Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (center) talks with farm owner Penny Jordan (right). (source: pingree.house.gov)

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A new bill seeks to address climate change by expanding existing USDA programs that support conservation-based agriculture and greenhouse gas emission reductions on farms. The sponsor is an organic farmer that represents a majority rural District in Maine.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with this legislation. We’re trying to expand the impact of programs that we already know are working but could use additional resources and funding,” Representative Pingree (ME-1st, Democrat) said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. 

Pingree, who serves on both the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and the House Agriculture Committee, is one of a handful of Democratic House members representing rural districts that have been supportive of the proposed Green New Deal which she described as an “aspirational tool to bring about climate action.” 

  1. R. 5861 “is designed to put comprehensive, practical plans on paper to cut emissions while improving the rural economy,” Pingree said. If enacted, the Agriculture Resilience Act would aim to reach the following goals by 2030: 
  • quadruple the total federal funding for food and agriculture research and extension
  • restore at least half of lost soil carbon
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to the feeding of ruminants by at least 50 percent
  • convert at least two-thirds of wet manure handling and storage to alternative management
  • triple on-farm renewable energy production

Pingree’s bill would improve funding of USDA’s Climate Hubs, provide resources for on-farm research and data collection on improved crop rotations, cover crops and using pasture-based livestock to enhance soil health rather than concentrating manure as a potential pollutant of rural air and water. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is supporting the bill. “This legislation is a breadth and scope and level of new investment that is commensurate to the crisis we are facing in terms of climate and extreme weather and effects in rural communities,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, Senior Strategist and Analyst for the UCS Food and Environment Program.

The bill makes things like the USDA Climate Hubs real, with legislative and an actual budget. Right now there are people within USDA who are performing this work on their own time. Imagine what they could do with an actual budget,” Stillerman said. 

“Things such as directing the RMA [USDA’s Risk Management Agency that administers federal crop insurance programs- ed.] to account for climate risk in their actuarial tables. That, to me, is taking the concept and making the impacts of climate change real” she added.

Additional research and science budgets at USDA could help with “refining systems,” according to UCS. Stillerman pointed out that most of available research is conducted by the private sector and focuses on maximizing crop yields of major crops like corn, or soybeans. 

“We’re not yet looking at the effectiveness of cover crop and cover crop mixtures, or looking at how we find the right cultivars…every piece of ground, every farm is different, and we really need that localized research…with farmers on the ground to figure out what works best and grows best in their local environment,” Stillerman said. 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is also supportive of Pingree’s legisation. “We think this is the first real, substantive bill to offer opportunities for farmers to do what they do well, and that is to be good stewards of the land and to help us to begin to turn the tide against climate change,” said Eric Deeble, NSAC Policy Director. 

NSAC is also supportive of the bill’s focus on research, education, and extension. Deeble recognizes the value of the bill’s provisions that measure conservation outcomes of programs that are already in place, showing their impact and value.

“The other component of the research section is to make sure that farmers who need this information come to know the science and data right away so that they can implement the scientific research much more quickly than they had in the past,” Deeble said.

According to Deeble, a big component of the bill is focused on soil carbon and resiliency, additional investments in the SARE program, seeds and breeds research, integrated pest management, long-term agroecological research, and other production systems.

The bill also integrates climate change for priority points and scoring for farmers applying to participate in the nation’s largest conservation program in terms of acres, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). 

CSP has been repeatedly targeted for elimination by many Republicans, including President Trump’s budgets and throughout the 2018 Farm Bill debates in the House and Senate.

  1. R. 5861 also provides hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding for farmers to install clean energy generation systems, such as solar arrays and energy-conserving heating and cooling equipment, through REAP (the Renewable Energy for America Program).

If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, REAP is critical for farmers to utilize modern technology to cut those emissions,” Pingree said.