May 13, 2021

Vilsack: Agriculture can lead by example

WASHINGTON — Thousands of listeners “tuned in” to a tele-town hall meeting with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hosted by American Farmland Trust.

Here are some of the topics Vilsack covered during the April 14 event.

On Ag’s Role

“American agriculture has two fundamental opportunities that are so vital for this country. Opportunity No. 1 is to take the lead in this issue of sustainability, regenerative practices, climate change, soil health, and basically show the way to the rest of the country and other industries that need to step up. We can step up first and we can step up fast and we can be successful.

“Secondly, we can do this as a single community, not as a divided community where we’re pitting one against the other, but recognizing that every single farm regardless of size has a role and an opportunity in all of this. We can create potentially an understanding of unity here which our country desperately is in need of. We can do it in a way that also sends a message that we’re going to treat people equitably and fairly from this point forward.”

On The 30 By 30 Initiative

“President Biden’s executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad includes conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

“We are in the process of doing a series of outreach meetings on 30 by 30 and, for that matter, on all of these issues. The president has directed us to get input from farmers, ranchers and producers to make sure as we fashion programs, as we expand programs, as we invest in programs over the course of the next four years that we’re doing it consistent with what farmers believe is appropriate. That’s certainly true of the 30 by 30 effort. We’re also making sure that we do appropriate outreach.

“I think it’s a combination of many things in order for us to get to that 30 by 30 goal. I think it’s CRP, it’s targeted conservation efforts, it’s easements and looking for ways in which those can be popular.

“It’s a collaborative effort. It’s also important for us to continue to look for market opportunities to figure out ways in which the private sector and the philanthropic sector can be engaged in this, can partner and leverage with the resources the federal and state governments are making available to the farm community.

“It’s got to be incentive-based. I think if you try to mandate certain actions and activities there’s always a pushback, there’s litigation, there’s 5,000 ways to get around something, but if you incentivize folks and if a farmer looks across the fence and sees his neighbor doing pretty well financially, he’s going want to know what’s going on and his neighbor can say, ‘I’ve got an easement, a payment for CRP and a multitude of new revenue streams I didn’t have before and I’m taking full advantage of all of them.’

“And it has to be based on science and clearly the private working lands have got to be part of the 30 by 30 effort. You can’t get to 30 by 30 if you don’t engage the private working lands and I think with the proper incentives and the proper science we can get there.

“We also have to do something on the public lands. Many of the public lands are forested lands and frankly we could do all of this on the agricultural side and if we don’t properly maintain our forests we’re going to continue to have these horrific forest fires and the carbon is going to go up in smoke anyway. We can’t just do private working lands. We can’t just do public lands.”

On Climate Solutions

“We want to encourage every aspect of USDA to have a role — a 360-degree approach to climate. In spite of the existential that climate change represents to all of us we think there is an incredibly large opportunity side to the climate discussion as it relates to agriculture and rural America. We think that it can fundamentally change the direction of agriculture in the U.S. and also create much more prosperity in rural communities.

“We need to engage every tool available at USDA to focus it on this opportunity. We know that there are 45 practices that are referred to as climate smart regenerative agricultural practices. We know that if we focus our conservation resources there will be greater adoption of those 45 practices and that will be a benefit in terms of soil health, carbon capture and sequestration, better water, better wildlife habitat, but it’s got to be more than that.

“It also has to be the opportunity to look at our CRP program, a program that was underutilized under the Trump administration by about 4 million acres. We think there are opportunities to really ramp up the CRP program and get that back to where it needs to be and maybe even then some so that we have opportunities to utilize that program fully and completely.

“There’s a Regional Conservation Partnership Program focus where we’re looking at large-scale watersheds and landscapes to encourage the collaborative effort that would be climate-oriented. It’s not just an individual farm or a couple of farms in an area; it’s a large scale massive program that involves multiple partners, multiple farmsteads in a way to encourage climate smart practices.

“We’re going to encourage and invest more in our Climate Hubs. The mission of the Climate Hubs is to develop and deliver science-based, region-specific information and technologies, with USDA agencies and partners, to agricultural and natural resource managers that enable climate-informed decision-making and to provide access to assistance to implement those decisions. We’re already creating a multitude of decision tools to make it easier for people to be climate smart.

“We want to shorten the supply chain. Develop more local and regional food systems so food doesn’t have to travel quite as far. Use the procurement capacity and power of the federal government to support climate friendly businesses, as well.”

On Carbon Markets

“Also taking a look at establishing, you can call it a market, a bank, or a fund, but providing some mechanism by which we can provide an incentive, pay, compensate farmers for their carbon sequestration. We think there is an opportunity to shape a fund in a way that is very farmer specific.

“The carbon markets today aren’t really designed for farmers. There’s a lot of paperwork, there’s a bit of a hassle, the credit is not as valuable as it needs to be in order to get people’s attention. So, very few of those credits have actually been invested in agriculture practices. We think at USDA we have the resources, flexibility and the smarts and most importantly of all the inputs from farmers to be able to fashion and create a carbon fund that will essentially allow us to encourage more investment, more sequestration of land.

“The key here is creating revenue streams, creating ways in which agricultural waste can be converted into a multitude of end products, to move away from fossil fuels, to create a more circular, more regenerative economy, creating multiple revenue streams on the farm.

“We think America agriculture is ready for this. They understand the market is going to demand it, and they are obviously very interested in making sure that we don’t continue to lose roughly four tons of top soil per acre per year. We can’t continue to sustain that and we certainly can’t continue to sustain the loss of farmland to development at the rate of about 2,000 acres a day being lost.”

On Sustainable Production

Vilsack was asked if maintaining healthy soil and limiting climate change can go hand-in-hand with meeting the massive domestic and international demand for U.S. commodities.

“I think the market, whether it’s selling overseas or selling domestically is going to continue to demand more sustainability and proof of sustainability. For the four years prior to getting this job again I worked on the U.S. Dairy Export Council and on multiple occasions I was asked about the sustainability efforts of the U.S. dairy industry by overseas buyers. This is a growing concern. In many key markets people are deeply concerned about climate. They expect agriculture and want agriculture to step-up and I think American agriculture is prepared to do that.

“That’s the paradigm shift. Over time that’s going to change the way people look at things. If you create multiple income sources, it’s going to give farmers multiple options. Instead of the traditional way of growing crops and feeding crops to livestock, that’s obviously going to continue, but we need to create more income sources and here’s why. The Economic Research Service put out a chart not long ago and it just startled me because it showed in 89.6% of the farms in this country, the farm owner had to have outside farm income to be able to maintain the farm.

“We’ve got to figure out alternative ways, additional income sources that are tied to conservation, that are tied to climate, that are tied to carbon sequestration, that are tied to creating a market for agricultural waste that doesn’t exist today that creates three, four, or five different ways on that same farm today to make a living.

“If you create that kind of diversity of opportunity I think you’re going to see a lot of shift, a lot of change in the way in which people approach farming. Hopefully over time it means healthier soil, greater productivity, cleaner water and a transition that allows us to be able to continue to meet and export market that is demanding sustainability as well as that local and regional food system or that domestic consumer that wants it, as well.”

Tom Doran

Field Editor