Friday marked the beginning of a “transformational chapter in agriculture” with the signing of two of the 141 contracts for USDA's Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a signing ceremony at the 2023 Commodity Classic in Orlando, Florida.

USDA first announced the program in February 2022, when it unveiled a $1 billion program to incentivize the adoption of climate-smart practices while also providing a way to measure, monitor, report and verify the impact of those practices. The funding more than tripled in September, when Vilsack announced the first phase of projects — those receiving more than $5 million — and a total of $3.5 billion of available funding after massive demand for the program. 

Vilsack said signing the contracts for the first two projects is the “beginning of a process of a number of projects that are going to transform how we farm, where we farm and what we do to produce sustainably produced crops and livestock products.”

USDA's undersecretary of farm production and conservation, Robert Bonnie, said his office is working to finalize the rest of the 141 projects; contracts for most projects in the first round of funding are expected to be signed by the end of March.  

Speaking to Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of Commodity Classic, Vilsack said several issues delayed finalizing details for each contract, including requirements that projects comply with various government regulations and reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. Vilsack said he anticipates all of the project contracts will be finalized in 2023.

“I think agriculture is on the cusp of being the first major industry of our overall economy to move aggressively towards a net zero future,” he said at a signing ceremony featuring farm group leaders. 

Vilsack believes more than 60,000 producers will participate in the 141 projects, which will involve implementing practices on 25 million acres. He said the grants provide an opportunity to “reinforce the notion that our farmers, ranchers and producers are great stewards of the land and water, understand the importance of biodiversity and are now structured in a way that with resources can move towards an even more sustainable future.”

The first contract signed Friday provides a grant of $95 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Farmers for Soil Health, a jointly funded organization of the National Corn Growers Association, United Soybean Board, and National Pork Board, that will offer payments to producers who implement cover crop practices on their farms.

As an organization, Farmers for Soil Health has a goal to expand cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030.

This project will provide varying levels of payments for the planting of cover crops. Recipients can include early cover crop adopters as well as farmers who are expanding acreage or planting for the first time.

Every project is required to provide some level of measuring, monitoring and verifying of practices. The Farmers for Soil Health project will require verification of seed purchase or verification of planting through satellite image overlays, said David Gagner, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation senior director of government relations.

The grant will offer financial and technical assistance to the farmers in 20 states transitioning to cover crops. It will also offer a market platform that connects carbon credit selling opportunities with farmers who produce crops under sustainable practices.

Brandon Hunnicutt, a corn and soybean farmer from Giltner, Nebraska, and a member of NCGA's board, said the partnership funding will allow him to try some things on his farm he’s been wanting to test “to really push the envelope” of understanding how to maintain a water supply and maintain good soils and the role cover crops play in that equation. This will help farmers learn what works, what doesn’t work, and the challenges that come with adoption, Hunnicutt said. 

Another grant signed Friday establishes the Midwest Climate-Smart Commodity Project. Administered by the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, the project will provide financial incentives for farmers in 12 states to implement on-farm practices resulting in positive environmental outcomes. USDA’s $95 million grant will be leveraged with $62.1 million in corporate commitments.

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