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USDA conservation program seen as way to help battle climate change

Incentives are seen as critical to increasing participation in a program that could help the Biden administration reach climate goals.
A farmer stands in his field of grass which is part of the Conservation Reserve Program near Corydon, Iowa, on July 26, 2013.
A farmer in a field near Corydon, Iowa, that is part of the Conservation Reserve Program, in 2013.Charlie Riedel / AP file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s administration passed its 50th day in power this week and, with just a few exceptions, the Senate confirmation process for his Cabinet is nearing completion. Now many federal agencies are turning their attention toward pursuing one of the president’s primary agenda items: battling climate change.

At the Department of Agriculture, a decades-old program could be key to engaging farmers in this fight, if Congress and industry groups can get on board.

The Conservation Reserve Program was established in 1985 to combat soil erosion and allows farmers to apply for funding in exchange for taking their land out of crop production and planting organisms that improve soil and air quality instead. Since its establishment, the program has been reauthorized in Congress’ federal farm bill every four or five years.

Last year, the program saw an under-enrollment by more than 4 million acres compared to the target established by Congress. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is confident that the department can bolster enrollment and use the program to tackle climate change, too.

“We think we can do some things that will increase the incentives and make it more likely that we can get farmers to enroll,” said Robert Bonnie, a senior adviser on climate and the deputy chief of staff for policy at the USDA.

Increasing the financial incentives is the best way to encourage farmers to sign up for the program, industry groups say.

“The incentive payments are probably going to have to be stronger, in order to get the farmers to sign up, and that’s what we would like to see,” said Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former deputy agriculture secretary.

But, not everyone thinks that more farmers should be enrolled in the program, even if incentives are increased.

The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, “encourages farmers to relinquish productive land while demand is not decreasing," and that "leads to higher costs for the consumer, hurts local agriculture suppliers and is an opportunity for foreign competitors to take our place in the market,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a statement. “We should be focused on encouraging producers to join the market and expanding opportunities for them, not asking them to engage in a restrictive buyout they might later regret.”

Still, the environmental benefits of the CRP could be key to helping the USDA work toward the Biden administration’s climate goals, and Conner says farmers are eager to take on climate change with the existing program.

“My sense among our co-ops and their members who are farmers is that there’s becoming more and more of an awareness of their practices, particularly as they relate to climate,” Conner said. “And, you know, there is a desire, I think, to be proactive among many, many of the producers that we represent through cooperatives.”

One of the ways the CRP already helps mitigate the impact of climate change is by requiring farmers who take land out of agriculture production to plant cover crops on their land. These cover crops, often native trees and grasses, were originally intended to increase wildlife habitat and prevent soil erosion.

The climate benefits of the program are two-fold. First, the cover crops improve carbon sequestration, the process by which plants capture and hold onto carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This reduces the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

Second, on CRP lands where cover crops are planted, farmers don’t use the same fertilizer or industrial machinery that they use on crop lands, which contribute heavily to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2018, the USDA estimated that agriculture and forestry accounted for 10.5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that year.

“We think if we target the right lands and target those environmentally sensitive lands and put the right practices on those lands that have the most benefit for the public and to the environment, that there’s a lot more that this program can do,” Bonnie said.

It seems easy enough to increase incentive payments and enroll more land in the CRP to combat agriculture’s effect on climate change, but even those generally supportive of the program have their reservations about increasing enrollment.

“Our members recognize that if we take an acre of land out of production here in this country, there’s going to be an acre of land put into production somewhere else in the world that would produce the same food,” and increasing competition for U.S. farmers, said Don Parrish, the senior director for regulatory relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, one of the agriculture industry’s largest trade groups.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has some of his own farmland enrolled in the CRP. He applied to enroll 145 of his total 1,800 acres into the CRP in 1986 and that land remains in the program.

Tester says he recognizes the potential positive impacts of combating climate change from the program, but hopes that any increase in enrollment doesn’t adversely affect the local economies in his state like it did when the program began in the 1980s.

“What happened in the '80s was an unintended consequence, but it dried up rural America big time. And when that land came out of the CRP, most of it has either been farmed or bought up by the big guys,” Tester said. “So those little farms ain’t never coming back. We have to be careful not to do that again.”