Center shares rural climate priorities with USDA

Environment

On Jan. 27, President Biden signed an executive order about tackling climate change. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sought comments on how their agency should take action on the executive order. 

Based on insight, experiences, and ideas gathered from across the rural areas we work in, the Center submitted the following letter to USDA: 

April 29, 2021

William Hohenstein
Director, Office of Energy and Environmental Policy
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20250

Re: Center for Rural Affairs Response to Request for Public Comment on the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad 

The Center for Rural Affairs is a private non-profit organization that works to promote vibrant rural communities. We engage people in decisions that affect their community and the quality of their lives. This includes agriculture, climate change, and clean energy. Our increased emphasis on climate-smart agriculture over the past several years has led us to engage rural people all across the heartlands states. Our comments are based on the feedback from farmers, landowners, and other rural climate leaders.  

Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry

How USDA should utilize programs, funding financing capacities, and other authorities, to encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forest practices

Existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies and programs can encourage voluntary adoption of agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote resilience. The Center for Rural Affairs recommends that USDA take the following actions utilizing programs and policies currently in place: 

  1. Through our work on the ground with underserved communities and farmers, we have identified the need to increase accessibility of resources and literature from USDA. This includes translation of materials and websites to Spanish and other languages to ensure that those individuals and communities have equitable access to the information on how to implement climate-smart agricultural practices. 
     
  2. Conservation technical assistance through NRCS is crucial to getting climate-smart agricultural practices out on the ground. Climate-smart practices like cover crops and extended rotation require learning, planning, and cost to implement. The technical assistance that NRCS field staff provide is invaluable to increasing conservation practice implementation on farms. In order to ensure the technical staff are able to focus on farmer/landowner service in one county, an sustainable increase in conservation technical assistance funds is necessary. 
     
  3. Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) both provide cost-share funds to farmers and landowners voluntarily implementing climate-smart practices. These working lands programs have been proven to increase implementation because they offset some of the financial investment it takes to incorporate new practices within operations. CSP is successful at rewarding existing conservation while challenging the farmer to implement additional climate-smart practices. Funds in EQIP are oftentimes spent in large quantities to large farmers building manure lagoons, making it challenging for smaller to mid-sized farmers to obtain any of the funding for climate-smart agricultural practices. Ensuring the farmers and landowners implementing those voluntary climate-smart practices have accessibility to the EQIP program will increase climate-smart agriculture being implemented on the ground. 
     
  4. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) within USDA has provided grants and loans to many farmers and small rural businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint by investing in clean energy systems. Grant and loan recipients in our priority states have noted challenges of accessing funds due to higher demand than funding for the program. Expanding appropriation and cost-share rates will ensure farmers and small businesses continue to implement clean energy in their operation. 

In addition to utilizing existing authorities, USDA should also look to new strategies and approaches to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices. Specifically, the Center for Rural Affairs recommends: 

  1. In order to protect their crop from natural disasters and drought, farmers and landowners purchase crop insurance annually. Incentivizing cover crop adoption through a crop insurance premium reduction is a model that has proven effective in Iowa over the last four years. The premium reduction of $5 per acre for producers that aren’t enrolled in a cost-share program at the state or federal level helps ensure that cover crops continue to be implemented even after cost-share contracts have expired. 
     
  2. Carbon payment programs have been increasingly popular in the last year. In order to break through all of the confusion and varying information, a process for standardizing the information is necessary. Standardizing and certifying the carbon sequestration payment programs, no matter which third-party facilitator or company purchasing the carbon credits, will ease the process for selecting which program to enroll in for farmers. This standardizing process should include a focus on transparency of contract terms, size of farms enrolled, and limiting profits of third-party facilitators.
     
  3. In order to address climate change, agriculture needs to lead on climate-smart practices. These conservation practices look different in each region, soil type, and individual farm. To ensure farmers and landowners understand the broader implications of conservation practice implementation on their farms, an increase of education and outreach is necessary. To achieve this, grant programs to non-profit organizations that have strong roots in rural communities that can reach unique audiences would be effective. 

How partners and stakeholders, including state, local, Tribal governments, and private sector work with USDA in advancing climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices 

  1. Non-profit organizations with deep roots in rural America sit in the perfect position to continue being the messengers for important climate-smart agricultural programming. Equipping organizations with connections to underserved populations, including tribal, Latino, Black, young, beginning, veteran, and others, with grant funding to do the on-the-ground outreach and organizing in those communities is the best way to ensure messages related to agriculture and climate change are being translated to action on the ground. 
     
