Federal Climate & Agriculture Legislation Roundup

Posted on Tuesday, June 21st, 2022 by Guest Blogger
Picture from Cathy Day CC BY-NC-ND

Federal Climate & Agriculture Legislation Roundup

This is reposted from National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities and CalCAN is a member. See the original post here.

During the 117th Congress, congressional legislators have introduced a number of bills that aim to address greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in agriculture and transform farms and the food system to better address climate challenges.

The sponsors of the bills below include both Republicans and Democrats, and some bills have clear bipartisan support. As such, the bills represent an upswell of bipartisan support for agricultural climate solutions, but with widely varied approaches. It seems that Congress is becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of climate change on farmers, ranchers, and workers, and many are interested in taking at least modest steps to help farmers to adapt to and mitigate against climate change.

The working lands conservation programs (e.g., the Conservation Stewardship Program) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continue to represent vital ways to offset many of the costs of mitigating GHG emissions and increasing long-term farm resilience. NSAC is especially supportive of legislation that aims to improve the capacity of such programs to respond directly to climate challenges via the working lands programs and CRP.

NSAC endorses the Agriculture Resilience Act, Climate Stewardship Act, Farmers Fighting Climate Change, and the Climate Agricultural Conservation Practices Act as legislation that will support farmers in directly addressing climate challenges as they transform their farms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and better prepare for weather challenges. NSAC and our members are willing to work with all members of Congress to meet the urgent needs to prepare agriculture for a better climate future.

Bills are arranged in order by bill number, starting with bills introduced in the House (Senate bill number included as applicable) and with a relevant House Resolution starting the list. House or House/Senate bills are followed by a bill introduced only in the Senate. 

H.Res. 427 Encouraging the Department of Agriculture to lead efforts, in partnerships with States, localities, universities, and various farming and ranching groups, to prepare for the disruptive transformation of the entire agriculture industry 

This resolution, sponsored by Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ), calls for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to partner with states, localities, universities, and farming and ranching groups to “prepare for the disruptive transformation of the entire agriculture industry.”

It begins by pointing to world population growth and the associated increase in urbanization and loss of agricultural land. It then points to the increasing unpredictability that climate change will bring to weather and water supplies. Next, it highlights the advances in “discovering genetic diversity in plants” that can allow for increased plant species diversification and decrease the risks of substantial losses of a given crop. “Breakthroughs in photosynthesis” to increase yields are noted next. Then, the resolution points to biotechnology, including CRISPR, as “imperative” for creating crops that can survive the conditions outlined at the start of the bill. The bill underlines the safety of genetically modified crops and the associated research undertaken by USDA and universities. As final elements of background, the bill points to the need for outreach to and education for farmers and expanded acceptance of gene-edited crops across borders.

The resolution then calls for the following: to encourage USDA to partner with other entities to prepare for an agricultural transformation, to continue to “promote the safety and effectiveness of biotechnology in agriculture,” and to “promote biotechnology and other modern technologies that will have positive effects for the climate and natural carbon solutions.”

H.R. 1363 Sustainable Agriculture Research Act 

Introduced by Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO), the Sustainable Agriculture Research Act is intended to enhance the role of agriculture in creating innovative sustainability solutions. It amends the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA) pilot to add the  goal of enhancing “the role of agriculture in innovative voluntary resilience solutions in the United States…” The change is intended to allow agricultural technology to address impacts of extreme weather, to increase agricultural carbon sequestration, to improve the feasibility of renewable energy in agriculture, and to increase the “adoption of voluntary conservation practices that sequester carbon and build on-farm climate resilience.”

H.R. 2456 Farmers Fighting Climate Change 

Introduced by Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL), the Farmers Fighting Climate Change bill provides for climate change mitigation bundles in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Climate bundles must assist farmers in reducing GHG emissions or increasing carbon sequestration and improving soil health. NSAC supports the creation of climate bundles for CSP.

