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USDA awards $2.8 billion for climate-smart farming projects

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks during a panel discussion Sept. 14 at Penn State University on the USDA’s investment of $2.8 billion in climate-smart commodity projects. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $2.8 billion in a program to incentivize farmers to adopt climate-smart production practices.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the first round of funding awarded to Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Sept. 14 from the main campus of Pennsylvania State University, the lead partner on one of 70 projects funded through the program. The department called the public-private partnership a “historic investment.” 

“You can see that this USDA is really engaged in a new day for American agriculture, one that I think will improve our income, will create more jobs in rural communities and will allow U.S. agriculture to take a leadership role internationally,” Vilsack said before hosting a panel discussion at Penn State in support of the new program.

Details

The funding is being made available through the Commodity Credit Corporation. Many of the projects impact multiple states. Of the 70 projects, 17 will impact Pennsylvania and Ohio and nine will impact West Virginia.

The department originally announced the plan to spend $1 billion on the program. Vilsack said after the USDA was overwhelmed with interest in the projects, they expanded the reach. They received more than 1,000 applications requesting more than $20 billion.

The winning projects are headed up by agribusiness giants, commodity groups and land grant universities, as well as smaller regional or statewide agricultural groups and even one media group, Farm Journal.

Vilsack said more than 50,000 farms will be engaged in the program, involving more than 20 million acres. 

The announcement was short on details for how many of the projects would work, but the big picture is to create markets that allow producers to receive a premium price for their products raised or grown using climate friendly practices. 

Vilsack said during his talk at Penn State that they asked farmers how to create support for climate-smart practices and commodities and designed the funding program around that. He said farmers had a clear and distinct message.

“They wanted to trust them. They wanted a program that was voluntary,” he said. “They wanted a program that created incentives … They wanted it to be market driven. They wanted it to be collaborative, and they wanted to have unique and new partnerships.” 

Discussion

On the panel at Penn State, were four project leaders, including Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture; Andrew Smith, of chief operating officer at Rodale Institute; Armen Kemanian, professor of production systems and modeling at Penn State; and Amy Skoczlas Cole, executive vice president of Farm Journal’s Trust in Food division.

Penn State’s project is called Climate-smart Agriculture that is Profitable, Regenerative, Actionable and Trustworthy, or CARAT for short. The aim of the $25 million project is to work with dairy farmers in Pennsylvania to help them implement climate-smart practices.

Pasa’s project, funded at $55 million, will bring together 20 farming, agroforestry and technology organizations from Maine to South Carolina to enroll farmers in Pasa’s soil health benchmark study, and use open-source software to facilitate ways for farmers to share data amongst themselves and with customers and build on an existing project to create a foodshed map so consumers can find and purchase climate-smart products.

Pasa’s Smith-Brubaker who also runs a longtime organic farm in Juniata County, said many of their farmers are using some climate-smart practices, but they need technical support, funding and peer support to do more. 

She asked the secretary how he’ll know down the road that the program was a success. He said the types of projects they’re funding now will be the new normal.

“I would see us using some of our NRCS resources, seeing our research resources at USDA, seeing some of our marketing efforts all in supportive of an continuation of the work that you all have started so that it becomes part of a normal course of business, not some special project,” Vilsack said. 

CLICK HERE FOR A FULL LIST OF FUNDED PROJECTS

Reaction

Many major agricultural groups applauded the USDA’s efforts to combat climate change through a voluntary, market-driven program. 

Pennsylvania’s own U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15, blasted the administration for spending billions of dollars without Congressional input. Thompson is the minority leader of the House Committee on Agriculture. 

“While I am sure there are worthy projects, USDA is abusing the authorities of the Commodity Credit Corporation to stand up a ‘pilot program’ while ignoring the significant issues facing farmers and ranchers,” he said, in a statement. “It’s as though Secretary Vilsack is intent on having Congress once again limit his ability to use the CCC.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or rachel@farmanddairy.com)

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