Editor’s note: Over the next few days, we will be providing additional coverage of the Agri-Pulse Ag and Food Policy Summit and posting videos from the live event.

U.S. farmers, ranchers, foresters and food companies are leaning in on the climate policy debate more than ever before, even as many questions remain about how to achieve measurable and practical solutions that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That was one of the key “take-homes” from the Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit, which was held March 22-24, and attracted almost 1,100 registrants.  The theme was “Climate Risks, Rewards and Opportunities” and it yielded a lot of information and compelling dialogues.  

Much of the discussion centered around finding ways that farmers and foresters can invest and potentially benefit through new revenue streams, but there is also concern that there could be added costs or new regulations. Plus, many speakers underscored the need for more research and technical assistance.

“Bottom line, for me, the ideas are ahead of the technology, and many organizations are swimming around in ideas with minimal statistically significant verification. More research and innovation is a must,” said Gregg Halverson, a farmer and chairman of the board for Black Gold Farms, who participated in the summit.

A priority for the USDA in the coming years will be judging the feasibility of setting up, executing and paying for a federal carbon bank to help farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reward them for their actions, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

It won’t be easy or quick, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done just to figure out the best way to make that happen, but a carbon bank that both reduces GHG emissions and adds support to America’s farmers and ranchers will be key to the Biden administration’s pledge to open new markets for farmers, Vilsack said at the summit.

“When we talk about new markets … there is an opportunity with reference to climate to create new ways for farmers to benefit financially,” said Vilsack, who also stressed that USDA will be looking at other tools than just a new carbon bank system.

“We have a good path forward as we look and explore that opportunity,” he said. “It’s a way of basically providing financial assistance to farmers so that they incorporate into their operations climate-smart agricultural practices, regenerative practices, which will not only provide farm income, but – most importantly, as well – it will preserve soil, provide healthier soil and it will be an opportunity for us to improve the quality of water.”

Currently, there is no federal carbon bank, and Vilsack said the existing carbon trading systems are not designed to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers. That’s why USDA is starting at the ground floor and hoping to gather as many ideas and guidance as it can from the public sector.

“When we talk about a carbon bank, many folks are taking a look at the existing carbon markets and asking themselves whether or not it will work for agriculture,” Vilsack said. “I think it’s important to point out that today, this carbon market really is not designed and set up for farmers. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, there’s a lot of complexity involved. The actual payments are not necessarily significant – not enough anyways to overcome the hassle that’s connected with the carbon market.”

The proof, he said, is in the numbers. Out of about 134 million outstanding carbon credits, only about 2.5 million are agriculture-based.

However a potential new carbon market is established, Vilsack said, it “has to be set up in a way that speaks to farmers’ needs and is really designed for farmers and about farmers.”

And to do that, he says he wants to hear from farmers and ranchers. Just last week the USDA published a notice in the Federal Register, seeking input from the public on what the department should do to encourage practices with “measurable and verifiable carbon reductions and sequestration and that source sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”

Dr. John Newton presented an overview of the "Economics of Carbon Farming" at the Agri-Pulse Ag and Food Policy Summit. To view, click here.

EPA also involved

Speaking at the event Wednesday, the new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency said he wants regular input from the ag industry. “I want to hear from you directly when innovation has been stifled, because we need to work together to overcome these challenges,” he said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said he’s excited about working with the ag community. “I'm enthusiastic about the future of our partnership, identifying areas where we can be helpful, as well as how we can work on advancing climate-smart agricultural practices together,” he said.

“It's important … that I hear directly from the farming community on a consistent basis,” he said.

He also pledged to appoint an agricultural adviser soon to help coordinate policy and regulatory efforts with other government agencies such as the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Energy, among others.

Regan didn’t offer any specifics on upcoming EPA actions, but said he is “going to take time to listen to the expertise of EPA’s dedicated career staff” and take a “science-based, deliberate approach before we set any specific policy action.”

President Joe Biden has indicated that he’ll release a new U.S. commitment around a climate summit in April. The White House hasn’t said how far Biden will go; environmentalists and others are pushing the administration to pledge to slash U.S. emissions by half by 2030.

The Paris climate agreement aimed to reduce global emissions enough to limit increases in warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Many of the pledges corporations are making to cut the emissions in their supply chains are built around meeting the Paris target.

USDA’s top climate adviser, Robert Bonnie, says agriculture and forestry are going to figure in any new climate commitments that the United States makes.

“USDA has a lot to offer as you think about putting forward a target,” Bonnie said at the summit, referring to the potential for agriculture and forestry to help offset fossil fuel emissions.

Divergent views on Capitol Hill

Summit speakers included both the chairs and the ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees as well as Senate panel member Mike Braun, R-Ind., and the lawmakers were definitely not in lockstep on the path forward for climate policy. Yet, there appears to be some common ground over the need to take action and a new version of the Growing Climate Solutions Act is a likely legislative vehicle.

“There are other efforts to address climate change, but it is important that agriculture be at the point of the spear,” noted House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott. He said his committee will focus on helping to develop ag carbon markets by facilitating verification services and implementing “guardrails” to ensure the markets operate fairly.
He also suggested compensating farmers for conservation practices that they’ve already been doing (and which may not be eligible for carbon credits). Scott said he plans to hold a hearing on carbon markets. 