H.R. 2508 Naturally Offsetting Emissions by Managing and Implementing Tillage Strategies Act (NO EMITS Act) of 2021 

This bill, sponsored by Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL), aims to optimize agricultural carbon sequestration and net emissions reductions.

The act adds a Soil Health Transition Incentive Program to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The bill requires USDA to help producers transition to soil health systems by providing incentives to do so and by providing technical assistance. Soil health incentive contracts would provide payments for adoption and installation of soil health practices like cover cropping, no till, and minimum till, as well as for the maintenance and improvement of such systems.

Payment would be determined by the “level and extent” of the soil health practice, as well as the costs of its adoption and maintenance and of any income forgone by the producer. For example, a producer might forgo income because of increased economic risk, reductions in yield, or to continue to maintain a soil health system. Contracts for these payments would have terms of 5- 7 years.

Technical assistance (TA) under the program would be individualized and multiyear help with soil health systems. TA providers could include USDA, third party providers, commercial entities, nonprofits, or state or local governments.

The act also adds livestock practices to new or innovative conservation approaches for on-farm conservation trials in the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) system. The act also doubles the annual funding for CIG on-farm trials to $50 million.

In addition, the act adds to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). It creates provisions for a state soil health assistance program. Such programs may include technical assistance, financial assistance, on-farm research and demonstration, education, outreach, training, monitoring, evaluation, or other necessary components. States or Tribes will be eligible to apply for the grants. Applications would need to include performance measures for the soil health program, as well as an assurance that grant funds will be supplemental to state or Tribal funds. Tribes would be able to choose to apply with states. States and Tribes with climate action plans including soil health would receive priority. Grants of up to $5 million or 50 percent of the cost of implementation (75 percent for Tribes), whichever is lower, would be allowed. Grants would be for one year, renewable annually. States and Tribes would be required to submit annual audits and to review their state soil health programs at an interval determined by USDA. States and Tribes could be disqualified for non-compliance with grant terms. The act makes $100 million per year available for the program through 2026. USDA would be able to use just three percent of the funds for administrative expenses, and states and Tribes could use no more than seven percent of their granted funds for administrative expenses.

The act also requires a special initiative to increase technical assistance via the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). Through 2026, the act would require that one percent of each year’s CCC funds be allocated for assisting producers with mitigating and adapting to climate change.

H.R. 2534/S. 1072 Climate Stewardship Act of 2021 

Sponsored in the House by Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and in the Senate by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), the bill includes three titles on agriculture, forests, and coastal wetlands. This summary will focus on Title I–Agriculture.

Title I–Agriculture

The bill ramps up participation in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with acreage increases, up to 40 million acres by 2030, and removes the 15-year time limit on CRP contracts. For the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the legislation adds a climate directive (GHG reduction, carbon sequestration, and adaptation) to the purposes of the program, defines climate stewardship practices, gives the Secretary of Agriculture the right to accord great significance to practices that promote GHG reduction or carbon sequestration. The act also allows the Secretary to prioritize applications that “contain the greatest number of climate stewardship practices.”

As with EQIP, Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) receive a climate directive in the CSA. In addition, it allocates at least $100 million per year to CIG from 2021 through 2030.

In regard to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the CSA adds climate stewardship practices* to the list of practices that can receive supplemental payments. The act also increases funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to $900 million per year through 2030, and for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in steps starting at $3.8 billion in 2021 until it reaches $7 billion for the fiscal years 2024 through 2030. For the Conservation Stewardship Program, the bill increases fiscal year 2021 funding from $750 million to $2.75 billion and raises its funding stepwise until it reaches $7 billion for each year between 2025 and 2030.

Further, the act sets aside funding for EQIP to be used specifically for climate stewardship practices, starting at $2 billion in fiscal year 2021 and rising $1 billion per year until reaching $5 billion per year in 2024 through 2030. It also sets aside CSP funds to be used to enroll contracts whose conservation activities focus predominantly on climate stewardship practices, with the stewardship funding allocated in the same way as it is for EQIP.

