June 15, 2021

USDA expands climate-smart partner programs

WASHINGTON — Leading into the recent White House Climate Leaders Summit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled new and expanded programs aimed at climate mitigation.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the agency’s plans in a news conference prior to his meeting with nine foreign ministers to discuss mitigation and adaptation strategies.

“The U.S. has rejoined the Paris Agreement and as part of that we are making an aggressive reduction target for the country by 2030 that’s going to allow us to reclaim global leadership in this important area, and agriculture and forestry I think plays a pivotal role,” Vilsack said.

“Part of our effort will focus on enhancing climate smart agricultural practices, the development of biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, better forest management and reforestation.”

Here are the details of the new climate mitigation incentives and partnerships.

Conservation Reserve Program

USDA’s goal is to enroll up to 4 million new acres in CRP by raising rental payment rates and expanding the number of incentivized environmental practices allowed under the program.

“All of this is designed to aid in agriculture’s and forestry’s contribution to the overall goal of reducing emissions.”

—  Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture

CRP is one of the world’s largest voluntary conservation programs with a long track record of preserving topsoil, sequestering carbon and reducing nitrogen runoff, as well providing healthy habitat for wildlife.

Acres currently enrolled in CRP mitigate more than 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If USDA reaches its goal of enrolling an additional 4 million acres into the program, it will mitigate an additional 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and prevent 90 million pounds of nitrogen and 33 million tons of sediment from running into our waterways each year.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency offers a number of signups, including the general signup and continuous signup, which are both open now, as well as a CRP grasslands and pilot programs focused on soil health and clean water.

New Climate-Smart Incentive

To target the program on climate change mitigation, FSA is introducing a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive for CRP general and continuous signups that aims to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate-Smart CRP practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat and wetland restoration. The Climate-Smart Practice Incentive is annual, and the amount is based on the benefits of each practice type.

Higher CRP Rental Rates

In 2021, CRP is capped at 25 million acres, and currently 20.8 million acres are enrolled. Furthermore, the cap will gradually increase to 27 million acres by 2023.

To help increase producer interest and enrollment, FSA is:

• Adjusting soil rental rates — This enables additional flexibility for rate adjustments, including a possible increase in rates where appropriate.

• Increasing payments for practice incentives from 20% to 50% — This incentive for continuous CRP practices is based on the cost of establishment and is in addition to cost share payments.

• Increasing payments for water quality practices — Rates are increasing from 10% to 20% for certain water quality benefiting practices available through the CRP continuous signup, such as grassed waterways, riparian buffers and filter strips.

• Establishing a CRP Grassland minimum rental rate — This benefits more than 1,300 counties with rates currently below the minimum.

Natural Resource Benefits

To boost impacts for natural resources, FSA is:

• Moving State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement practices to the CRP continuous signup. Unlike the general signup, producers can sign up year-round for the continuous signup and be eligible for additional incentives.

• Establishing National Grassland Priority Zones that aims to increase enrollment of grasslands in migratory corridors and environmentally sensitive areas.

• Making Highly Erodible Land Initiative practices available in both the general and continuous signups.

Soil Health, Watersheds

CRP has two pilot programs — the Soil Health and Income Protection Program and the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers 30-year contracts.

For SHIPP, which is a short-term option — three-, four-, or five-year contracts — for farmers to plant cover on less productive agricultural lands, FSA will hold a 2021 signup in the Prairie Pothole states.

The CLEAR30 pilot, a long-term option through CRP, will be expanded from the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay pilot regions to nationwide.

Technical Assistance

USDA technical assistance through the NRCS is critical to enable producers to plan and implement appropriate conservation practices for their needs.

Under this initiative, NRCS also will initiate a soil sampling protocol to help establish a baseline for soil carbon on land enrolled in CRP. To ensure increased enrollment and support for producers, USDA is increasing NRCS technical assistance capacity for CRP by $140 million.

Additionally, in order to better target the program toward climate outcomes, USDA will invest $10 million in the CRP Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation program to measure and monitor the soil carbon and climate resilience impacts of conservation practices over the life of new CRP contracts. This will enable the agency to further refine the program and practices to provide producers tools for increased climate resilience.

Partnership Program

In addition to changes to CRP, Vilsack also announced significant investments for climate-smart policies. First, NRCS is investing $330 million in 85 locally driven, public-private partnerships under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to address climate change and other natural resources challenges.

NRCS also is investing $25 million in proposals for on-farm trials, which are part of the Conservation Innovation Grants program. NRCS is seeking proposals through June 21. Project priorities include climate-smart agricultural solutions and soil health practices.

“These resources will essentially allow us to aggressively begin a process over the next four years of investing in a variety of projects and activities focused on making the best utilization of the climate opportunity that we have,” Vilsack said.

“These announcements certainly blend into the president’s budget which calls for additional resources in these areas, as well as the American Jobs Plan. It’s a concerted effort to address the importance of climate change, to invest in climate-smart agricultural practices, to create new opportunities for biofuels, to look at ways in which we can innovatively sequester/capture carbon and ways in which we can invest significant resources in better forest management by reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and also reforestry both on public and private lands.

“All of this is designed to aid in agriculture’s and forestry’s contribution to the overall goal of reducing emissions.”

Tom Doran

Field Editor