The pushback from Republicans at a Tuesday hearing came as the Biden administration has tried to make significant new investments in climate change mitigation on farmland, last week announcing 70 pilot projects to support climate-friendly food production.
Lawmakers must rewrite the sweeping farm bill every five years to set policy and funding for agriculture, conservation and nutrition programs. The next farm bill is due in 2023, and some environmental groups are eyeing it as a potential boon for fighting climate change.
It’s also unclear which party will control the U.S. House and Senate following November’s midterm elections.
The farm bill includes massive funding for conservation programs — the previous legislation budgeted nearly $30 billion over five years.
More than 140 million acres of farmland in the U.S. are currently receiving conservation-related financial and technical assistance from the federal government, according to an analysis from the Farm Bureau. By comparison, the national park system has more than 85 million acres, according to the National Park Service.
The farmland conservation programs have received bipartisan support in the past, but some Republicans on Tuesday expressed concern about a growing interest in climate mitigation on farmland.
“Congress must be mindful of this massive amount of funding before amending programs or making policy changes that reorient programs toward climate. No one natural resource concern should be prioritized over others,” California Republican Rep. Douglas LaMalfa said at a hearing in a panel of the House Agriculture Committee.
LaMalfa is currently the top ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
New money at hand
At issue is both how to shape the conservation programs in the next farm bill and how to manage an extra funding infusion from the recently approved Inflation Reduction Act.
That bill, which the House and Senate passed in August, has a slate of programs to address climate change, including more than $20 billion for climate investments on farmland. Those include support for no-till agriculture, cover crops or other programs that affect the soil’s ability to hold carbon.
It will provide about a 47 percent increase over previous farm bill levels, according to an analysis from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
But for his part, the top Republican on the full committee indicated he would prefer to go his own way in directing the funding.
“I don’t feel bound by the amount of funding or the specific program allocation passed in the partisan IRA bill. I am especially worried about earmarking of all the new money just for climate, rather than letting the locally led process work,” Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican, told colleagues at the hearing.
Republicans were critical of the new USDA initiative.
“We got the White House combined with my colleagues who are a real threat to the family farm today, in the name of this climate god, this new world religion,” said Rep. Rick Allen, a Georgia Republican.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that the administration would invest $2.8 billion in pilot projects.
The program, Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, will fund programs for greenhouse gas reductions on dairy farms, and projects to build markets for climate-smart beef, grains and fruits and vegetables.
“There is strong and growing interest in the private sector and among consumers for food that is grown in a climate-friendly way,” Vilsack said in a statement announcing the new programs.
The Agriculture Department plans a second round of funding for more pilot projects later this year.
Applicants submitted more than 450 project proposals for this first funding pool, according to USDA. The money comes from the Commodity Credit Corporation, a government corporation created in 1933 that has traditionally funded foreign market development projects, price support, domestic farm income and conservation programs.
Vilsack and other Democrats see farmers as key stakeholders in addressing climate change. Agriculture was responsible for just over 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to the EPA.
Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, the chairwoman of the conservation subcommittee, said that she hopes to partner with farmers on climate programs.
“We are looking to find on-farm efficiencies and boost the bottom line for producers and make sure we are combating the climate crisis with the first conservationists, who are our nation’s farmers and producers,” Spanberger said at the conclusion of the hearing.
The hearing is one in a series to prepare for the 2023 farm bill.
The farm bill’s conservation programs pay farmers to make environmental improvements on working land or to replace crops on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land.
Despite the funding increases in recent farm bills, demand from producers for the programs still outpaces the availability from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency within the Agriculture Department that oversees most of the conservation programs.
“NRCS continues to be oversubscribed,” said Nicole Berg, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Since the 2018 farm bill, wheat farmers have entered 7,500 contracts in conservation programs, but another 5,000 valid applications from wheat growers did not receive funding, according to Berg.
“Noticing that a significant number of producers on the ground want to participate and can’t is a good call to action for us in the future,” Spanberger said.
Other producers complained that the application process is lengthy, and it can take months to get a response—which can be particularly problematic if producers want to address a pressing issue on their land.
“We were in a drought, and we needed some new water infrastructure, it was our biggest dilemma. I applied to NRCS, and we waited and waited but finally had to bite the bullet and do the project ourselves,” Shayne Wiese, a rancher from Manning, Iowa, told the committee—noting that new farmers and ranchers might not be able to finance a project on their own.
Lawmakers agreed they would like to support staffing for NRCS and a simpler application process for producers.
“I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here. What we need are common sense adjustments to ensure that programs are serving their producers and their land well,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, a Washington Democrat.