The bill also sets aside five percent of funds for EQIP and CSP for “socially disadvantaged” farmers and five percent for beginning farmers and ranchers.

For the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the CSA designates funds for the program, starting at $300 million for 2021-2023 and rising to $1 billion for fiscal years 2028 to 2030.

The act also includes a focus on agricultural research. It designates $830 million to the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) for climate-focused research, with 50 percent focused on climate stewardship practices (reduced emissions, carbon sequestration, soil health, and increased soil carbon). The act also allocates $100 million per year of these funds to the Agriculture Research Service (ARS), with 25 percent of the funds set aside for research “relating to pulse crops, other legumes, and high-biomass crops.” The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) also receives $40 million for climate-focused research. In addition, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program receives a new focus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration, improve soil health, and increase soil carbon levels. The act also adds $74 million to annual SARE funding, in addition to funds already appropriated. Fifty percent of those funds shall be used for climate research. In addition, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) competitive grant program receives the same climate purposes as SARE. OREI also receives an increase in funding from $50 million starting in 2023, to $100 million per year starting in 2022. Again, 50 percent of the funding is designated to climate research. The Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program also receives the same climate purposes under the act. ATTRA receives annual funding of $5.6 million under the bill, with 50 percent dedicated to climate work.

The CSA amends the Hatch Act to assign an additional annual funding of $518 million to states through 2029 for cooperative research with other entities, of which 50 percent is allocated to climate purposes: reducing GHG emissions and increasing resilience in the agriculture sector and communities, increasing soil carbon sequestration, improving soil health, and increasing soil carbon levels.

In addition, the Smith-Lever Act is similarly amended. Annual funding of $649.4 million is allocated to carrying out the act in addition to otherwise authorized amounts. Of that amount, $19.4 million will be allocated to 1994 Institutions. Again, 50 percent of funds are to be used in climate activities, as outlined in the Hatch Act paragraph, above. For Extension at 1890s institutions, an additional $200 million per year is to be allocated until 2029, with 50 percent of funds to be used for climate activities. Similarly, for agricultural research at 1890s institutions, $250 million will be allocated annually through 2029, in addition to any other appropriations. Here, too, 50 percent of funds are to be used for climate-centered research activities. In addition, the purposes of competitive grants from USDA to non-land grant institutions will include climate-focused capacity building. Funding for that work will include $10 million for each fiscal year through 2030, with 50 percent allocated to climate funding.

For the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Act, focused on forestry research, $72 million is allocated per year in the Climate Stewardship Act, with 50 percent allocated to climate-focused forestry research. To 1994 Land Grant Institutions, the act allocates $11.4 million annually for the purposes of agricultural research, with 50 percent of the funds assigned to climate work.

The act also creates mandatory funding for the Conservation Technical Assistance Fund of $2.1 billion annually through 2030, and requires that the program give priority to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) receives the ability to offer loan guarantees and grants to agricultural producers, rural small businesses, and farmer-owned cooperatives to carry out solar projects that include the creation of pollinator habitat. Such projects shall receive priority in funding considerations. The act also increases the cost share for solar pollinator projects from the typical 25 percent to 60 percent. In addition, mandatory funding for REAP is given a substantial boost from $50 million in 2014. After that it rises to $500 million for 2021, $1 billion for 2022, and rising by 2024 to $3 billion per year through 2030. A set-aside of five percent of mandatory funding for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and 5 percent for beginning farmers and ranchers is also created under the program.

The Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) receives a boost from $50 million in mandatory funding starting in 2019 to $500 million in funding starting in 2021.

The CSA also creates a Soil Health Equipment Grant Program. Producers would receive grants to implement Climate Stewardship Practices on eligible land to increase soil health. Priority would be granted to equipment that offers non-chemical termination of cover crops and on-farm composting facilities. Authorized appropriations for the program would be set at $100 million for 2021 through 2030. In addition, the program would include a five percent set-aside each for socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers.

