New USDA program to reduce farm carbon emissions

New USDA program to reduce farm carbon emissions

Crops starting to grow
ShutterstockVictor Naumik
The new USDA program addresses agricultural carbon issues ranging from soil health to grazing.

There’s an old saying that goes, “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s a little late to think about draining the swamp.” It certainly could apply to farmers in California right now, up to their necks (so to speak) in a historic drought. They are struggling and making difficult choices as to which crops they can continue to raise, as homeowners and municipalities learn to change their habits and their landscaping.

But as we have learned about climate change, there will be many more droughts, even more severe than this one, if something isn’t done to address the root cause. This is where the new announcement from USDA comes in. Farmers contribute roughly 9 percent to overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — although, when it comes to methane, a gas 25 times more potent than CO2 in its effect on the atmosphere, that number goes up to 40 percent.

Crops, not carbon

This new plan is another piece of President Barack Obama’s effort to address the problem in a comprehensive manner, in each major area that it presents itself.

Despite what detractors say, this can be done, in this segment as in others, while improving the economic bottom line. Some level of capital investment might be required to make the transition, which is where the government incentives come in.

In a kickoff event at Michigan State University, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "American farmers and ranchers are leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency in their operations. That's why U.S. agricultural emissions are lower than the global average. We can build on this success in a way that combats climate change and strengthens the American agriculture economy. Through incentive-based initiatives, we can partner with producers to significantly reduce carbon emissions while improving yields, increasing farm operation's energy efficiency, and helping farmers and ranchers earn revenue from clean energy production."

The USDA plan, expected to eliminate some 120 million metric tons of GHG emissions, or 2 percent of the U.S. total, consists of 10 building blocks that address numerous facets of agricultural activity.

1. Soil health

Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application and alleviating compaction on 100 million acres by 2025.

2. Nitrogen stewardship

Efficient application of nitrogen fertilizer with attention to timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide (another potent GHG) and provide cost savings.

3. Livestock partnerships

Steps to manage methane emissions from livestock, including broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting and solids separators. This includes the installation of 500 new digesters over the next 10 years.

4. Conservation of sensitive lands

Use the Conservation Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. The goal is to enroll 400,000 acres of lands with high greenhouse gas benefits into the Conservation Reserve Program.

5. Grazing and pasture lands

Support rotational grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock.

6. Private forest growth and retention

Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually in addition to the 26 million acres already covered by active plans.

7. Stewardship of federal forests

Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. This includes plans to reforest an additional 5,000 acres each year.

8. Promotion of wood products

Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuel.

9. Urban forests

Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal and property values. The effort aims to plant an additional 9,000 trees in urban areas on average each year through 2025.

10. Energy generation and efficiency

Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program, develop additional renewable energy opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost-sharing and energy audits.

The program will be voluntary and incentive-based. The fact that many of these actions will lead to increased productivity and efficiency should encourage participation. The fact that green plants inherently pull carbon dioxide out of the air points to the potential impact that conscious agricultural practices such as these can have in climate stabilization.

This article first appeared at Justmeans.