Vilsack: Climate change can bring farmers new income
U.S. and Iowa farmers need new sources of income, and the work producers need to do to battle climate change can help provide it, newly sworn-in U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Des Moines Register on Friday.
Nearly 90% of farmers no longer make the majority of their money raising crops and livestock, said Iowa’s former governor, who, like millions of other Americans, is working from home — leading the United States Department of Agriculture from Waukee.
Instead, the bulk of producers have jobs outside of farming.
“In today’s economy, that’s startling,” said Vilsack, two days into his job leading the 70,000-employee, $146-billion-a-year agency.
“It’s incumbent on a secretary of agriculture to explore appropriate ways to create new revenue streams for farmers, so that percentage ... isn’t as high as it is today,” he said.
Vilsack won Senate confirmation for his post Tuesday by a vote of 92-7. It’s his second stint leading the agency. He first served as ag secretary under former President Barack Obama from 2009-17.
The 70-year-old was sworn in from his family home by Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday via video feed.
He said only a couple of hundred people in the USDA are working in Washington, D.C., given efforts to protect workers from the coronavirus. But Vilsack said the massive agency is used to working across long distances, with 4,000 U.S. locations and offices in 70 countries.
As one of his first priorities, Vilsack said he will have the USDA look into the role that the Commodity Credit Corp. can play in mitigating climate change, an issue that President Joe Biden calls a crisis that requires immediate action.
Former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue used the Depression-era agency’s $30 billion pot to send payments to U.S. farmers to offset losses from trade disputes that began in 2018 with China, Canada and Mexico.
Perdue “broke new ground” by using the Commodity Credit Corp. “in a way to continue to stimulate farm income,” Vilsack said.
Traditionally, the Commodity Credit Corp. has been used to pay for farm bill programs that support commodity prices and conservation efforts, an amount that eats up to $10 billion annually, Vilsack said.
The agency also needs money to buy surplus goods such a blueberries or cheese that can be sent to schools and food banks to feed the hungry or as reserves to cover natural disasters.
“The question becomes, is there capacity within the CCC to do something else?” Vilsack said.
The USDA will look at how a government initiative would fit into private efforts that now pay farmers to raise crops or livestock in a way that sequesters carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane — the greenhouse gases that fuel climate change.
Among the ideas being considered is a carbon bank that would pay producers for using sustainable farming practices such as sequestering carbon in the soil or capturing and reusing methane.
For example, farmers could get paid to capture carbon through practices such as growing cereal rye and other crops to cover cropland in the winter, or to cut greenhouse emissions with infrastructure such as anaerobic digesters that capture methane gas from pig production facilities.
Vilsack said he expects legislation asking the USDA to “create some kind of certification mechanism” that would verify the climate benefits that come from different farm-based conservation practices.
Key to that work is restoring USDA’s science mission to “identify research projects that are important to advancing climate-smart agriculture and regenerative agriculture,” he said.
Vilsack said he had yet “to get into the nitty-gritty” of how a carbon bank might work.
“But I am committed to looking for ways in which we can create alternative revenue streams,
so that farmers have more ways to make money than they have today,” he said.
Although environmental groups support creating regulations that force farmers to adopt conservation practices that can mitigate climate change while improving soil and water quality, Vilsack said it’s better to approach it with incentives.
“From a USDA perspective, we are all about incentive-based, market-based approaches, because history tells us that they are the most successful at getting people to move quickly,” he said.