Witnesses outline challenges to farm climate plan

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2021

Lawmakers trying to entice farmers to save carbon in their soil will have to address a challenge if their market-based approach is going to work, witnesses told the Senate Agriculture Committee yesterday: how to recognize farmers who’ve been doing so for years.

Giving early adopters of climate-smart farming a piece of the profits from climate change programs emerged as a key issue at an Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearing on climate policy yesterday — and no one has quite figured out how to do that.

“Right now everybody wants new carbon,” Cori Wittman Stitt, farmer adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, said at the committee’s first policy hearing this year. “Very few companies right now seem willing to pay for any past performance, and there are huge risks with that approach.”

Early adopters of carbon-smart farming took on financial risk to invest in practices that save or sequester carbon, especially in the ground. In some cases, they’ve accepted reduced crop yields in pursuit of those approaches, believing they were on the right side of the climate change issue.

Those farmers need a pathway into any carbon markets being planned with help from Congress and the Department of Agriculture, Stitt said.

She described that problem in response to questions from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who noted that farmers in his state have been practicing no-till farming — in which the soil isn’t plowed before new crops are planted — for so long that now at least half of South Dakota’s crops are grown that way.

Reduced tillage means less carbon is released into the atmosphere. Conservationists have embraced it for years, as well, because plowing disrupts microorganisms that make the soil more productive over time.

Missing an opportunity to reward farmers who took on such practices years ago would be one of the biggest policy mistakes possible in framing a climate policy built around agriculture, said Clay Pope, a member of the National Farmers Union from Loyal, Okla., who testified.

Yesterday’s hearing reflected a consensus that’s emerged on the committee that climate change is real and that farmers have a unique ability to address it because of agriculture’s ability to sequester carbon.

But there are divisions over details of any carbon market, and Republican members remain adamant that farmers should not be compelled to participate, especially as a condition of enrolling in other farm programs.

Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) have had the lead legislation on the issue, called the “Growing Climate Solutions Act.” They’ll reintroduce it within a few weeks, Stabenow said. The bill would help create a certification system for confirming carbon sequestration on farms.

Some of the committee’s actions are bound to wait until the 2023 farm bill, which authorizes the full array of USDA programs.

One witness yesterday, Mark Isbell, a rice farmer in Arkansas, urged the panel not to pursue a climate program at the expense of existing conservation efforts like the Conservation Stewardship Program at the USDA.

So far, Isbell said, carbon markets haven’t been very successful on a small scale. He joked that his return on a related pilot program was so small that if asked to buy someone drinks with the proceeds, he would have only enough for one. “If we are to succeed, it’s vital to get the details right,” Isbell said.

Meanwhile, Isbell said, USDA conservation programs for land that’s kept in farm production — which go along with carbon sequestration goals — are “severely underfunded.”

Conservation programs can be a sticking point in farm bill negotiations, and some don’t have budget “baselines” headed into the bill, meaning lawmakers have greater discretion not to fund them or to cut them sharply.

In the 2018 farm bill, House Republicans tried to slash the Conservation Stewardship Program, for instance, while boosting other initiatives, which riled sustainable agriculture groups.

The Senate pushed back on that idea, and Stabenow said yesterday that she wants to pursue a climate program without taking resources away from other initiatives.