  2. Across the country, soil and water conservation districts and other local boards are composed of elected officials and other leaders, These leaders are respected individuals and are well-known in their agricultural communities. Equipping those boards with the information and tools that demonstrate and educate farmers on how conservation practices impact climate change will allow those leaders to educate their fellow farmers and landowners. Effective models are: training offered through statewide organizations representing the local boards, resources shared through NRCS partners at the local level, and educational demonstrations from field experts on climate and agriculture. 
     
  3. In order to address climate change in rural communities, we need to ensure that watershed education and implementation is at the forefront. Local watershed models, like Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs) in Iowa, have proven effective at bringing local leaders and stakeholders together to assess the watershed, develop a plan of action, and take steps to implement resilient practices. Utilizing models that are locally-led and involve all citizens within the watershed are crucial to increasing climate-smart agriculture on a watershed scale. 

How USDA can help support emerging markets for carbon and greenhouse gases where agriculture and forestry can supply carbon benefits 

  1. As stated above, we support a certification program within USDA for carbon payment facilitators and programs. This should include certifying the verification process, and bring transparency to the contract terms. 
     
  2. In order to ensure small to mid-sized farms are included in the carbon payment programs, USDA should require a certain percentage of carbon payments go to farms under the state’s average farm size. Making this requirement state-specific is important because small to mid-sized farms look different in every state. 
     
  3. Producers that have already implemented climate-smart agricultural practices should not be excluded from these carbon payment programs. Acknowledging existing conservation and the carbon sequestered in the past several years is important to encourage additional conservation practice implementation. 
     
  4. Allowing structural practices that serve multiple ecosystem benefits to receive payments for each service it provides would encourage increased adoption of those important climate-smart agricultural practices. An example of this is wetlands serving carbon sequestration benefits, as well as water quality, wildlife habitat, and mitigation services. 

Data, tools, and research needed for USDA to effectively carry out climate-smart agriculture and forestry strategies 

  1. Data on each climate-smart agricultural practice is important in not only the education and promotion of climate-smart agriculture, but also in the verification of carbon sequestered within carbon payment programs. Currently, there is a lack of consensus on how practices like cover crops impact carbon sequestration. Increased credible data will help get additional people involved in carbon sequestration. 
     
  2. Climate-smart agricultural practices are going to look different in every region, soil type, and farm. Increased data across soil types, regions, and agricultural sectors will ensure our understanding of the implications of climate-smart agriculture across the sector at a local level grows. After collecting this data, it is important to ensure the local groups that have strong networks in the agricultural communities have this information and have the resources to share it with their stakeholders. 
     
  3. Technical staff to assist and administer implementation of programs within the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Rural Development (RD) are a crucial tool to effectively carry out climate-smart agriculture. NRCS local service centers implementing EQIP and CSP are spread thin. State-specific RD offices that administer the Rural Energy for America programs are understaffed and have a backlog of stakeholder requests. Providing those agencies with a sustainable increase in funding for staffing is vital in order to increase implementation of climate-smart agricultural practices. 

How USDA can encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices in an efficient way, where benefits accrue to producers

  1. An efficient way to encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural practice is by utilizing the farmer relationships that Farm Service Agency (FSA) has. Because farmers are interacting with their FSA offices in person and through monthly e-newsletters, there is an opportunity for outreach on climate-smart agriculture through that agency. Informational materials on the FSA countertops and included in the monthly newsletter to farmers and landowners are simple, effective ways to increase visibility on this important topic.  
     
  2. All across the U.S., locally-led watershed groups are composed of local decision makers and watershed landowners/constituents that care about natural resources, especially water. We urge USDA to utilize the local connections and existing networks these watershed groups have to push standardized messaging on climate-smart agriculture. 
     
  3. USDA sits in the perfect position to encourage market-based approaches for carbon sequestration on agricultural lands. Market-based approaches not only offer a voluntary approach to conservation, but they often offer a financial opportunity for farmers and landowners aside from their commodity crops. An important consideration when focusing on farmers adopting climate-smart practices is where they’re seeing the messaging that encourages them to implement those practices. Market-based programs lead farmers to hear climate-smart agriculture messages from agricultural input companies, as well as consumers. 
     
  4. Another important consideration when engaging with market-based approaches is to limit the profits third-party firms are making on the transaction of carbon payments to farmers. In order to ensure farmers are the recipients of the benefits in a voluntary system, we urge USDA to oversee the third-party facilitators through a certification and verification process. 
     
  5. The Center for Rural Affairs encourages USDA to focus on small to mid-sized farms while designing and expanding programs and policies. Small to mid-sized farmers are invested in conserving natural resources and need to have equal access to resources for investing in climate-smart agriculture. When designing carbon payment programs, USDA should require a certain percentage of carbon payments go to farms under the state’s average farm size. 

Feature photo by Teresa Hoffman