OMAHA (DTN) -- When talking about his climate plan, former Vice President Joe Biden almost always turns at some point to agriculture, farmers and his plan that would expand the Conservation Stewardship Program.
In his ABC town hall Oct. 15, Biden pointed to using technology to get to net-zero emissions for energy, but then turned his attention to agriculture. "I've laid out a plan where we allow significantly more land to be put in conservation, plant deep-rooted plants, which absorb carbon from the air and, in fact, pay farmers to do it," Biden said.
He added that poultry and cattle manure can be pelletized and the methane removed "to use it as fertilizer and make a lot of money doing it."
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is one of USDA's working lands programs, meant to provide incentives for farmers to apply additional conservation practices on crop land and pasture. Farmers sign five-year contracts and traditionally have been able to re-enroll to extend the contract.
PLAN HIGHLIGHTS CSP
Biden's rural plan specifically highlights CSP. "In addition to seeking full federal funding for the program, Biden will ensure the program can participate in carbon markets." Biden's blurb on CSP adds, "Soil is the next frontier for storing carbon."
Biden's CSP plan has also had to ward off some false claims on Facebook. Reuters reported posts shared "tens of thousands of times" claimed Biden wants farmers to put their farmland into "land banks" and the federal government would tell them what they could plant. Biden had used the term "land banks" to sequester carbon in a CNN town hall event back in September.
USDA earlier this month published the final rule on how CSP will operate until the next farm bill. The final rule drew criticism from groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and National Farmers Union on how USDA tightens rules on contract renewals while also expanding payment limits under the program. State offices now announce the sign-up periods for CSP and contract renewals begin in the first half of the last year of a five-year contract.
"They wanted to rush this thing and for them, this is really fast to go to a final rule," said Ferd Hoefner, a senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "They wanted to rush it because they didn't want to allow Biden appointees to have a chance to write this rule."
USDA maintains the program has streamlined applications to make it easier for farmers to enroll in CSP. The program also "to the maximum extent feasible" will be used to improve soil health as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) seeks to address soil health as a priority.
"This is a streamline process so that they are all evaluated in a very common flow and if CSP is the best place for them, we take them that way; if it's EQIP, they can go without having to come in and file a completely different application," said Kevin Norton, acting chief for NRCS.
LESS FUNDING IN 2018 FARM BILL
CSP ended up with less funding and support in the final negotiations for the 2018 farm bill, going from $9 billion to $3.975 billion over five years. Overall, the 2018 farm bill had $5 billion less built into its baseline for conservation than the previous farm bill. That could possibly translate into a "rude awakening" once talks begin for the next farm bill, Hoefner said. "They are going to realize, oh yeah, we cut $5 billion out of the conservation title the last go around so we don't have that to spend."
Under the 2018 farm bill, the $18 per-acre payment was eliminated to have the program a dollar amount per farm. In FY 2019, USDA spent $1.4 billion on CSP with about $1.17 billion in payments to farmers and another $267 million in technical assistance. Mississippi farmers received the most funding at $89.6 million, followed by Nebraska ($73.2 million); Texas ($71.8 million); Oklahoma ($66.2 million); and Arkansas ($65.4 million).
Prior farm bills allowed for automatic renewal of CSP contracts for farmers who lived up to the terms of the original agreement; they could qualify for renewal by adding additional conservation practices. Under the 2018 farm bill, the contracts are competitive for a more limited pot of money. Under the new rule, USDA acknowledges roughly 40% of annual funds will go for renewals and 60% for new contracts. The overall cut in spending reduces both the number of renewals and new contracts for the program.
WAITING TO COMPETE
USDA also added a clause in the CSP rule stating that farmers rejected for renewal now have to wait at least two years before applying for CSP again. "They are saying there's not enough money to go around so you have to compete, and if you don't get a new contract, then we're going to prevent you from applying for CSP again for two full years," Hoefner said. "There's nothing like that in the statute, so they just completely made it up. You're penalizing farmers because Congress didn't put enough money in the program."
Boosting payments to larger farmers will cut into the acreage USDA can enroll annually in the program. USDA kept the expanded payment limits to $400,000 for a farm couple or joint applicants that was part of its interim rule in 2019. USDA noted those larger payments to single farms would take up on average $43.7 million annually that would reduce overall participation by other farmers wanting to get into the program by roughly 658,000 acres, or about 9.1% of the total program.
BIG DIFFERENCE IN BIDEN/TRUMP PROGRAMS
Roger Johnson, former president of the National Farmers Union, is part of Biden's agricultural advisory team. He said a big difference with Biden and the Trump administration on CSP and other conservation programs is how climate change would be viewed.
"And so, to the degree that you can line up incentives from government-sponsored programs, like CSP, and CRP and EQUIP and others, with the science around not just soil health, but water health and in climate science, I think you build a much stronger and more compelling case for them," Johnson said. He added, "And you also open up the likelihood that you are going to be able to build private-sector markets more effectively."
The expectation is that expanded CSP would help lead farmers into carbon markets to sequester carbon in the soil. A bill in Congress, the "Growing Climate Solutions Act," would create a certification program at USDA to reduce technical barriers for farmers and landowners who want to participate in carbon-credit markets. Biden's plan effectively marries up CSP with carbon markets as well. The Growing Climate Solutions Act has bipartisan support and is often compared to USDA's organic certification program. The bill, though, doesn't set standards for who would be accredited to certify farmers. It would allow the businesses that sell the carbon credits to also act as the certification agent.
"The companies want to be able to run the whole show, but it's not legit," Hoefner said. "There has to be independent third parties doing the accreditation and you can't have the verifiers being always of the company. It makes no sense ... There's a serious conflict of interest there."
On Thursday, a coalition of 222 environmental, animal-welfare, faith-based groups and some agricultural groups wrote Congress urging them to oppose the Growing Climate Solutions Act. The group stated they oppose carbon markets overall because such markets do not reduce carbon emissions. The groups stated, "While agriculture and land management can play key roles in addressing the warming climate, this legislation will allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue unchecked and will undermine efforts to build a healthy, sustainable, and resilient food system."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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