Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Chuck Abbott of FERN covers Vilsack's to-do list, climate-change farm subsidies, and minority farmer debt relief

Chuck Abbott of the Food & Environment Reporting Network has a trio of articles this week about agricultural issues. Here's a short summary of each:

Tom Vilsack, confirmed in a landslide Senate vote Tuesday for his second stint as agriculture secretary, is coming out of the gate with a "blockbuster" to-do list, Abbott writes in the first article.

Vilsack, who will be the Biden administration's chief link to rural America, "has a panoramic approach to farm prosperity and rural economic development as a cabinet secretary with initiatives that include biofuels and broadband access," Abbott writes. "He also argues that Democrats, for lasting political success, need to be more active in rural areas and find areas of agreement with rural voters, who are heavily Republican. The rural vote was instrumental in Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016."

Under Vilsack, he Agriculture Department aims to further President Biden's goal to make the U.S. the first country to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions from farming through initiatives such as paying farmers to conserve land and plant cover crops. Vilsack said in his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing that he believes farmers are "prepared" and "anxious" to adopt greener practices as long as they're voluntary, market-based, and incentive-based, Abbott reports.

Abbott's second piece explores farmers' views on eco-friendly farming practices, as reported by farm leaders at the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum last week. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agriculture group, said farmers expect to be paid for climate-change initiatives but not if they take money from traditional crop subsidies.

Chuck Connor, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former USDA deputy secretary, agreed: "You cannot do climate on the backs of the American farmer . . . They just simply don’t have the resources for that." Abbott notes, "Farm country opposition was a prominent factor in the defeat a decade ago of a cap-and-trade program to combat climate change."

The USDA "spends from $10 billion to $15 billion a year on farm supports, including $7 billion to $8 billion on crop and dairy subsidies and around $6 billion for land stewardship," Abbott reports. "Climate mitigation on the farm could require a federal contribution, possibly creating a squeeze on existing programs unless new funding is provided."

Abbott's third article explores controversy over $4 billion of debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers that the House Budget Committee approved Monday as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. The USDA definition of socially disadvantaged farmers includes racial minorities and sometimes women.  Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee objected to the proposal, saying in comments submitted to the CBO that the plan was too hasty and that it needed more study to ensure there were no unintended impacts." They also questioned whether disadvantaged farmers' financial woes were pandemic-related. Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi called it reverse discrimination.

"The relief plan also allots $1 billion for land access, 'heirs property' issues and legal aid for socially disadvantaged farmers," Abbott reports.

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