However, the idea of funding a carbon bank through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. is currently running into GOP opposition on Capitol Hill. The top Republican on the House Ag Committee - Pennsylvania's Glenn Thompson - said he doesn't believe USDA would have authority to use that funding source, and "Secretary Vilsack should know better."

"CCC is just vital to funding the existing conservation programs, the risk management programs," Thompson said. He specifically referenced concerns about being able to fund those programs in a more crowded CCC and cited the so-called "fire borrowing" that took place in the Forest Service budget to address wildfire containment.

"This concept does have bicameral, bipartisan opposition, and I'd recommend USDA not pursue climate action unilaterally, especially when it comes to creating new programs without authority from Congress," he said. "The private markets have seen some success ... and I'd hate to see the federal government bigfoot around in this new and growing market."

However, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Boozman, said he’s been working with Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow on changes to a key climate bill that is expected to be reintroduced shortly. The Growing Climate Solutions Act, first introduced last spring, is designed to lay the groundwork for private ag carbon markets by authorizing USDA to certify credit verification services.

Speaking at the Agri-Pulse summit, Boozman said the changes the bill needed include reworking a USDA advisory committee that he said would have too little farmer representation. “We want to make sure that the program is set up so this can be successful,” he said.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., says more than a dozen fellow Republicans could get behind a new ag climate bill, but he’s warning Democrats against overreaching in a way that would endanger GOP support.

Speaking at the event, Braun said he has secured 10 Republican cosponsors for the bill. Several more Republicans will sign on as well, assuming Boozman, agrees to support the measure, Braun said.

“Certainly, it will have the votes” once it comes to the floor, Braun said. He also suggested "there will be a market for existing stewardship practices.” That’s one of the concerns that repeatedly came up in discussions – how to reward early adopters?

However, establishing a carbon bank at USDA would be a “red flag” for Senate Republicans when it comes to climate policy, Braun said.

Also speaking at the summit, Stabenow assured the audience that her focus is on voluntary, incentive-based solutions. She said she’s addressed Boozman’s concern about farmer representation on the advisory committee as well as a separate worry about funding coming out of existing farm bill programs. 

She said the bill, which would require USDA to start certifying carbon credit verification services, is “pretty simple” and that “we’re making some fine-tuning …that will make it even stronger.”

To get a full Senate vote, the legislation could be attached to a larger bill, but Stabenow says she doesn’t know what that will be. Democrats are planning to move a massive climate and infrastructure package at some point this year, but it’s far from clear that it will be bipartisan, or whether it will be one bill or a series of bills.

Farm and environmental advocates unite

Major farm and environmental organizations often disagree when it comes to new policies, but there’s been a growing effort to work together to tackle climate change.

One of the strongest coalitions is the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, represented by the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, the National Council of Farmer Coops, Environmental Defense Fund and others. 

“By creating these uncommon partnerships, by developing strong bipartisan support on the Hill, and engagement from stakeholders across the whole ecosystem, if you will, that’s how we can make win-win solutions, we can have success, and we can have a policy in place that really is durable and can outlast the ebb and flow of politics in Washington,” EDF’s Elizabeth Gore said during a panel discussion.

The FACA group has developed 40 recommendations for policymakers that “will create the space for innovative climate solutions," said Rob Larew, president, National Farmers Union. 

More dialogue to come

One thing that became very clear during the event is how many participants wanted to learn more.

“This was the most substantive climate discussion I have been in all year,” said Bruce Knight, a former chief at the Natural Resources Conservation Service and founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions.

Knight said that he “picked up nuggets of key information in each and every session” but that the “key take away from me is the need for more of this informed dialogue” on this subject.

During a word cloud exercise, the participants were asked to list one word that comes to mind when they think of climate policy; “complex” and “complicate” were the most prevalent.  

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Knight said it’s also clear that there is a need for new technology and tools to find climate solutions. 

“Yet there is not one clear-cut silver bullet, but rather multiple solution sets being offered for various segments of agriculture,” Knight explained. “Solution sets on soils are different than for livestock, and the only clear commonality is the need for strong technical assistance, which will be scarce in the upcoming decade.” 

As P.J. Haynie III – a Virginia farmer and a panelist at the event – put it, farmers aren’t necessarily looking for a silver bullet, but rather “silver buckshot.”

Knight noted that there was a lot of interest in using existing USDA programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program. 

“There is a clear need for the department to show the current backlogs on these program signups, and indicate how many tons of carbon could be mitigated, avoided, destroyed or sequestered for every additional billion dollars invested in the programs. Every speaker is talking about supporting voluntary conservation programs, but the hard reality is that those programs will cost money,” he added.  

“I speculate that if the infrastructure bill would plus-up EQIP, CSP and CRP by another $5-10 billion, the limiting factor would be technical assistance and program offering from farmers would still be backlogged,” Knight said.

Another poll question at the event asked how much money will be needed to address the issue; the majority of respondents responded with $30-50 billion annually, something Knight called a “jaw-dropping response, but it does indicate the magnitude of the challenge and the price of early action by thousands of our nation's farmers to reverse climate change.”

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