In one of its first major moves to reduce agricultural carbon emissions, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced plans Wednesday to finance a series of large-scale projects aimed at developing markets for climate-smart farming and forestry practices.

The projects could be funded using Vilsack’s spending authority under the Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corp.

The initiative is intended to promote markets for "markets for climate- smart commodities," according to a Federal register notice posted by the CCC staff.

Those markets would "include sustainable supply chain initiatives and internal corporate commitments where companies are pledging to reduce emissions within their own supply chains and production facilities. Opportunities also include markets for low-carbon biofuels and renewable energy. Agricultural producers and landowners also have opportunities to market GHG reductions generated as a part of climate-smart commodity production," the notice says.

Vilsack separately announced Wednesday that he will use $3 billion from the CCC for efforts to combat African swine fever, promote agricultural drought resilience, relieve agricultural supply disruptions and assist schools in dealing with supply issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a speech prepared for delivery at Colorado State University, Vilsack said all of those challenges USDA will be addressing involve “calls for help" that "can be answered through the use of the Commodity Credit Corp.”

The CCC is a revolving account that is replenished annually. USDA had $7.4 billion left under its CCC spending limit for the fiscal year that ends Thursday, according to a source with knowledge of the fund.

“In the midst of another challenging time for American agriculture in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl, President Roosevelt and Congress created the Commodity Credit Corp. — a powerful tool that allows USDA to be nimble, aggressive and prescriptive,” Vilsack said.

USDA didn’t provide an estimate of how much the climate projects would cost or much detail on what the projects would be expected to encompass. The department is initially asking for public input on the design of the initiative. The department is considering using its legal authority under the CCC to help develop or expand agricultural markets, a spokeswoman said.

The “Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative will support pilots that create new market opportunities for commodities produced using climate-smart practices and position U.S. farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners as leaders in addressing climate change,” Vilsack said.

“The pilots will invest in the science, monitoring and verification to measure the benefits of these climate-smart practices.”

USDA is specifically seeking input on these issues: the current state of climate-smart commodity markets; systems for quantification,  options and criteria for evaluation,  use of the information that is collected through the projects; potential protocols that would be used, options for review and verification of outcomes; and ways to include historically underserved communities.

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Among the questions USDA wants responses to are these: "How would existing private sector and state compliance markets for carbon offsets be impacted from this potential federal program?" And, "In order to expand markets, what should the scope of the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Program be, including in terms of geography, scale, project focus, and project activities supported?"

USDA also wants to know how early adopters of climate-friendly practices can be included in the program. 

Robert Bonnie, USDA’s top climate adviser and President Joe Biden’s nominee to be USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, has called for using the CCC to fund a carbon bank.

During Bonnie’s Senate confirmation hearing in July, he argued that the CCC can be used to compensate farmers for work they do that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the USDA program "will support the efforts of producers interested in exploring new, innovative approaches to farming that help address the challenge of climate change. This is vital, since farmer co-ops know firsthand that customers for our agricultural products are increasingly giving preference to those produced with climate-friendly farming practices."

The $3 billion of CCC money that is earmarked for other needs includes $1.5 billion for schools to deal with supply chain disruptions and $1.5 billion to be divided equally among the drought resilience, ag supply chain assistance and African swine fever prevention.

Specifically, $500 million will go toward assisting farmers and ranchers with drought recovery and to encourage adoption of water management practices. Among other things, USDA will provide assistance to "reduce the high cost of feed and pay down the high cost of transportation," Vilsack said. Many producers have had to haul in feed for their cattle. 

The $500 million set aside for ag supply chains is designed to assist in addressing challenges with the availability and cost of materials and other obstacles related to the marketing of commodities.

The $500 million going to ASF prevention will fund the expansion and coordination of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s monitoring, prevention and quarantine programs to both control outbreaks in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and to keep the disease out of the United States.

“This is unprecedented both in terms of the amount dedicated to one animal disease and of getting the funds upfront, before we have the disease in the U.S.," said Bob Acord, an adviser to the National Pork Producers Council and former APHIS administrator.

To help schools, USDA "is actively engaging with partners to best leverage existing options for addressing potential supply chain issues – such as emergency procurement, higher meal reimbursement rates, and targeted waivers of certain meal standard requirements – and assess any additional needs," a press release said. 

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