Yesterday, speaking at the National Press Club, USDA Secretary Vilsack addressed the present and future challenges in agriculture brought on by our changing climate – challenges “new and different than anything we’ve ever tackled.” The Secretary recognized the unique regional challenges that farmers and ranchers are experiencing around the country – extreme precipitation in the Northeast, drought in the West and Southwest, and increasing temperatures across the board – and emphasized the need to adapt to these, and other, climate change effects. The Secretary additionally recognized agriculture’s potential to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in particular by storing (or sequestering) carbon in soils.
In his speech, the Secretary announced three new measures that USDA will take to help farmers toward these goals: (1) Regional Climate Hubs, (2) NRCS Soil Carbon Management and Evaluation Tools, and (3) Cover Crop Guidelines.
Regional Climate Hubs
Through Regional Climate Hubs, USDA aims to help farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners develop adaptation strategies by providing regionally-specific risk and vulnerability assessments. These Hubs will likely be located in existing USDA service centers, but may also operate in collaboration with Land Grand and Public Universities, Extension offices, and Agricultural Experiment Stations to improve forecasting and develop and provide science-based risk management tools.
NRCS Soil Carbon Tools
This measure focuses on two new online tools relating to agriculture’s ability to sequester carbon in the soil. The first tool is an online database that provides access to the results of NRCS’ Rapid Carbon Assessment – a soil survey containing over 144,000 samples at 6,000 locations across the country. This tool is geared toward scientists and researchers looking to investigate regional variations in soil carbon, land use, and management and conservation practices.
The second tool – the Carbon Management and Evaluation Tool (or “COMET-Farm”) – provides an online platform for farmers to analyze the GHG footprint of their operations. Using COMET-Farm, farmers can input information on their specific operation and management practices and then generate an analysis of the GHG emissions and carbon sequestration that could result by implementing various conservation practices.
The third measure is the result of an inter-agency project among USDA’s NRCS, Risk Management Agency (RMA), and Farm Service Agency (FSA) to establish guidelines for terminating cover crops while retaining eligibility for RMA and FSA programs. In addition to carbon sequestration, cover crops provide other benefits, such as preventing erosion and improving soil health, yet crop insurance and commodity payment programs have been structured in a way that discourage farmers from planting cover crops. NRCS, RMA, and FSA – together with stakeholders, universities, and industry groups – developed a science-based guidance to provide consistency across USDA programs and assurance to farmers who want to plant cover crops and remain eligible for crop insurance and commodity program payments.
Under existing RMA and FSA rules, producers risk losing access to crop insurance and some commodity support programs if they fail to terminate planted cover crops by a certain date. However, the dates and rules relating to termination have been inconsistent both within and across regions. In the past, some FSA and RMA regional offices have periodically issued special provisions to modify termination dates. The new USDA inter-agency guidance establishes cover crop kill dates across four zones.
A More Sustainable Agriculture
As NSAC has noted in our Agriculture and Climate Change Position Paper and in letters toCongress, not only do sustainable and organic agricultural systems offer the most resilience for agricultural production in the face of increasingly uncertain regional climate effects, but these practices can also mitigate GHGs. Sustaining and expanding programs that support diversified sustainable and organic agriculture and additional conservation measures – including preventing erosion and wetland draining by re-linking conservation requirements to crop insurance subsidies – as well as investing in on-farm energy efficiency and appropriate renewable energy generation, will improve farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to focus on adaptation while providing mitigation benefits as well.