USDA launches $3.1 billion climate-smart initiative

Sixteen months after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a project to help farmers develop markets for sustainably produced commodities, the USDA formally put the initiative into operation on Thursday. Some $3.1 billion — three times more than originally planned — would be spent on 141 pilot projects to offer incentives that encourage producers to adopt climate-mitigating practices on working lands.

“The game’s changing. Farming is no longer about what food is produced; it’s also about how food is produced,” said Vilsack in webcast remarks. “The world is demanding more sustainable products across the board.”

The USDA said 29 projects involving 45 major commodities in the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program were already active. Vilsack said negotiations were complete with the majority of 70 big-budget projects selected last fall for $2.8 billion in support. “We’re looking forward to seeing these projects hit the ground running now to enroll farmers and landowners in these exciting efforts.”

Congressional Republicans, generally skeptics of climate change, have questioned the administration’s authority to create the climate-smart initiative and to fund it with money from a $30 billion USDA reserve that also pays for farm subsidies. “It appears we need to be more prescriptive in the farm bill,” said Arkansas Sen. John Boozman earlier this week. A handful of other lawmakers have suggested reviving Obama-era limits on USDA spending without congressional approval.

As part of launching the climate-smart initiative, the USDA announced a “learning network” as an adjunct to the partnerships. It would share information about which project practices and approaches are successful. “We plan to make available our findings from this effort so that we can all work together to make the most climate-smart commodity markets move forward,” said Vilsack.

Like the USDA’s land stewardship programs, participation in the climate-smart initiative is voluntary and incentive-based, said Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie.

When the pilot projects are in full operation, they will involve more than 60,000 farms and 25 million acres of working lands, including woodlands, using such practices as nutrient management and cover crops to sequester a combined 60 million tonnes of carbon in the soil and in trees, said the USDA. The projects will run from one to five years, so the results would not be available in time for the drafting of the farm bill due this year.

The 141 projects brought matching funds equal to, on average, 50 percent of federal support.

One of the largest climate-smart grants, $80 million, went to a Virginia Tech project that would pay farmers in four states — Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Virginia — $100 an acre to implement climate-smart practices for crop and livestock production. The project would run for three years and has a goal of achieving more than $100 in environmental benefits per acre or animal unit. Up to 4,500 producers and 500,000 acres would be enrolled.

Tom Thompson, Virginia Tech’s associate dean of agriculture, said earlier this week that the $100-an-acre payment was “well in excess” of the cost of adopting the climate-smart practices, and should induce producers to participate. Too often, they have to bear some of the cost of land stewardship, which can discourage cooperation.

The USDA home page for the climate-smart initiative is available here.