The Biden administration is launching the application process for a $1 billion program that will test ways farms of all sizes can profit from the low-carbon commodities they produce through practices that cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program will allow "American agriculture to take a leading effort in the development of climate-smart commodities and allows us to meet the market where it is here domestically, and also make sure that we maintain a competitive edge for exports."

USDA posted rules for the program in a notice of funding opportunity. To stress that the program wouldn't be limited to large-scale producers, Vilsack announced the program Monday afternoon in a speech at Lincoln University of Missouri, a historically Black land-grant institution in Jefferson City.

Farm operations of all sizes that grow any types of commodities will be eligible, as the department seeks to develop a climate-smart label that it hopes will allow producers to get more of the consumer’s food dollar.

“Who can apply? Well, it's pretty broad,” Vilsack said in the interview, ticking off a list that included local and state governments, soil conservation districts, special districts, governmental organizations, tribal organizations, 501(c)(3) corporations, institutions of higher learning and education, land-grant universities, and minority-serving institutions.

“Their function will be to provide the structure and the set of incentives to producers to encourage participation,” he said. The program is voluntary and incentive-based and applying organizations will determine how to compensate farmers.

“It's not a carbon market, although it's possible that by the adoption of these climate-smart practices, the group of farmers who are participating could participate on their own in private carbon markets,” he said.

In response to criticism from some Republicans on Capitol Hill that the Commodity Credit Corp. is not the right vehicle for such an effort, Vilsack pointed to statutory provisions that authorize use of the CCC to “support the prices of agricultural commodities … through loans, purchases, payments, and other operations” and to “increase the domestic consumption of agricultural commodities” by developing new markets.

“So, just in case anybody asks you have the power to do this, we’re very confident we do,” Vilsack said.

Asked whether there’s a desire in farm country for the demonstration projects the program will fund, he pointed to the 400-plus comments the department received on what it initially called the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative.

Applications will be accepted until April 8 for larger projects of $5 million to $50 million, and until May 27 for projects costing between $250,000 and $5 million.

The second category is “to make sure that small-sized farming operations and underserved populations are able to participate fully,” said Vilsack.

He said he anticipated the projects would run three to five years “as we embrace the adoption by American agriculture of climate-smart practices,” adding that projects would also address forestry practices.

“In order for folks to apply for these resources, they will have to essentially commit to the adoption of climate-smart agriculture or forestry practices,” Vilsack said. “They have to commit to quantifying, monitoring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas reductions or carbon sequestration results. And they need to work to develop and to promote market opportunities for these climate-smart commodities or forestry products.”

The secretary said the department has “already identified over 40 practices that we know and believe pretty clearly have benefits — cover crops rotational grazing, drip irrigation, things of that nature.”

The question, he said, is “if you combine a number of these practices, what is the cumulative effect and impact? How do you really sharpen the ability to quantify and measure and verify the result?”

“The more confidence there is in that verification process, the more confidence there is in the fact that you've got a higher value product here, because you've embraced these sustainable practices,” he said.

In a statement released Monday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said, “This is about partnering with farmers to tackle the climate crisis. It’s critical that we make sure that climate-friendly practices are profitable and practical for farmers – no matter what crop they produce, what region they’re in, or the size of their operation. The urgency of the climate crisis demands action, and I look forward to reviewing the feedback and data from these pilot projects, which will help inform the writing of the next farm bill.”

Republicans have raised concerns about using the CCC to pay for the program. The committee's top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, stopped short of opposing the initiative, but promised to "pursue vigorous oversight."

“I’ve always advocated for CCC money to be used for the direct benefit of farmers and the farm community. That is the criteria by which I will evaluate this program," Boozman said in a statement. 

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