For the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, the act amends the calendar to continue authorized funding at $10 million through 2030.

For Assistance for Community Food Projects, the act increases the size of the maximum grant from $5 million to $25 million. In addition, the act adds an additional preferred project type that addresses food security in low-income communities through the creation or expansion of urban growing spaces that grow produce for personal use or local sale, such as farm stands and community-supported agriculture subscriptions. In addition, the act calls for $25 million of Commodity Credit Corporation funding each year through 2030.

*The act defines climate stewardship practices as those on the following list:

  • alley cropping,
  • biochar incorporation,
  • compost application,
  • conservation activity plans,
  • conservation cover,
  • conservation crop rotation,
  • contour buffer strips,
  • contour farming,
  • cover crops,
  • critical area planting,
  • cross wind trap strips,
  • field borders,
  • filter strips,
  • forage and biomass planting (including use of native prairie and seed mixtures),
  • forest stand improvement,
  • grassed waterways,
  • hedgerow planting,
  • herbaceous wind barriers,
  • irrigation water management,
  • mulching to improve soil health,
  • multi-story cropping,
  • nutrient management,
  • pollinator or beneficial insect or monarch habitat establishment,
  • prescribed grazing,
  • range planting,
  • residue and tillage management with no till,
  •  residue and tillage management with reduced till,
  • riparian forest buffers,
  • silvopasture establishment,
  • strip-cropping,
  • tree and shrub establishment,
  • upland wildlife habitat,
  • vegetative barriers,
  • wetland restoration,
  • windbreak renovation,
  • windbreaks and shelterbelts,
  • woody residue treatment, any other highly effective vegetative or management practice that significantly reduces agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, increases carbon sequestration, or assists producers in adapting to or mitigating against increasing weather volatility, as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture.

The Climate Stewardship Act also includes Title II–Forests and Title III–Coastal Wetlands, but they are not covered in this blog post because they are not agricultural topics on which NSAC advocates.

H.R. 2581 Biochar Innovations and Opportunities for Conservation, Health, and Advancements in Research (BIOCHAR) Act of 2021 

Representative Yvette Harrell (R-NM) introduced the BIOCHAR bill to establish a biochar demonstration project and biochar grant program.

Within two years, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy would be required to establish partnerships with eligible entities for the creation of projects that demonstrate the development and commercialization of biochar. Eligible institutions include land grant colleges and universities, including 1862 (Morrill Act), 1890 (historically Black), McIntire-Stennis (forestry research), and 1994 (Tribal) land grant institutions. The act stipulates a preference for one demonstration project in each Forest Service region.

Eligible entities would be required to submit proposals for funding for biochar demonstration sites. Priority would be given to projects that have the most carbon sequestration potential, create new jobs (particularly for rural areas); demonstrate new and innovative uses of biochar, viable markets for cost-effective biochar products, ecosystem services of biochar, benefits of biochar for restoring forest health and resiliency; or are located in markets that have the greatest need for biochar production units due to presence of high-risk wildfire areas, sufficient available feedstocks, or a high level of demand for biochar.

In using demonstration site funds, the Secretaries may carry out demonstration projects that test feedstock, develop commercially viable biochar production units, demonstrate biochar production from forest residues, build and expand biochar facilities, or conduct research on new and innovative or cost-effective uses of biochar.

The bill requires that at least 50 percent of biochar feedback in demonstration projects be derived from forest thinning and management activities, including mill residues, on National Forest lands.

In addition, the bill requires the Secretaries to conduct regionally specific research including economic and life-cycle assessments on biochar produced from demonstration projects. Research topics should include the effects of biochar on forest health and resiliency; carbon capture and sequestration; effects on agricultural productivity, water retention, and reduced input costs; soil and grassland health for grazing; environmental remediation such as mine land remediation; other ecosystem services of biochar; the efficacy of biochar as a co-product of biofuels or biochemicals.

