Farmers warned the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday that ag climate policy can’t leave out producers who have already adopted conservation practices or producers in regions with limited prospects for earning soil carbon credits.
The top Republican on the committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, also made clear that he isn’t sold yet on ag carbon markets, which are a major feature of the policy being pursued by the Biden administration and the committee’s Chair, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Boozman also expressed concern that House Democrats are talking about using the budget reconciliation process to pass a climate bill without needing GOP votes, similar to what was done with the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday.
“Budget reconciliation has unfortunately become a partisan process that does not take into consideration the views of the minority at all,” Boozman said.
“Climate change poses many complexities for the agriculture sector, and input from the Republican members of this committee should be taken into consideration.”
The Ag committee membership is split 50-50 along party lines.
Members of major farm organizations and a producer representing the Environmental Defense Fund all agreed that farmers could benefit from implementing climate-friendly practices, but several of the producers raised concerns about potential disparities.
One of the major issues is what to do about so-called “early adopters,” farmers who have already been using no-till, cover crops and other practices that sequester carbon in the soil and may not qualify for credits that don’t reward farmers for their existing practices but only for future improvements.
“Right now everybody wants new carbon. Very few companies right now seem willing to pay for any sort of past performance, and there are huge risks with that model," said Cori Wittman Stitt, an adviser to the Environmental Defense Fund who has a diversified crop and cattle operation in Idaho.
A coalition that includes major farm organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives as well as EDF has recommended the federal government make one-time payments to farmers for practices they are already using.
Clay Pope, a no-till wheat grower in Oklahoma representing NFU, told the committee “there are thousands of producers who have worked for years to improve their land. It would be a horrible mistake not to provide opportunities for these pioneer farmers.”
Pope also noted the potential regional disparities in carbon market benefits, noting that farmers in west Texas don’t have soil types that can sequester carbon to the extent that growers in states such as Iowa do.
Stefanie Smallhouse, a cattle producer who is president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, said "all regions of the U.S. can explain ways in which any given climate policy may or may not work for the landscape, sector or ecology present in that region. Every farm and ranch is unique, and policy considerations must be able to encompass the distinctive needs of everything from corn and soybeans to leafy greens and public lands grazing."
John Reifsteck, an Illinois farmer who chairs the Bloomington-based GROWMARK grower cooperative, is convinced of the potential for carbon-saving practices based on extensive research that has been done on his particular farm. Since 1996, his farm has hosted a research site operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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Farmers like his that use conservation tillage practices sequester about a half-ton of carbon per acre, while by comparison conventional-tillage farms release about a ton of carbon per acre, he told the senators.
He also said farmers’ views on climate change are shifting.
“Just a few years ago climate change was not an issue that farmers talked about among themselves in meetings or in a coffee shop,” he said. Now, "there is a growing realization that done correctly, policies that promote climate-friendly practices can boost farm income, increase productivity and address one of the most pressing challenges the planet faces.”
Thursday's hearing was the committee’s first step of the year in developing its climate policy. Stabenow and committee member Mike Braun, R-Ind., are expected to soon release a new version of their Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill intended to speed the development of carbon markets by authorizing the Agriculture Department to certify credit verification services.
Stabenow stressed that the committee would be considering the view from across the agriculture sector.
“We want to hear perspectives from every part of the agriculture and forestry economy – small and large operations, row crops and specialty crops, conventional and organic farms, biofuel producers, and other drivers of the bio-based economy,” she said.
“We also need to bring the research community, land grant universities, and other perspectives into this dialogue. Grassroots organizations focused on equity and frontline communities are vital to this discussion, and we’ll continue to engage with them."
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