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Keep It in the Soil: New Legislation Tackles Climate Change Through Better Farming Practices

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Farmhouse

On February 26, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced comprehensive legislation that would dramatically reduce the climate impact of agriculture over the next 20 years. Rep. Pingree, one of the few actual farmers in Congress, crafted the bill as a road map to both reduce carbon emissions from agriculture and increase the amount of carbon from the atmosphere that is stored in the soil through better agricultural practices.

The bill, called the Agriculture Resilience Act, sets out ambitious but achievable goals for American agriculture over the next 20 years, including:

  • Restoring half of the soil carbon that has been lost from America's farmland.
  • Maintaining year-round plant cover on at least 75% of cropland acres.
  • Implementing advanced grazing management on 100% of grazing land.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from feeding livestock by at least 50%.
  • Providing an energy audit for every farm and ranch in America.
  • Tripling renewable energy production on farms.

These are challenging goals: currently, only 20% of grazing land is managed with advanced techniques, and less than 5% of cropland acres have plants growing on them continuously. But the bill includes many initiatives to help farmers and ranchers work towards the goals, including several ideas that the League has long advocated for.

  • The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer discounts on crop insurance for farmers who adopt soil health practices that have been shown to reduce crop insurance losses, such as diverse crop rotations, intensive rotational grazing of pastures, and cover crops.
  • A grant program would help state and Tribal governments provide leadership on soil health by developing and implementing soil health strategies.
  • The Farm Bill Sodsaver provision would be expanded nationwide to reduce counterproductive federal incentives that reward landowners for plowing or destroying native prairie to plant crops.
  • The bill would provide more funding for Farm Bill conservation programs that help farmers adopt soil health strategies, including the Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Conservation Reserve Program, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The bill would also add the creation of a soil health plan to the existing requirements for farmers receiving USDA commodity program benefits, subsidized crop insurance, USDA farm loans, or conservation program benefits. The Swampbuster (which protects on-farm wetlands from destruction) and Sodbuster (which requires a soil conservation plan on highly erodible land) rules would apply to all cropland, along with the soil health planning requirement.

The League has long supported the strengthening of these Farm Bill provisions, and we've already expressed support for this new legislation, which would help farmers and ranchers be part of the solution to climate change rather than part of the problem. The practices promoted by the bill would also help reduce flooding, improve water quality, protect and conserve wetlands and native prairie, restore healthy soils, and restore and maintain fish and wildlife habitat.   

Learn more about Rep. Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act.

Learn more about the Farm Bill

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Cover photo courtesy of Corbis-Fotosearch.