Soil Matters

Congress Considers Climate Change and Agriculture

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
CRP in Wisconsin - credit Bob Nichols, NRCS

On February 25, the House Agriculture Committee held its first public hearing of the new Congress: a five-hour-long session on climate change and agriculture. Five witnesses discussed the science and economics of climate change, soil health and carbon markets in a wide-ranging conversation with committee members about the risks of climate change for farmers and ranchers and the role agriculture can play in combatting climate change.

Two weeks later, the Senate Agriculture Committee held its own hearing on climate change and agriculture. Committee members listened to farmers and farm organizations on the potential for agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon in the soil.

Several themes resonated through both hearings, as expert witnesses and members of Congress discussed what is needed to turn American agriculture from a source of greenhouse gas emissions into a system that can take large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil.

Every one of the 10 panelists agreed that climate change is a problem we must address, and most highlighted some of the challenges a changing climate presents for farmers, ranchers and foresters. "Climate change is arguably the greatest threat to our industry in this generation," Idaho farmer, rancher and forest land owner Cori Wittman Stitt told the Senate Agriculture Committee, "and one that's only going to get worse without action."

Senator Debbie StabenowSenator Debbie Stabenow

Few committee members disputed the science of climate change. As Representative Glenn "GT" Thompson, the House Agriculture Committee's ranking Republican, put it, "The climate is changing. The Earth's temperature is rising. And I trust the science that globally industrial activity has contributed to the issue. Reducing global emissions is what we should be pursuing. It's the right thing to do."

"Now is the time to act," agreed Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Now is the time for us to lead. We can't afford to wait any longer."

Committee members on all sides emphasized the need to find effective, lasting solutions that will work for farmers and ranchers. There seemed to be broad agreement that these solutions must include at least three components: increased research, education and technical assistance for farmers, and financial incentives.

Research

Many committee members and panelists highlighted the need for more research to understand the impacts of sustainability practices. They also noted there must be education and outreach to bring those learnings to farmers.

Representative David ScottRepresentative David Scott, chair of the House Agriculture Committee

"To continue to make these gains in carbon sequestration," Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the House Agriculture Committee, "we need to increase investment in agricultural research."

"There's been a case made for expanded investment in research and development," added Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress. "Research and development works best when it is problem-focused, when it's trying to solve particular problems."

"We do quite a bit of on-farm research to figure out what's going to work in our growing area," Wittman Stitt, the Idaho farmer, explained in the Senate hearing. "What we've discovered is that what works on one end of our farm may not work on the other end, let alone in the next county or region. These can be really costly experiments, and we still have to pay the rent on the ground whether or not this cover crop experiment works or not. So the bottom line is we really just need more robust research to help develop these practices and get that information into the hands of producers that are implementing them on their farms."

One program that brings on-farm research and farmer education together is USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program. SARE is USDA's primary farmer-led research initiative. Through a competitive process, the SARE program awards grants to farmers to test on-farm practices and then share the results of their research with other farmers.

The program is ideally suited to help farmers test different approaches to climate-friendly soil health practices. For example, grant funds could help farmers research which combinations of cover crops work best in local soils and farming systems. Or, ranchers could use grant funding to study the impacts of different grazing management systems in their region.

The League has asked Congress to boost the appropriation for SARE to $60 million next year to expand the number of farmers and ranchers studying and adopting climate-friendly practices. Congress provided $40 million for the program in 2021, but that falls far short of the demand for SARE grants and is a tiny portion of the $3.3 billion Congress provided for USDA's research, education and economics work.

Education and Technical Assistance

Education of farmers and ranchers is a key to drive lasting change, the committee members were told. "The number-one thing that's needed is education," North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown told the House Committee. "We need to really refocus conservation programs to maximize the principles of soil health. We need to show them that by applying these principles they can significantly not only mitigate climate change, but they can significantly lower their input costs and increase their profitability."

"We're going to be asking a lot of our farmers to implement these plans on their farms," said Illinois farmer John Reifsteck from GROWMARK, testifying on behalf of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. "That's going to take a lot of technical expertise. Today we simply do not have the capacity, with government agencies, with Extension to provide that kind of expertise on every farm." Reifstack told the Senate that farmer cooperatives could help provide farmers with needed expertise and advice, and others said local conservation districts can play a role as well.

Committee members on all sides emphasized the need to find effective, lasting solutions that will work for farmers and ranchers.

Oklahoma wheat and cattle producer Clay Pope, testifying on behalf of the National Farmers Union, highlighted the need to provide "additional resources to your local NRCS staff, especially for conservation planning and technical assistance. The first place to start is to really make sure we've got the resources at the local level to help implement those programs and that we're providing a focus to help deal with climate change."

