Vilsack stresses carbon markets, nutrition, rectifying past discrimination against Black farmers

Challenges include COVID-19, but the Biden administration’s climate policy offers opportunities, says USDA Secretary.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says he and other members of the Obama administration faced an economic calamity when he first headed USDA in 2009. 

“There were pretty significant risks, a potential depression,” he says. “The focus was obviously on trying to respond to the economic collapse and to get the country on the road to recovery.”

The stakes are now higher as he now takes the helm of USDA a second time after his February 2021 confirmation, he says

“Today, we’re dealing with a health care (COVID-19) crisis and an economic crisis hitting the country and impacting and affecting every single American,” he says. “The magnitude of the challenge is significantly greater.

“On the other hand, greater opportunities now exist for farmers and the agricultural industry than ever before,” he says.  

“I think the greater awareness and appreciation for the opportunity side of climate (policy) in terms of increasing farm income, creating new job opportunities and manufacturing opportunities in rural places is unparalleled in my experience in terms of economic opportunity,” he says. 

Here are some areas that Vilsack is prioritizing during his second go-round as USDA secretary in an interview with Successful Farming. 

Carbon Markets 

These days, carbon markets are being pitched to farmers. Practices that sequester carbon in the soil and slice greenhouse gas emissions may mean more money for farmers. 

However, Vilsack says the current market structure and system doesn’t necessarily speak directly to U.S. farmers and ranchers. 

“I think they were set up and established for a variety of other interests,” he says. “There are significant certification and documentation requirements associated with those markets. The price of the carbon credit is not significant enough to get the attention of farmers.”

That’s why so far, participation and interest among farmers is low, he says. He sees USDA’s role as reaching out to farmers and ranchers to garner their input on what will work and what won’t. This feedback will then be used by USDA to help design effective plans that boost participation by farmers and ranchers, he adds.

“I’ve often said we need to learn to walk before we run,” he says. 

This doesn’t necessarily involve starting a federal carbon bank, he says. Instead, USDA’s goal is to develop processes in which farmers are compensated financially for practices that effectively sequester and store carbon.

“How it’s structured is yet to be determined,” he says. “Is it a guaranteed price for a credit? Is it a reverse auction situation that establishes the value? Is it something different than where the (U.S.) Department of Agriculture finances the investments necessary to sequester the carbon, in a way that farmers financially benefit? We don’t know yet.”

Federal Farm Payments 

The Biden administration has begun sending pandemic payments of more than $5.6 billion to cattle and crop producers this week. 

Federal farm payments in recent years have attracted the attention of farm program critics. The Environmental Working Group issued a report earlier this year which stated that in 2016, 17% of total federal farm subsidies went to the top 1% of farmers, with 60% going to the top one-tenth of farmers. By 2019, the top 1% received almost one-fourth of the total, with the top one-tenth receiving almost two-thirds of payments. 

Vilsack says the Biden administration has tried what it terms a more effective balance, particularly in COVID-19 related packages.  

“Under the (U.S.) Pandemic Assistance for Producers program, we are segregating $6 billion of the assistance that Congress has provided to the USDA to focus on areas that were either underfunded or not funded at all in previous COVID packages,” Vilsack says. “We’re looking at a dairy donation program. We’re looking at providing assistance to the biofuels industry. We’re looking at compensating farmers who had to euthanize their livestock because of the pandemic. These are areas of agriculture that didn’t necessarily receive any benefit from previous payments or were undercompensated for losses that they suffered.”

Black Farmers  

Another portion of the COVID-19 package concerns debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers, including Black farmers. This also is an attempt to curb the cumulative impact of discrimination over time by USDA toward Black farmers, he says.

Resistance has surfaced to this USDA loan forgiveness, such as a House bill sponsored by Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) and Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisconsin).

“All American farmers constitute a minority, and they are hurting right now as a direct result of the pandemic,” said Owens. 

However, Vilsack asks opponents to put themselves in the shoes of a Black farmer 20 to 30 years ago. 

