Lawmakers, including Pa.’s Thompson, clash over climate in early farm bill talks

Thompson, R-15th District, questioned the USDA’s ability to dole out conservation funding

By: - February 3, 2022 10:48 am

A farmer plants corn into a cover crop of barley. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service/The Missouri Independent).

By Jared Strong

Congressional Democrats on Wednesday touted conservation programs for farmers and ranchers as key tools for limiting agriculture’s impact on the global climate as they took initial steps to create the next farm bill.

One Republican’s response: So what?

“We’ve talked primarily about climate change, and I gotta to be honest with you,” U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Georgia, said in a Wednesday subcommittee meeting of the House Agriculture Committee. “When I’m in my district, I don’t hear anything about climate change.”

He said people are more concerned right now about the cost and availability of fuel and food, and that “the reason for our farm bill is to ensure that we have adequate food supply for this country and that it be efficient and safe.”

The conservation and forestry subcommittee met to review federal conservation programs that are governed by the farm bill, which was last renewed in 2018 and partially expires next year.

The projected cost of the wide-ranging law was about $428 billion over five years, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most of that money — 76% — goes to low-income residents to buy food, but the rest helps mitigate the risks for farmers of low commodity prices and weather-related disasters and funds voluntary conservation programs.

Chief among them is the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside their land from agricultural production to boost soil quality, sequester carbon and prevent fertilizer runoff, among other environmental benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new incentives last year to bolster the program and exceeded its goal of enrolling 4 million new acres across the country.

“It’s the biggest working lands conservation program that we have, and it’s very successful,” said Terry Cosby, chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Cosby conceded under questioning from lawmakers Wednesday that those efforts have been stymied because the program and others like it can be difficult for farmers to navigate and the NRCS has had trouble fully staffing its field offices that help facilitate the program.

He said the NRCS has hired about 3,000 employees in the past two years but is about 700 shy of its maximum of more than 11,000.

In Iowa, the NRCS began reorganizing its field offices in 2020 to triple its number of district conservationists, who advise and consult on USDA programs.

The economic benefits of those programs for farmers is two-fold: They receive up-front payments for setting aside land and later reap the benefits of better soil quality, said Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which oversees the Conservation Reserve Program.

“Conservation equals soil health; soil health equals improved production,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, R-15th District, the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee, questioned whether the Agriculture Department would be ready to dole out a massive increase in funds if the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Plan is eventually approved, according to a published report.

“That money is almost equal to a doubling of funding for the current farm bill conservation programs,” Thompson said, according to Progressive Farmer, an agriculture news website. “A significant portion of the funding is backloaded in the last two years of the bill. Do you believe that the department has the ability to get that money out the door? So, what would that plan look like?”

Cosby told Thompson, whose district sprawls across farmland in north-central Pennsylvania that the agency has undertaken an “aggressive hiring strategy” just to implement the programs it has, the website reported.

“Last year, we were able to bring on a lot of employees,” Cosby said, according to Progressive Farmer.

“We also have a lot of partners across the country,” he continued. “They really help us with this, and we do agreements, and we have a lot of boots on the ground to help do this work. We believe no matter what Congress appropriates we can deliver, and we have the right skill sets, we have the right men and women across the country just to do that.”

According to Progressive Farmer, Thompson told Cosby that he he’s heard from farmers who’d like to see existing conservation dollars get “‘out the door’ under the current scenario.”

“I appreciate your leadership and appreciate the men and women who work at USDA, but what would you have me say to the farmers as I interact with them? I want them to bring their voices to the 2023 farm bill process,” Thompson said, according to the website.

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Virginia, who heads the subcommittee that met Wednesday, has supported legislation that would allow farmers to earn carbon credits they can sell by sequestering carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“While we call them conservation programs, they have climate value,” she said of the USDA programs. “They also have economic value to our rural communities and our producers.”

Jared Strong is a reporter for the Iowa Capital-Dispatch, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared. Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reportting.

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