H.R. 2606 Sponsoring USDA Sustainability Targets in Agriculture to Incentivize Natural Solutions Act (SUSTAINS) Act of 2021

The House Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, Representative G.T. Thompson (R-PA), introduced the SUSTAINS Act. It creates authority to establish public-private partnership contribution accounts for covered programs.

It lists the following as its purposes: to address climate change, sequester carbon, improve wildlife habitat, protect sources of drinking water, and address other natural resource priorities.

Funds may be matched by the Secretary. Funders can designate the program and the geographic area to which they want funds to flow. Under a procedure established by the Secretary, funders would also be able to identify the natural resource concern to which funds should be directed, and their name/brand can be associated with the use of the funds.

The program dictates that priority be given to socially disadvantaged, limited resource, and beginning farmers and ranchers.

Sale of ecosystem benefits from activities funded are to be negotiated between producers and the entity that contributed the funds. Easements under the program are subject to the requirements of the covered program for which funds were used, except that the Secretary can modify requirements of the easement for the purpose of addressing climate change, as the Secretary determines appropriate.

Covered programs include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Farmable Wetlands Program, pilot programs, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the Emergency Watershed Program (EWP), and Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention (WPFP) (except section 14, relating to repairs to structures).

H.R. 2613/S. 1189 Conservation and Innovative Climate Partnership Act of 2021 

Sponsored by Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN), the bill would establish a competitive grant program under which the Secretary of Agriculture provides grants to land-grant colleges and universities to support agricultural producers in adopting conservation and innovative climate practices. The bill provides competitive grants to land grant universities (LGUs), including those first established under the Morrill Act in 1862, institutions created in the 1890 update to the Morrill Act to support Black land grant universities, and land grant Tribal colleges as designated in 1994, to increase voluntary adoption of conservation practices and innovative climate practices through public awareness campaigns, workshops, and specialized technical assistance.

Eligibility for grants will be determined by application to the Secretary of Agriculture. Institutions applying must demonstrate that they will increase their interaction with local agricultural producers by at least 25 percent. They must also make clear that they will assist farmers with new conservation practices or innovative climate practices on farms or field edges, or that they will help farmers improve existing practices. In addition, they should demonstrate how they will assist producers in implementing practices that improve overall conservation or that decrease GHG emissions or sequester carbon.

Further, institutions applying should carry out the project with at least one other entity, including non-profit organizations, States, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and/or another LGU.

Grants will not exceed $400,000.

Institutions may use grants to support implementation of conservation or climate practices, for staffing needed to carry out the project, for workshops and associated hard-copy materials that provide directions for accessing technical assistance for adopting conservation practices and innovative climate practices, or for measurement of appropriate indicators of effectiveness of conservation practices (e.g. soil testing). No more than 30 percent of the amount of a grant is to be used for administrative expenses.

Grant duration must be at least four years.

Appropriations for the program are authorized at $13 million per fiscal year.

H.R. 2757 Climate Agricultural Conservation Practices Act 

Introduced by Representative Julia Brownly (D-CA), the Climate Agricultural Conservation Practices Act requires additional review of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Practice Standards (CPSs), with a deadline of five years after the passage of the act. In addition to further general review, the act adds the stipulation that the CPSs be evaluated for their climate benefits. Climate benefits are defined as GHG emissions reductions, increased carbon sequestration, or mitigation against or adaptation to increased weather volatility.

H.R. 2803/S. 1337 Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA)

Sponsored by Representative Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Heinrich (D-NM), the ARA is a comprehensive climate bill for agriculture that ensures all farmers have access to the resources they need to implement the on-farm changes they want to see. NSAC has written in detail about the ARA, and you can find our blog series here.

H.R. 2820/S. 1251 Growing Climate Solutions Act (GCSA) of 2021 

Introduced by Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Senator Mike Braun (R-IN), the bill authorizes USDA to establish a voluntary Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program to make participation in voluntary environmental credit markets easier for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. Eligible entities include technical assistance providers for farmers, ranchers, or private forest owners who assist with the reduction or mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and third-party verifiers that conduct the verification of processes described in protocols for voluntary environmental credit markets.