Unfortunately, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which educates farmers about soil health and helps them adopt and implement conservation plans, has been managing an increasing workload with far fewer employees than in the past.

The League has joined the National Association of Conservation Districts, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and many other organizations in asking Congress to substantially increase funding for NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance work.

Increasing the NRCS conservation technical assistance budget to $1.1 billion from $734 million this year would allow the agency to expand its soil health education and training for farmers, revitalize the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative to help ranchers adopt better grazing practices, and help more farmers adopt and implement plans for climate-friendly farming practices. It would also allow NRCS to provide more support to local conservation districts, farmer cooperatives, conservation organizations and others who can help farmers understand and adopt conservation practices.

Financial Assistance

North Dakota farmer Brown pointed out that soil health practices on farms can more than pay for themselves over time with reductions in costs for fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. Rotational grazing systems can increase grass production and let ranchers grow more livestock on the same land.

I can't think of anything that would be a bigger policy mistake than not having some way to recognize those folks that have been doing good stewardship on their land for, in some cases, decades.Oklahoma wheat and cattle producer Clay Pope

But both of these approaches can require investments in different planting equipment, cover crop seed, and fencing and water systems for livestock. Financial assistance from USDA programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) can help farmers and ranchers afford the upfront cost of making the transition.

"There are certainly farms and ranches across the U.S. who are implementing conservation practices without participating in government cost-share," Arizona Farm Bureau president Stefanie Smallhouse told the Senate committee, "but the great majority are likely contracted with USDA due to the high cost of investing in such practices as compared to the return on investment. The 15 percent of farm acreage enrolled in the conservation programs is significant, but there is certainly room for growth. Competition for this funding can be intense."

"New programs cannot come at the expense of proven programs like CSP, EQIP and RCPP," Mark Isabell with USA Rice told the Senators. "Congress should increase investment in the existing suite of NRCS working lands programs. While these programs work well, they are severely underfunded. New funding should also include adequate resources for FSA [Farm Service Agency] and NRCS staff who are integral to the success of these programs."

The message seemed to resonate with both House and Senate members. "My question is simple," Representative Thompson said. "Is the solution as simple as doubling down on these proven programs?"

The Izaak Walton League of America supports...

• Increasing funding for SARE to $60 million

• Substantially increasing funding for NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance

• Expanding the five major USDA programs that help producers implement conservation practices

"Increasing our investment in existing voluntary USDA conservation programs such as EQIP, CSP, CRP must be a top priority," said Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). "These programs are known and trusted by farmers. They are already vastly over-subscribed. Farmers are demanding more for these programs. And they include practices that have been scientifically tested as well as ground tested." But, Senator Booker added, "These programs are too darn small."

In the Senate hearing, Idaho farmer Wittman Stitt and Oklahoma farmer Pope both cautioned against programs that provide incentives only for farmers who are just beginning to implement practices like no till, cover crops, and rotational grazing. "Right now, everybody wants 'new carbon.' Very few companies right now seem willing to pay for any sort of past performance, and there are huge risks with that model," said Wittman Stitt. "Not only are you effectively penalizing those who did the right thing on their own dime in previous years, but you risk incentivizing the unwinding of past practices."

Pope agreed. "I can't think of anything that would be a bigger policy mistake than not having some way to recognize those folks that have been doing good stewardship on their land for, in some cases, decades."

The League supports a large expansion of the five major USDA conservation programs that help farmers and ranchers put conservation practices in place: CRP, CSP, EQIP, RCPP and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The Conservation Stewardship Program in particular was designed by Congress to reward farmers for maintaining high-level conservation systems on their whole farm, as well as for adopting new practices. Unfortunately, in recent years USDA substantially reduced the support it provides for maintaining existing practices through the program.

The Biden Administration has identified CSP as a priority program for supporting climate-friendly agricultural practices. With more funding from Congress and changes in the way USDA administers the program, CSP could play an important role in rewarding the innovators who adopted, tested, and still maintain soil health practices and the many public benefits they provide.

No Time to Wait

One clear message from both hearings is the huge opportunity for America's farms and ranches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store atmospheric carbon in the soil. Many spoke of the urgency of this opportunity as well. As Senator Booker said, "We do not have time to wait. We must unleash the power of forests and farmlands to remove carbon from the atmosphere and maximize the benefits of these conservation practices."

Listen to the House Agriculture Committee hearing

Listen to the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing