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Senate Ag Committee Explores Climate Change Issues with Farmers

On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a policy hearing on climate change issues (“Farmers and Foresters: Opportunities to Lead in Tackling Climate Change“).  Recall that the House Agriculture Committee held a similar hearing late last month.

In her opening remarks, Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) stated that, “I’m so pleased to be holding our first policy hearing this Congress on the climate crisis, a topic that is critical to the future of every farmer, rancher, and forester in this country.”

Chairwoman Stabenow added that, “While the potential of carbon markets is very promising, I want to acknowledge that they aren’t going to work for everyone. But that doesn’t mean farmers can’t embrace climate-smart farming and still benefit.

“Whether it’s a corn and soybean grower planting cover crops after harvest, or a dairy farmer installing solar panels on the roof of their barn, or a forester managing their land to grow more mature trees that hold more carbon – these climate-smart steps are good for the planet and good for business. Healthier, carbon-rich soil means lower fertilizer costs. Renewable energy helps lower utility bills. And thinning out smaller trees can help the big trees grow bigger, providing a revenue opportunity for the family forest owner.”

“Farmers and Foresters: Opportunities to Lead in Tackling Climate Change.” Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing (March 11, 2021).

Committee Ranking Member John Boozman (R., Ark.) indicated in his prepared remarks on Thursday that,

Farmers should not be expected to accept a reduction in crop yield, or to be forced to compensate for that reduction by relying on a speculative new income stream derived from developing greenhouse gas credit trading.

“We need to foster an environment where we can increase yields while improving economic sustainability and new opportunities for American farmers, ranchers, and foresters.”

With respect to prepared testimony from witnesses, Oklahoma farmer Clay Pope explained that, “Congress must work with USDA and agricultural producers to emphasize climate adaption in the implementation of EQIP, CSP, the Conservation Reserve Program, CREP, and other conservation programs—and make sure these programs work together and address the needs of those working the land. Additional funds must be provided to assist local NRCS staff with conservation planning and technical assistance and a new focus must be put on how land management practices can help producers better deal with extreme weather.”

John Reifsteck, a central Illinois grain farmer and Chairman of the Board and President of GROWMARK, Inc., indicated on Thursday that, “NRCS programs provide critical on-the-ground support to help farmers and ranchers maintain healthy, productive lands and overcome administrative barriers to adopting practices that conserve natural resources. However, more technical assistance, especially that which is focused on climate resiliency, is needed throughout the countryside. Therefore, FACA [the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance] recommends providing additional funding for a variety of NRCS initiatives to meet program needs and support programs that focus on GHG emissions reductions, adaption or resilience, and soil health efforts, as well as technical assistance for climate stewardship practices.”

Also Thursday, Arizona Farm Bureau Federation President Stefanie Smallhouse pointed out that, “… policy which addresses proactive measures to influence climate conditions cannot be one-size-fits-all,” and added that, “[A]ny policy debate should recognize the contributions, efficiency gains, and considerable impact of American farmers and ranchers, including their sustainability and carbon sequestration efforts.”

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported on Thursday that, “The Senate and House Agriculture Committees are trying to figure out where they fit in terms of forming policy to address climate change in agriculture. After neither committee had held a hearing on climate change, both committees have now held hearings repeating similar themes in just the past two weeks. At the same time, new leaders at USDA are working on their own initiatives that likely will lead to early action on some type of program to reward farmers for adopting more climate-smart cropping practices that lower emissions and sequester carbon in the soil.

“And lawmakers are trying to assure farmers that the goal is to provide economic opportunities rather than government mandates.”

Mr. Clayton indicated that, “Mark Isbell, a farmer from England, Arkansas, representing USA Rice, told senators that, while agriculture can mitigate climate change, a viable market that provides a fair incentive remains elusive. Isbell noted he had been involved in an early carbon program that ended up paying him one check for $133.

“‘It didn’t work out in our situation very well,’ Isbell said. ‘That doesn’t mean that I don’t remain hopeful that there are opportunities, but it tells me that we have to be more open-minded and what those opportunities look like. There’s a difference that can be made with agriculture, that is clear.’

“Isbell also stressed that any new USDA program paying farmers for carbon should not take away from current conservation programs at USDA that already have more demand than funding. ‘In fact, Congress should increase investment in the existing suite of NRCS land programs,’ Isbell said.”

The DTN article also stated that, “There was bipartisan agreement among senators that any carbon programs would be voluntary. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the committee, said placing regulatory burdens on farmers tied to carbon emissions would risk further driving consolidation in the industry. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who just joined the committee, said he agreed that ‘any solution needs to be voluntary.’ Noting the demand for USDA conservation programs, he said increased investment in the existing programs ‘must be a top priority.'”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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