“USDA is required to publish 1) a list of protocols and qualifications; 2) information describing how entities may self-certify; 3) information describing how entities may obtain the expertise to meet the protocols and qualifications; and 4) instructions and suggestions to assist farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners in facilitating the development of agriculture or forestry credits and accessing voluntary environmental credit markets.

“USDA must also establish an advisory council to make recommendations regarding the list of protocols and qualifications, best practices, and voluntary environmental credit markets.

“The bill also rescinds certain funds provided in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and makes the funds available for the certification program.”

H.R. 4443/S. 2388 Cultivating Organic Matter through the Promotion of Sustainable Techniques Act  (COMPOST Act) 

Introduced by Representative Brownley (D-CA) and Senator Booker (D-NJ), the bill requires that compost be designated a conservation practice, and provides loans and grants for composting facilities and programs.

Under the Commodity Credit Corporation’s conservation standards and requirements, the act adds composting as a conservation practice and activity. Composting is defined as producing compost from organic waste generated on a farm, or waste brought to a farm from a nearby community, as well as the use and management of compost on the farm, in line with local, state and federal law. The Secretary of Agriculture is given the authority to determine whether a community is nearby for the purposes of creating a reduction in net GHG emissions.

Composting is also added as a conservation activity in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

The bill also creates grants and loan guarantees for composting under the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act. Managed by the Secretary of Agriculture in consultation with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the grants permit 75 percent cost share for the cost of a compost project, up to $5 million. In addition, 25 percent of the funding for the program is to be allocated to projects that do not use centralized compost facilities–defined as facilities that produce at least 10,000 tons of compost annually. Entities are expected to expend grants within three years. Grants are available to states, Tribes, K-12 and higher educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, farmers, ranchers, and consortiums of any of the above, including in coordination with for-profit entities.

For loan guarantees, loan amounts cannot exceed 80 percent of the project cost, up to $5 million. Eligible entities for loans are farmers, ranchers, and for-profit entities with experience in developing, managing, and marketing composting facilities. Projects can include composting facilities or sites, acquisition of necessary machinery and facilities, activities to increase throughput, implementing of onsite composting systems, projects that are based on distributed infrastructure (e.g. home and farm composting), collection of organic waste intended for composting, activities for land-based composting, and market development projects for composting.

When applying for loans, entities must demonstrate that the project will result in composting of food waste, result in increased total capacity to accept and process food waste into a finished product, and include at least one operator of a facility or system who is trained on best management practices for composting. , For a market development project, entities must demonstrate that the project is likely to create sufficient demand to increase total capacity in the targeted market to process food waste into high-quality compost. In the case of land-based compost application activities, the project must be consistent with conservation standards outlined in the Commodity Credit Corporation statute.

The Secretary will prioritize projects with the highest number of the following factors: the project is located in or serving locations with significant access to food waste and limited prior access to food waste composting, has the potential to create significant new capacity to process food waste into compost, includes a plan using best management practices, includes the participation of small and diverse businesses (including minority-, woman-, and veteran-owned businesses certified by the Small Business Administration), the project creates opportunities for hiring and leadership development practices that are inclusive and provide living wages, and the project is for a facility or system that accepts or plans to accept and process only source separated organics.

Projects may only receive one grant or loan. The bill authorizes $200 million per year for ten years.

H.R. 4763 Future of Agricultural Resiliency and Modernization (FARM) Act

Sponsored by Rep. Josh Harder, D-CA, the Future of Agricultural Resiliency and Modernization Act is intended to allow USDA to award grants to improve agricultural resiliency and modernization.

