Skip to main content

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary Vilsack on Rollout of USDA's Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry Strategy at Michigan State University

April 23, 2015

Welcome, and thank you all for being here today. Thank you to MSU Provost June Pierce Youatt for hosting us here on the beautiful Michigan State University campus. It's fitting that I'm here today to give this speech. Michigan State University has set some aggressive goals in the fields of energy, waste reduction, water, transportation and community engagement. Since the 2009-2010 school year, MSU has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an impressive 18 percent.

Earlier this month, MSU President Simon announced that the T.B. Simon Power Plant, which powers the university, is taking steps to stop burning coal by the end of 2016, and rely instead on natural gas and biofuels.

The University has also started work on a new anaerobic digester that will reuse waste from MSU's farms and dining halls to power buildings on campus. These are both critical steps on the path towards the university's stated goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy and reducing its environmental impact.

I'd also like to thank Brian Deese, President Obama's senior adviser on climate, conservation and energy policy, for traveling to Michigan with me today. There are great things happening here at the University and across the state. We're excited to have an opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers and foresters later today to hear about the innovative practices they've implemented on their operations to reduce the impact of climate change.

Farmers, ranchers and forestland owners and managers here in Michigan and all across the Nation are preparing for an uncertain future. They have seen firsthand the growing threat that climate change and increasingly severe weather presents to agricultural production, forest resources, and rural economies.

They face increased risks to their operations due to fires, increases in invasive pests, droughts, floods and other extreme weather events. The frequency and intensity of precipitation events have increased significantly across the eastern United States. The wildfire season in the west is now 60-80 days longer than it was 30 years ago, and forests will become increasingly threatened by insect outbreaks, fire, drought, and storms over the next 50 years.

One year ago, the White House released the third National Climate Assessment report. The authors of the report —240 of the nation's leading scientists and experts—confirmed what we've seen out in the field. Climate disruptions to agriculture have increased in the past forty years.

Worryingly, those disruptions will increase even more over the next twenty five years.

These events threaten the security of our food supply. They have implications for every American. Rural America feels climate change's impacts every day, not just up in the sky, but in their pocketbooks.

Drought alone was estimated to cost this country 50 billion dollars between 2011 and 2013, a figure that is only increasing as the prolonged drought continues.

And so our farmers, ranchers and forestland owners and managers are on the forefront to keep the land healthy, productive and resilient. They're taking action not to protect their bottom lines, but to preserve their operations for the generations of producers who will come after them.

And USDA is there to support them. We've enrolled a record number of acres of private working lands in conservation programs over the past six years, working with as many as 500,000 farmers and ranchers each year to implement voluntary conservation practices on their operations.

Nitrogen in runoff from farm fields has been reduced by over 3.5 billion pounds over the past 6 years. Phosphorus runoff has been reduced by over 700 million pounds. USDA programs have also helped to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by over 360 million metric tons since 2009, or approximately 60 million metric tons per year. That is the equivalent of taking 12.6 million cars off the road for a year or more than 5.4 million home's energy use for a year.

To drive economic growth, help reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, USDA continues to aggressively pursue investments in renewable energy.

We've incentivized the shift from fossil-based energy to renewable sources of energy in rural communities. Over the past six years, we've worked with thousands of rural small businesses, farmers and ranchers to install renewable energy systems and energy efficiency solutions, which will generate and save more than 9.4 billion kWh—enough energy to power 820,000 American homes annually.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 57,299 farms reported using a renewable energy producing system in 2012. That's more than double the 23,451 operations that reported the same in 2007.

We are also working with farmers, ranchers and foresters to generate homegrown renewable energy, including biofuels. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) provides incentives to more than 850 growers and landowners farming nearly 48,000 acres to establish and produce dedicated, nonfood energy crops for delivery to energy conversion facilities.

We've provided nearly $1 billion to 238 wood-to-energy projects, which generate renewable fuels while also advancing our forest restoration goals. Working together, we are accelerating the development of advanced biofuels for a wide range of applications—from filling our tanks at the pump to fueling commercial aircraft to powering our military.