“You go into the USDA office to get a (federal) loan,” he says. “You (either) don’t get the loan, or you get the loan late in the production season. You’re not able to plant as quickly as your (non-minority) neighbor, your yields suffer as a result, and you don’t make as much money that year or any other year. Over a period of time, the gap between your operation and that of your neighbor grows, and your neighbor now has resources sufficient to buy new equipment or to expand the farming operation. You are left with maintaining the old equipment and keeping your farm small.” 

Federal farm programs have exacerbated this situation, Vilsack says. He adds the COVID-19 relief packages are a way to recognize the injustices that occurred and begin taking steps to close this gap. 

“This is not taking something away from farmers,” he says. It instead recognizes the disparity in previous COVID-19 relief packages and farm programs.

“To give you an example, about 25% of the people receiving COVID payments self-identified in their applications to USDA,” he says. “So, in other words, whether they were white or African American."

Of that 25%, Black farmers received about $20 million in the first two waves of COVID-19 relief payments, Vilsack says. 

“Meanwhile, white farmers received somewhere between $5 billion and $6 billion,” Vilsack says. “That’s a pretty significant difference.”

Meanwhile, the top 10% of farmers — predominantly white — received 60% of those billions of dollars in payments, while socially disadvantaged farmers — including Black farmers — in the bottom 10% received 0.26%.  

“So, in fairness, you have to say, ‘What can we do so that we keep people on the farm, so that we encourage more opportunities?’” Vilsack says. “I think we all ought to be for increasing the number of farmers. To do that, you have to recognize that to close the gap, you have to provide additional support (to socially disadvantaged farmers like Black farmers) in the form of technical assistance, market analysis, market development, and providing them the opportunity to have access to land. 

“It’s not a land grab,” Vilsack adds. “It’s not like the government’s going to come in and take your farm away from you and give it to somebody else. That’s not what’s happening here. It’s just basically providing people the resources so if a farm becomes available, they’re in a position to buy it, whereas because they have faced discrimination for most of their lives, they were not in a position to buy land.”

Expanding Nutrition Access 

Boosting nutrition and nixing hunger also is high on Vilsack’s list, such as through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

“Congress basically expanded and increased the amount of the benefit by roughly 15%,” he says. 

This means an extra $102 monthly for a family of four to buy food, he says.

“Not only does that provide additional food on the table to deal with the hunger issue and nutrition security issue, but it also supports all of those people working in the grocery store who can stock those items,” says Vilsack. “It supports all the people who trucked those items to the grocery store. It supports all those people who are in the processing and packaging facilities that basically created the can or the box that went on the shelves of the grocery store. And it supports farmers who produced the food, that ultimately was produced in the can or box that was on the shelf.”

Farmers garner approximately 14¢ for every food dollar, says Vilsack. In a sense, that means around $14 of that extra $102 per month makes its way to the farmer. 

“It’s why SNAP is an effective anti-poverty program, because it basically circulates into the economy quickly and provides assistance and help,” he says. During the pandemic, school shutdowns also suspended federally funded school breakfast and lunches. This meant an additional food cost that families had to incur during the pandemic. 

“We have a pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that these families receive that provides them additional resources to be able to pay for the breakfast or lunch,” Vilsack says. He says the Biden Administration expanded this program, which could lead to aid of up to $7 per child per day. 

“This goes into the family budget to go to the grocery store to purchase food that helps the folks who stock, store, transport, package, process, and grow the food that is purchased,” he says. 

USDA has also provided assistance to help schools whose nutrition budgets were disrupted by the pandemic by creating a universal free school meal program for a certain period of time, he says. 

“All of this is designed to get people through a very difficult healthcare crisis that also economically caused them to either lose their jobs or work fewer hours on the job,” he says.

Best Job Ever

Previous to heading USDA, Vilsack served as Iowa governor, an Iowa state senator, a mayor, and also worked for the dairy industry. Out of these, he says being USDA secretary is his favorite.

“It (USDA) is a tremendous department that has an amazing reach and impacts so many people,” he says. “This is a particularly difficult, challenging time for rural America because of the pandemic and the economic consequences of the pandemic. I thought President Biden’s vision was a compelling vision. I wanted to help him to embrace that vision and advance it because I think it could be transformational for rural America. 

“And, I’ve known President Biden for 30-plus years,” he adds. “I could never quite figure out how to say no to the guy.”

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