Clash over climate change funding emerging in farm bill debate

WASHINGTON — As lawmakers begin to envision the next farm bill, some Republicans in the US House of Representatives are wary of making climate change a priority for farmers and ranchers.

Republicans’ backlash at a hearing on Tuesday came as the Biden administration sought to make significant new investments in climate protection on farmland, announcing 70 pilot projects to support climate-friendly food production last week.

Legislatures must rewrite the Comprehensive Farm Code every five years to set policy and funding for farming, conservation, and food programs. The next farm bill is due in 2023, and some environmental groups see it as a potential boon for tackling climate change.

It’s also unclear which party will control the US House and Senate after November’s midterm elections.

The Farm Bill provides massive funding for conservation programs — the previous legislation earmarked nearly $30 billion over five years.

According to a Farm Bureau analysis, more than 140 million acres of farmland in the United States currently receive conservation-related financial and technical assistance from the federal government. For comparison, the national park system encompasses more than 85 million acres, according to the National Park Service.

Farmland protection programs have had bipartisan support in the past, but some Republicans expressed concern Tuesday about a growing interest in climate protection on farmland.

“Congress needs to be aware of this massive amount of funding before changing programs or making policy changes that align programs with climate. No concern about natural resources should be prioritized over any other,” California Republican Douglas LaMalfa said at a testimony before a panel of the House Agriculture Committee.

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LaMalfa is currently the senior Republican on the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee.

New money at hand

It is about how the conservation programs in the next Farm Bill will be designed, as well as how to manage an additional cash injection from the recently passed Anti-Inflation Law.

This legislation, passed by the House and Senate in August, includes a slew of programs to address climate change, including more than $20 billion for climate investments in farmland. These include supporting no-till, cover crops, or other programs that impair the soil’s ability to hold carbon.

According to analysis by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, this will represent an increase of about 47% over previous agricultural bills.

For his part, however, the top Republican on the entire board indicated that he would rather go his own way when it comes to controlling the financing.

“I am not bound by the level of funding or the specific program allocation passed in the partisan IRA bill. I’m particularly concerned about using all the new money just for climate instead of letting the locally-led process work,” Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican, told colleagues at the hearing.

Republicans were critical of the new USDA initiative.

“We brought the White House together with my peers on behalf of this climate god, this new world religion, who today pose a real threat to the family farm,” said Rep. Rick Allen, a Republican from Georgia.

Climate-friendly raw materials

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that the government would invest $2.8 billion in pilot projects.

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The Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program will fund programs to reduce greenhouse gases on dairy farms and projects to build markets for climate-friendly beef, grains and fruits and vegetables.

“Private sector and consumer interest in climate-friendly grown food is strong and growing,” Vilsack said in a statement announcing the new programs.

The Ministry of Agriculture is planning a second round of funding for further pilot projects later this year.

According to the USDA, applicants submitted more than 450 project proposals for this first funding pool. The money came from the Commodity Credit Corporation, a government corporation established in 1933 that has traditionally funded foreign market development projects, price supports, domestic farm revenues, and conservation programs.

Vilsack and other Democrats see farmers as key players in fighting climate change. According to the EPA, agriculture was responsible for just over 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.

Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, who chairs the conservation subcommittee, said she hopes to work with farmers on climate programs.

“We are committed to finding efficiencies on the farm and increasing the bottom line for growers, ensuring we fight the climate crisis with the first conservationists who are our country’s farmers and growers,” Spanberger said at the conclusion of the hearing .

The hearing is one in a series in preparation for the Farm Bill 2023.

High demand

Farm Bill conservation programs pay farmers to make environmental improvements on farmed land or to replace crops on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land.

Despite the funding increases in recent farm bills, producer demand for the programs still exceeds the availability of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency within the Department of Agriculture that oversees most conservation programs.

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“NRCS remains oversubscribed,” said Nicole Berg, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Since the 2018 Farm Bill, wheat farmers have secured 7,500 contracts in conservation programs, but another 5,000 valid applications from wheat farmers have not been funded, according to Berg.

“Noting that a significant number of local producers want to attend but are unable to do so is a good call for action for us going forward,” Spanberger said.

Other growers have complained that the application process is lengthy and can take months to get a response – which can be especially problematic when growers want to address a pressing issue on their land.

“We were in a drought and needed new water infrastructure, that was our biggest dilemma. I applied to the NRCS, and we waited and waited, but ended up having to bite the bullet and do the project myself,” Shayne Wiese, a rancher from Manning, Iowa, told the committee — noting that new farmers and ranchers may not be able to finance the project themselves.

Legislators agreed that they would like to support staffing for NRCS and an easier application process for producers.

“I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here. What we need are sensible adjustments to ensure programs serve their producers and their country well,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, a Washington Democrat.

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