are farming those farms, that they are still required to have off-farm income or second incomes. I think the goal here is to create as much flexibility and a suite of options for farmers to consider that enhances their chances of being able to make a living from their farming operation. Nearly 90% of our farms today don’t generate a majority of income from the farm. We can reduce that percentage over time.

There’s also an opportunity for us to significantly expand wildlife habitat, which also encourages additional economic opportunities in rural places. There are jobs connected to CRP projects – small construction opportunities. Outdoor recreational opportunities are enhanced. There are water quality benefits that accrue. The fact is we are losing roughly 4 tons of topsoil per acre, according to a White House study in 2016. We can’t afford to continue losing that precious resource at the rate we are. This will obviously be a step forward in providing for better soil health which over the long period of time increases our farmer productivity. So I think there are a lot of benefits here but it gives farmers choices – that’s important.

Q: Some have expressed concerns these expanded CRP acres, with prices as high as they are, could drive up prices even more resulting in expanded acres in other areas of the world that dont have the environmental protections that we have in the U.S., places where deforestation is a problem. What is USDA’s response to that?

No. I don’t think so.

We’ve certainly had a number of years of very difficult times out on the farm. I think it’s welcome news that we’ve seen improvement in prices for American farmers and ranchers and producers. As is always the case, this will balance out as supply and demand get back in balance. I don’t think announcement is going to create additional pressure for deforestation and stuff like that.

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