Act offers path toward climate-resilient farming
By Cristel Zoebisch
Farmers and ranchers are already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis, dealing with more erratic and severe weather events that affect their livelihoods. However, they are uniquely positioned to help combat these threats by improving the health of their soils through implementation of climate stewardship practices that enhance their resilience to the impacts of a changing climate.
Collectively, farmers and ranchers working to restore, maintain, and improve soil health can significantly contribute to our nation’s climate mitigation efforts by using soil health practices that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and store atmospheric carbon in the soil. Soil health management practices and systems can create carbon sinks, increase waterholding capacity, and improve recycling of nitrogen by crops.
The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), introduced by Representative Pingree (D-ME) earlier this year, recognizes the importance of soil health and encourages farmers and ranchers to pull carbon out of the air and into their soils. The bill includes specific soil health and research goals accompanied by legislative proposals to support widespread adoption of stewardship practices to help agriculture reach its climate mitigating potential.
Proven soil-health-building practices include diverse, resource-conserving crop rotations, cover crops, conservation tillage, perennialization of highly erodible land, agroforestry, composting, organic agriculture, and advanced grazing management. The ARA would provide financial and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement these soil health practices, thereby increasing profitability and enhancing their operations’ resilience to climate stresses.
This is the second article in the Organic Broadcaster summarizing the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) blog series covering various provisions in the ARA. The three blogs covered in this article highlight proposed changes to the country’s primary working lands conservation programs, enhancements for two U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research programs, and a provision to support state-level soil health efforts.
Working Lands Conservation Programs
The fourth blog in the series focused on proposed changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and was co-authored by Michael Happ, NSAC Conservation Policy Specialist.
A major increase in support for working lands conservation programs is critical for agriculture to reach the goal of net zero by 2040 outlined in the ARA. Federal policy and resources need to support the transition of agriculture to more climate-friendly ways of farming. Without increased investment in conservation agriculture by the federal government, farmers and ranchers will not have the tools and resources to meaningfully participate and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
EQIP offers farmers and ranchers financial cost-share and technical assistance to implement conservation practices on working agricultural land. Producers participating in EQIP can install or implement structural, vegetative, and management practices like improving irrigation efficiency, restoring pasture, or improving nutrient management.
The ARA would enhance EQIP’s ability to address climate change by adding GHG emissions reduction and carbon sequestration to the program’s purpose and listing them in the top 10 practices eligible to receive higher payment rates. The bill would also eliminate the discriminatory lower organic payment limit currently in place for the EQIP Organic Initiative, taking an important step to improving the program’s attention to organic farming and its soil health focus and incentivizing further transition.
Furthermore, the ARA would target at least two-thirds of EQIP’s 50% set aside for livestock operations to advanced grazing management, including management-intensive rotational grazing, which has a huge positive benefit for carbon sequestration in agricultural soils. The ARA would also limit EQIP funding available for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) and mandate that any CAFO receiving EQIP funding must develop and implement a GHG emissions reduction plan.
Finally, the ARA would add GHG emissions reduction to the purposes of the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) focused on air quality and increase funding for air quality grants from $37.5 million to $50 million for each fiscal year starting in fiscal year 2021. The bill would also increase funding for CIG On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials from $25 million to $50 million per year from fiscal year 2021 to 2023 and bump funding to $100 million starting in 2024.
If the ARA becomes law, EQIP funding in total would increase from $2 billion in 2023 to $3 billion in 2024 and beyond. This increased investment would result in more farmers and ranchers being equipped to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Conservation Stewardship Program
CSP rewards farmers and ranchers for their critical role as managers of our shared air, water, and soil resources. Through CSP, farmers can earn payments, under 5-year renewable contracts, for maintaining and expanding comprehensive conservation activities on their land. As the largest working lands conservation program in the country, CSP can play a vital role in enhancing agriculture’s potential to sequester carbon, reduce GHG emissions, and build resilience.
The ARA would add soil health enhancement and GHG emissions reduction to the ranking criteria for applicants hoping to participate in the program. The bill would also add climate adaptation and mitigation as a resource concern. Additionally, the ARA would restore automatic funding for contract renewals under CSP to allow for continual improvement in soil health and carbon sequestration, incorporating more farmers and acres in this urgent mission.
The ARA would also create a new CSP On-Farm Conservation Stewardship Innovation Grant program to support on-farm research and development and pilot testing of innovative conservation systems and enhancements to further the program’s climate mitigation and adaptation potential.
The ARA would increase total CSP funding from $725 million to $2 billion in fiscal year 2021 and gradually increase funding up to $4 billion in 2024 and beyond.
Technical Assistance, Underserved Farmers
In addition to these proposed changes to EQIP and CSP, the ARA would set aside 1% of conservation mandatory funding annually for a new conservation technical assistance initiative to enhance program implementation, and triple the set aside in both programs for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
The fifth blog post focused on regional and long term research provisions and was co-authored by Mark Schonbeck, Research Associate for the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Food and agriculture research is critical to improving farm viability, public health, food security, and agriculture’s potential to address the climate crisis. However, USDA research funding has stagnated for decades. To accelerate agriculture’s ability to first achieve net zero carbon emissions and deliver innovative, region-specific solutions to producers, the ARA would provide the first-ever legislative authorization for USDA’s Climate Hubs and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Long Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) Network, each funded at $50 million per year.
