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Premature to talk about next steps on climate change — Vilsack

The USDA will seek maximum impact from the $1 billion that it will put into climate-smart pilot projects, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday, but he demurred at discussing next steps for agriculture in mitigating global warming. “We’ll see where the applications take us,” he told the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting.

Vilsack described the demonstration projects, which would run from one to five years, as a “walk before you run” test of techniques to mitigate climate change and develop markets for products grown with climate-smart practices, such as sequestering carbon in soils or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He said he expected “a lot of interest” in the initiative. Applications are due on May 6 for large-scale projects costing up to $100 million and on June 10 for projects with a budget below $5 million.

“I respect the fact that Congress writes the farm bill and we, obviously, would be in a position to provide assistance and help when asked,” he replied when asked about climate-change proposals for inclusion in the 2023 farm bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold its first hearing on the new farm bill on Friday.

Momentum for U.S. action on climate change has slowed in Congress in the months since President Biden took office. Senate and House Republicans question whether the USDA has the authority to inaugurate climate programs on its own and there is no obvious source of funding to pay for a broad expansion of USDA spending.

With the approval of the White House, the USDA is paying for its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities pilot projects with money drawn from a $30 billion reserve that also covers the cost of farm supports.

“It would be premature for me to say whether or not there’s interest in expanding beyond that $1 billion,” said Vilsack when asked if the reserve would be tapped again for climate-smart funds. “There may be a number of different ways in which we can respond to applications beyond” the reserve fund. “There may be applications that would be amenable to a NIFA (National Institute of Food and Agriculture) grant, for example. There may be circumstances … where some of the traditional conservation programs could potentially be utilized.”

“At this point, I’m really happy that we’ve got a billion dollars and I’m really looking forward to seeing the applications that are forthcoming,” he concluded.

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he was concerned about the ability of low-income families to buy food. “I’m afraid that inflation is here to stay for a while, significant inflation.” Boozman said he would look at SNAP benefit levels as part of drafting the 2023 farm bill “and doing whatever we need to do.”

Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said he expected a “really small” change in cropland acres nationwide from the decision by landowners to let contracts expire on 2.6 million acres of land in the Conservation Reserve. “When you have high crop prices like this, (there) is the need to look for those targeted enrollments — continuous, CREPs (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), and other things,” he said.

Farmers are forecast to dedicate 317 million acres to the two dozen “principal” U.S. crops this year, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, hay, potatoes, and sunflowers.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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