Looking to implement President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking input on a climate-smart agriculture and forestry strategy.

Biden’s order states that, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels,” and directs Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to solicit input from stakeholders as USDA develops a climate-smart agriculture and forestry approach.

The USDA’s notice seeks input from the public on what the department should do to encourage practices with “measurable and verifiable carbon reductions and sequestration and that source sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”

Vilsack said a carbon bank that would help farmers adopt sustainable agriculture practices like carbon sequestration and connect them to marketplaces where they could sell the carbon credits they accumulate to businesses looking to offset their own emissions is likely the answer, but questions as to how a carbon bank could be made to work best for farmers remain.

“There is an opportunity with reference to climate to create new ways for farmers to benefit financially,” Vilsack said March 22 during the virtual 2021 Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit. “We have a good path forward as we look and explore that opportunity.”

Vilsack said a carbon market would provide financial assistance to farmers to incorporate climate-smart agricultural practices, which, he said, “will not only provide farm income, but it will preserve soil, provide healthier soil and it will be an opportunity to improve the quality of water.”

Vilsack said existing carbon markets, which involve a lot of paperwork and complexity, are not designed and set up for farmers and that payments are not enough “to compensate for the hassle that’s connected with the carbon market.”

Out of about 134 million outstanding carbon credits, only about 2.5 million are agriculture-based, he said.

Vilsack said he sees promise for the agriculture industry when it comes to capture and storage of greenhouse gasses as well as establishing markets for what has typically been seen as waste products from the industry.

“For the next several years, the work of the USDA is going to be about more markets, better markets and new markets,” he said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said March 24 during the Ag & Food Policy Summit that climate change is near the top of the list of priorities her committee must address while ensuring solutions aren’t burdensome to farmers.

“Agriculture is uniquely affected by climate change, but it’s also part of the solution,” she said. “Farmers and ranchers are frontline environmentalists and conservationists. We need all the tools in the toolbox to help agriculture adapt and build resilience while making sure that our farmers are productive and prosper.”

Stabenow said farmers are already seeing benefits from voluntary practices that benefit the environment like cover crops and no-till and that initiatives that were implemented with the 2018 Farm Bill would would be expanded with the Growing Climate Solutions Bill, including opportunities in the carbon market for farmers.

“I think we have some real opportunities with a carbon market,” Stabenow said. “It might not be for every farmer or every rancher, but there are opportunities for those who are interested to build new revenue streams and be rewarded for a voluntary set of practices.”

Stabenow acknowledged that it will take time to get carbon markets established in a way to make them work for farmers and that lawmakers are working with agriculture groups to find ways to benefit as many farmers as possible while creating a positive result for the environment.

“We need to ensure farmers have the opportunity to benefit from climate-smart policies,” she said. “Even if these practices don’t result in salable carbon credits, it’s about water quality, it’s good for wildlife and recreation, it’s good for farmers productivity and profitability.

“As we tackle this incredibly serious issue of the impacts of carbon pollution and other greenhouse gasses, we need to give our farmers more tools to expand the important work that they’re already doing on the ground.”

The USDA’s notice in the Federal Register seeking public input can be found at tinyurl.com/mr472myf before April 30.

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