We've also invested more than $610 million in research by USDA scientists and partners at land-grant universities like Michigan State University to develop innovative climate solutions and tools that can be applied on the farm and in the forest. Our network of regional Climate Hubs, established last year and located all across the country, help to disseminate these tools and other information tailored to region-specific conditions.

One of our Hub locations is in Houghton, here in northern Michigan. It assists natural resource managers, woodland owners, and others to integrate climate change information into planning, decision making, and management activities.

Producers themselves have taken the lead in implementing cutting edge conservation and stewardship practices on their operations. Myron Ortner, from Tuscola County, Michigan, has partnered with Michigan State University and the non-profit Delta Institute to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use by 15 percent on 40 acres of his corn and soybean farm. Myron wanted to join us today, but needed to stay home due to a family illness.

Still, I wanted to mention how his farm could serve as a model for a new kind of nutrient management program throughout the Corn Belt—one that brings farmers, research institutions, non-profits, government and business together to make climate solutions work.

The Delta Institute was able to support Myron thanks to USDA's Conservation Innovation Grants program, which through carbon credit protocols allows farmers and ranchers to benefit financially from the implementation of carbon-friendly practices on their operations.

Farmers, ranchers and forest land owners and managers are in the climate solutions business.

From producing biofuels and installing renewable energy systems on their operations, to conducting climate research and innovation, to implementing the latest conservation techniques, they have driven the development of many of the most critical components in the fight against climate change.

They are doing their part and USDA is right there with them.

Thus far, agriculture has been able to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and USDA has been there to buffer and protect producers from weather-related risks through programs like disaster assistance when truly severe weather strikes.

But as the rate of climate change accelerates and the impacts become more prevalent, farmers and ranchers will need new tools and techniques to protect their bottom line and ensure the future food security of our nation. They'll need more support from USDA, from outside partners and organizations, and from each other.

That is why, in support of Myron and millions more producers just like him around the country, today I am announcing a series of ten Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, an ambitious, voluntary strategy that rewards and builds on the good work of farmers, ranchers and foresters.

The strategy will use existing USDA programs to provide financial and technical assistance to support producers as they further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, generate clean renewable energy, and increase carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2025.

The strategy sets achievable benchmarks, and it lays the foundation for agriculture and forestry to be a more publicly visible part of the climate change solution. The plan better measures and shows the world how America's farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners are already successfully using climate-friendly conservation practices to benefit the environment, individual farms and forest operations, and the economy as a whole. It gives them a mechanism to do even more, and it gives them credit for this work.

The strategy is divided into ten building blocks that focus on agricultural and forestry practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration, as well as make improvements to energy efficiency and renewable energy production.

Those practices include: Soil Health; Nitrogen Stewardship; Livestock Partnerships; Conservation of Sensitive Lands; Grazing and Pasture Lands; Private Forest Growth and Retention; Stewardship of Federal Forests; Promotion of Wood Products; Urban Forests; and Energy Generation and Efficiency.

Under the strategy, we will focus on working with producers to improve soil resilience and increase producer profits by promoting changes in tillage, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction.

USDA initiated its Soil Health campaign in October 2012, drawing renewed attention to farmers and ranchers across the Nation use techniques that improve soil health. Building on this campaign, we've set a goal of increasing no-till implementation from the current 67 million acres to over 100 million acres by 2025.

We also aim to reduce fertilizer-related nitrous oxide emissions by 10% between 2010 and 2025. Better honing the timing, type, placement and quantity of nitrogen fertilizer will reduce runoff and provide cost savings through efficient application.

Under the President's Climate Action Plan, USDA and the dairy industry have developed a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, which outlines voluntary strategies to spur development of a robust biogas industry in the United States. To date, USDA investments have supported 93 anaerobic digesters to help farm operations produce electricity from captured methane. The new strategy sets a goal of reducing methane emissions by installing 500 new anaerobic digesters over the next ten years, and supporting the installation of lagoon covers to reduce methane emissions on ten percent of swine and dairy operations.

We'll work with producers, using the Conservation Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through riparian buffers, wetlands and organic soils. By 2025, USDA aims to enroll 400,000 acres of CRP lands with high greenhouse gas benefits, protect 40,000 acres through easements, and gain additional benefits by transferring expiring CRP acres to permanent easements.