Climate Hubs are a national network of regional hubs that deliver science-based, region-specific, costeffective and practical tools and technical support to help producers and landowners make effective conservation and business planning decisions in response to a changing climate. Managed by ARS and the U.S. Forest Service, they are tasked with partnering with other federal agencies, Extension, colleges and universities, state and local governments, tribes, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to deliver Climate Hub services. In addition to providing a six-fold increase in funding for Climate Hubs, the ARA directs each regional hub to solicit stakeholder input on regional priorities, and collaborate with farmers and NGOs in conducting
research and outreach on priority topics including:
• GHG mitigation benefits of agroforestry, advanced grazing systems, crop-livestock integration
• Improved measurement of soil carbon, GHG emissions, and soil health
• Biological nutrient cycling and plant-microbe partnerships
The ARA also directs Climate Hubs to work with the USDA Risk Management Agency to better account for climate risk and risk mitigation through soil health management in actuarial tables and provide recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture. For just 25 cents per taxpayer, this vital network could expand its reach and impact, empowering farmers and ranchers to become active leaders in our efforts to reverse the climate crisis.
Long Term Agroecological Research Network
USDA established its first Long Term Farming Systems Trials site at Beltsville, Maryland in 1910, and has since established long term trials at over a dozen other sites across the U.S., forming the LTAR Network. Current research priorities include comparisons of soil health, nutrient cycling, water efficiency, carbon sequestration, and net GHG emissions in contrasting cropping and grazing systems. The ARA would authorize the LTAR Network at $50 million per year. Currently, all 18 LTAR sites rely on $20 million annually, which leaves some sites unfunded and all sites underfunded. The ARA would also:
• Establish climate change adaptation and mitigation as major statutory purposes
• Integrate measurements and data collection across LTAR sites to enhance understanding of agroecosystem function in U.S. agricultural regions and production systems
• Make data collected through the network openly and publicly available
Understanding the relationship between the climate crisis and U.S. agriculture and optimizing agricultural practices for climate mitigation and resilience will require long-term commitment and close collaboration among researchers across all major agro-ecoregions and production systems. The LTAR Network has tackled this challenge on a shoestring budget of $20 million annually with no guarantee of future funding. By establishing a legislative authority for $50 million annually and affirming climate mitigation and resilience as top priorities, the ARA would substantially strengthen the capacity of the LTAR Network to help producers and our food system meet the challenges of climate change, water shortages, and natural resource degradation.
Grants to Promote Soil Health
The sixth blog in the series focused on a new block grant program for states already implementing soil health initiatives, and was co-authored by Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director for the Izaak Walton League of America.
State, Tribal, and local policymakers are increasingly looking at soil health strategies to address water quality, soil erosion, climate change, and farm income problems. They recognize the multiple benefits provided by soil health solutions and are taking action. States like Maryland, New York, New Mexico, and California, and the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes have already created and implemented soil health initiatives.
The ARA would provide funds to help state and Tribal governments build on their existing soil health programs. A state or Tribe with a funded soil health program could seek an annual grant from the USDA to provide:
• Technical assistance
• Financial assistance
• On-farm research and demonstration
• Education, outreach, and training
• Monitoring and evaluation
The grants cannot exceed 50% of the cost of a state soil health program, or 75% of a Tribal program, and cannot exceed $5 million annually. The ARA would provide $60 million a year for the program in fiscal years 2021 through 2023, $80 million for 2024 through 2026, and $100 million starting in 2027 and thereafter.
A federal grant program would encourage more leadership by states and Tribes and support ongoing soil health efforts. These programs complement federal working lands conservation financial and technical assistance, with state, local agencies, and grassroots farm groups providing important close to home support for innovative farmers making the transition to more regenerative and sustainable agriculture.
The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its anticipated report at the end of June, outlining a roadmap for legislative efforts to address the climate crisis. Many of the ARA provisions, including all of the ones covered in this article, were included in the Select Committee’s report. The ARA would provide the necessary resources to support agricultural solutions to address the climate crisis through major investment and commitment to working lands conservation programs, long term and regional climate and agriculture research, and supporting state and Tribal soil health programs. These investments are critical for agriculture to fulfill its climate mitigation potential.
The ARA presents a path to pivot away from current federal policy which fosters overproduction, specialization, and consolidation, inevitably contributing to greater climate disruption. The bill sets forth policy proposals to ensure farmers have a central role in climate mitigation and adaptation and showcases how the federal government can support widespread adoption of climate stewardship practices, leading to a more regenerative and sustainable food and farming system.
Cristel Zoebisch is the Climate Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in partnership with the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
From the September | October 2020 Issue