In a preamble, the bill underscores the firm evidence for human-induced climate change and its associated impacts, including severe weather. In addition, the preamble points to the ways in which rural communities are especially vulnerable to climate impacts, including revenue losses and infrastructure damages. A consequent need, according to the bill, is for climate resilient practices and technologies, including manure resource recovery systems. Measures to improve energy and water use efficiency and add renewable energies, it says, are also necessary to reduce the effects of climate change. Further, agricultural producers are often already using environmentally and economically beneficial practices, notes the bill.

Next, the bill indicates that with a changing climate, risks to agricultural workers increase from excessive heat exposure. The bill also points to the need to make dairy digesters more affordable, including through creating cooperative digester models and using EPA’s AgSTAR program. Further, the bill calls for USDA to engage with other Federal agencies to control invasive species, and to offer more federal assistance to help farmers develop more resilient practices. With that item, the preamble ends.

The meat of the bill calls on USDA to create a grants program open to federal agencies, states, local governments, irrigation districts, Tribal governments, state or regional transit agencies, nonprofits, “special purpose district[s],” private entities, and any other entity.

The grant funds are to be used to “further agricultural resilience and modernization” by reducing GHG emissions, increasing carbon sequestration, improving soil health, providing ecosystem service benefits (e.g., water supply, ecosystem preservation), increasing renewable energy, involving local communities in “project planning on economic and social benefits of sustainable agricultur[e],” “investing in climate-resilient infrastructure and technology,” converting plant wastes (e.g., through pyrolysis), improving air and water quality with digesters and other manure management processes, developing local resilience strategies, supporting and funding purchases of reduced emissions agriculture equipment, and increasing research to control invasive species. For all of the above, the bill authorizes appropriations of $500 million per year.

Next the bill creates a pyrolysis innovation fund grant program under which at least 10 pilot programs will be created to convert tree nut harvest by-products into “higher value biocarbon products,” including sustainable industrial applications and agrochemicals, among others. Eligible entities for these grants would include private entities in agriculture, nongovernmental organizations, and governmental organizations. The bill requires a report to the House on the pilot programs within two years of the first grant award. Reports would include activities undertaken, best practices developed, and an assessment of the results. For this section, the bill authorizes appropriations of $5 million per year through 2026.

Senate-only bill

S. 1356 Healthy Soils Healthy Climate Act of 2021 

Sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, the bill creates permanent payments within the environmental quality incentives program (EQIP) for soil health practices and carbon sequestration monitoring.

The act adds increasing soil carbon levels to the set of practices considered high priority and eligible for 90 percent cost share rather than the 75 percent available to other projects.

The act also provides for incentive payments for producers who adopt soil health practices to increase soil carbon. Practices must improve soil health or increase carbon sequestration. Under the act, the Secretary of Agriculture will establish protocols for measuring organic carbon levels before and after practices receiving incentive payments are used. Priority for incentive payments will be to small, rural and/or socially disadvantaged farmers.

The bill commissions a study to be completed within two years of passage to report changes in soil health and soil organic carbon levels as a result of the act. Further, results will be reported to Congress within two years and then every two years thereafter. The report would analyze how practices affect soil carbon levels singularly or in combination, any lessons learned that are transferable to other regions, and the barriers to data collection.

The act also requires that $100 million of funding be used for soil health incentive payments in each fiscal year.

In addition, however, the act removes soil health demonstration trials from the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program as well as reporting on the associated study required biannually of the Secretary of Agriculture.

The act also sets a priority within EQIP such that the Secretary is expected to manage the program to promote practices that include soil health or increased soil organic carbon levels as a benefit. The Secretary is expected to develop ranking and scoring criteria to prioritize practices that score highest on soil carbon sequestration and to develop a soil organic carbon conservation activity plan to measure and monitor sequestration and mitigation improvement levels from such practices.

A call for streamlining and coordination in the act includes a requirement for the Secretary to coordinate between both EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and to streamline procedures including applications, contracting, conservation planning, conservation practices, and related administration.

Finally, the act establishes a program providing land-grant colleges and universities as well as USDA research stations with grants to conduct research related to soil health and carbon science.

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