BLACKBURN, Mo. (DTN) -- Robert Bonnie, USDA's undersecretary for farm production and conservation, jumped in a tractor and helped plant cereal rye as a cover crop on a Missouri farm on Wednesday.
He -- along with other USDA staff, representatives from commodity organizations for corn, soybean and pork producers, and a handful of area farmers --- descended on Bredehoeft Farms in Lafayette County to highlight one of 70 projects that recently received funding under the department's new Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities pilot program.
USDA initially announced $1 billion for the program in February. The funding opportunity generated considerable interest from the industry, generating 450 applications for projects ranging from $5 million to $95 million. In response, USDA increased its funding to $2.8 billion when the first round of grant recipients was released last week.
"Sometimes, you throw a party, and you don't know if folks are going to show up," Bonnie said. "Good news here: A lot of people showed up. We got $20 billion in proposals. We're really excited about this opportunity going forward."
Bonnie described the program as a voluntary, incentive-based, farmer-led initiative that will take a market-oriented approach to addressing climate concerns and creating "climate-smart" commodities. Through the adoption of conservation practices, growers will work toward reducing their greenhouse gas emissions while sequestering more carbon in the soil.
The 70 projects included in the first round of funding are expected to reach farmers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. USDA estimates that roughly 50 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide will be captured on 25 million acres through the collective effort.
"This is not a conservation program; this is a commodity program," Bonnie said. "This is about commodity markets and helping producers market a climate-smart soybean or climate-smart corn. It's about creating value for producers doing the right thing."
COVER CROP ENCOURAGEMENT
The Missouri gathering gave Bonnie and other USDA staff a chance to meet and interact with representatives from Farmers for Soil Health, a new collaborative partnership among the United Soybean Board (USB), National Pork Board, National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association. The group joined with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and seven other major partners, including DTN, on a $95 million project to accelerate long-term cover crop adoption.
"We expect 8,000 to 10,000 farmers from the top 20 corn- and soybean-producing states to participate," said John Jansen, USB vice president of strategic partnerships. "We're looking to deliver 1.4 to 1.5 million new cover crop acres."
According to USDA, Farmers for Soil Health will incentivize farmers to plant cover crops and develop a platform to quantify, verify and facilitate the sale of ecosystem benefits, creating a marketplace to generate demand for climate-smart commodities.
Neal Bredehoeft, president of Bredehoeft Farms Inc. and host for the event, began planting cover crops roughly a decade ago. He said the practice has made an immediate difference on their farm -- reducing erosion, providing control of winter annual weeds and improving soil health.
"We've gone 100% with putting in cover crops after corn," he said. "It's also eliminated one extra trip across the field."
Bredehoeft, who serves as a USB director for Missouri, said he was pleased that the Farmers for Soil Health project had been selected for funding.
"We're seeing more and more of our customers wanting a sustainable crop, a sustainable soybean, a sustainable pork chop," he said. "If we can develop this program, I think it's going to be good for agriculture."
He said he believes that farmers will like this program because early adopters of conservation practices such as cover cropping will be able to participate fully.
"I always felt like some of the carbon programs out there weren't totally fair," said Bredehoeft, adding that he anticipated that they would apply to participate in the Farmers for Soil Health project. "We'd applied for a couple them, but you'd go down the list of practices to add something, and you'd find out you were doing all those things already. Since we were already doing them, we didn't qualify."
Bonnie said that USDA would be working in the coming weeks to negotiate contracts for the grants with a goal of deploying funding quickly enough to affect the 2023 season.
"We think we are going to do a lot of really good work for the climate, and we're going to do it in a way that pencils for agriculture," he said of the pilot program overall. "U.S. agriculture is really good at efficiency and technology and adopting new, more efficient ways to grow crops and livestock. U.S. agriculture should be really good at this."
Not everyone is backing USDA's climate-smart programs. Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee earlier this week criticized USDA's pilot projects and the $19.5 billion for USDA conservation programs in the Inflation Reduction Act tied to lowering greenhouse emissions and sequestering carbon. Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the committee, indicated the spending in the IRA bill could affect conservation spending in the next farm bill.
"I don't feel bound by the amount of funding or the specific program allocation passed in the partisan IRA bill," Thompson said, adding "I am especially worried about earmarking of all the new money just for climate, rather than letting the locally led process work."
Also see, "Funding Flows for Climate-Smart Grants" https://www.dtnpf.com/…
The full list of the 70 projects can be found here: https://www.usda.gov/…
More information about Farmers for Soil Health can be found here: https://farmersforsoilhealth.com/…
Jason Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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