Climate change hearing focuses on what farmers need
More technical assistance and streamlined application processes for conservation programs would help farmers adopt practices to reduce greenhouse gases, lawmakers were told at a hearing on how the next farm bill should address climate change.
“It is about workforce,” former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota told the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday, recommending that the Natural Resources Conservation Service increase the use of partnerships with land-grant universities and other entities to get needed technical help to farmers.
“I’m urging you all not to reduce local staff,” Heitkamp said, adding, “Let’s build a pipeline from FFA — they’re our future leaders.”
Speaking of conservation practices that can sequester carbon and improve soil health, she added, “People will do it if they know how to do it.”
Heitkamp and others at the hearing also mentioned how programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program cannot meet producer demand. EQIP, for example, can only fund about 25% of applicants.
The witnesses supported the Biden administration’s $1 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, but some on the committee were critical. Ranking Republican Glenn “GT” Thompson questioned USDA’s authority to implement the program through the Commodity Credit Corp., and Texas A&M economist Joe Outlaw, while calling the program “a positive,” cautioned that “when you start developing climate-smart commodities, unless you have the ability for every area of the country to participate, then you can potentially have segmented markets.”
Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, representing the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), and Heitkamp both forcefully defended the program, with Heitkamp characterized it as giving rural Americans an opportunity to develop local solutions.
Some Republicans on the committee said the hearing comes at the wrong time. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said producers in his district are not talking about climate change today, but about sharply increasing fuel and fertilizer prices. Davis, who is facing what could be a bruising re-election campaign against fellow Republican Mary Miller, also said Biden has “abandoned American farmers in so many ways,” including the “waters of the U.S.” rewrite being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers.
Conner pushed back on the criticism, acknowledging that “the coffee shop talk today is not climate change, it’s world events, it’s fertilizer prices, it’s a number of things that are literally … in your face.”
But he also said “we find great interest from our producers when we start talking about climate in the context of incentive-based, in the in the context of additional resources and revenues in your pocket.”
“Farmers need a better shake,” he said. “And we’re doing this right now to try and give them that.”
USDA borrowed heavily from FACA’s 2020 recommendations in developing the climate-smart partnerships program.
Outlaw urged caution on efforts to tie climate-smart practices to the price of crop insurance premiums, saying such an effort could create “regional winners and losers.” But Kristin Weeks Duncanson, a grower from Mapleton, Minn., who testified on behalf of AGree Economic and Environmental Risk Coalition, said crop insurance needs to be modernized by incentivizing climate-smart practices such as cover cropping and rotational grazing.
Shakera Raygoza, owner and operator of a small and diversified farming operation — Terra Preta Farm in Edinburg, Texas — said conservation program applications need to be shortened and simplified, and technical assistance needs to be available.
“Loans are designed for large commodity farmers who grow one or two crops,” she said, noting that she has had to convert production figures from her farm’s tiny spinach bed into “into yield per acre units.”
Raygoza also small farmers “would benefit from programs that will provide funding up front for conservation without placing the burden of financing onto the farmers who may not have access to credit.”
Glenda Humiston, vice president at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources in Davis, said the definitions of “rural” and “metropolitan” used to determine funding eligibility denies needed assistance to many rural counties, which are considered “metropolitan” if they have one population center over 50,000.
“We need to quit thinking about population” in making funding decisions, Humiston said, pointing also to the example of USDA Rural Development water and environmental programs that limit eligibility to rural communities of 10,000 people or fewer.
Heitkamp spoke on behalf of the Bipartisan Policy Center; Raygoza for the National Young Farmers Coalition; and Outlaw for the Texas A&M Agricultural and Food Policy Center.