We and livestock producers will support proper grazing management on an additional 4 million acres of pasture and grazing land, for a total of 20 million acres by 2025.

Using the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, we aim to protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes and employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually, in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans as of the fall of 2014.

We'll work across the country to reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. We've set a goal of replanting over 400,000 acres of National Forest land over the next ten years, restoring and strengthening the country's forest carbon stock.

USDA has led the way in demonstrating the innovative uses of wood and other bio-based products that reduce emissions and increase carbon storage. Under the new voluntary strategy, we'll work to increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuel. Through our partnership with WoodWorks, USDA aims to increase the number of wood building projects supported through technical assistance from 280 in 2014 to 2,000 in 2025.

We'll encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, stormwater runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values.

In partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation's Energy Saving Trees Program and landowners, we'll plant an additional 90,000 trees in urban areas over the next decade.

Building on the good work of farmers, ranchers and homeowners to install renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency in rural communities, USDA plans to use our existing energy loan and grant programs to support the construction of new electric distribution, transmission and generation facilities; make system improvements and upgrades at existing electric facilities; support demand side management, energy efficiency and conservation improvements; and install on- and off-grid renewable energy systems—all of which reduce the greenhouse gas impact of energy generation in rural areas.

Our efforts to implement this strategy at USDA are already underway—but the bulk of the work is ahead of us. Over the next few months, we'll work across the Department to lay out a path for achieving our goals.

We can't accomplish our goals without the support and participation of forward-thinking producers and land owners who are setting the bar in conservation leadership. Producers in this country have a track record of rising to challenges—and this challenge is no different.

Together, this strategy accomplishes three major goals.

First, it recognizes and rewards what farmers, ranchers and foresters are already doing. It gives them access to the resources and assistance they need so they can reap economic and environmental benefits that come with improving efficiency, increasing yields, and reducing risks to their operations.

Second, through these voluntary actions by the agriculture and forestry sectors, we expect to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2025.

Certainly, the agriculture and forestry communities aren't alone in addressing the challenge of climate change. President Obama has laid out an ambitious goal that, by 2025, the United States intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels. This economy-wide commitment comprises the U.S. contribution to the global effort to address climate change and will form a cornerstone of a new post-2020 international climate agreement.

So as a final goal, this strategy further positions the United States and our producers as global leaders in climate-smart agriculture and forestry. It demonstrates to the world that these sectors already are already global leaders in the sustainable land management and efficient production systems, while simultaneously boosting productivity to meet growing demands for food and fiber, stimulating the rural economy, and offering compatible environmental and economic benefits.

Today we have in the audience a group of producers and stakeholders who have made a wide variety of commitments—from implementing innovative practices on-farm to making new private investments in renewable energy generation.

Over 28 organizations contributed early actions to work with farm and forest land owners by bringing private capital to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction in rural America.

I am certain that with continued broad support, the agriculture and forestry sectors will be leaders in the fight against climate change.

One example is the Equilibrium Capital Group, who will kick off its Wastewater Opportunity Strategy today. This is an effort to accelerate the development and growth of bio-digesters and bio-gas facilities that convert food and farm waste into productive economic value in rural communities.

Phase I of the strategy is expected to process over 150 million gallons of wastewater per year, generate over 350 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy equivalents annually, and reduce over 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Even more, the first phase is expected to produce 2 million hours of employment for skilled construction workers and approximately 130 permanent jobs. It will strengthen farms and food processing facilities located in up to 35 communities, strengthening the rural economy.

This voluntary strategy is an initiative designed for working farms, ranches, forests, and production systems. It encourages actions that enhance productivity and avoid actions that would inhibit production. USDA has a long history of cooperative conservation and partnerships with farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners, and it will continue to use these principles to reduce GHG emissions from the agricultural and forestry sectors.

Over the next decade, Americans in all walks of will face the growing challenges of a changing climate. In order to address climate change, we have to get ahead of it, and no one innovates in the face of challenge better than rural Americans.

This will not be an easy task, but I am confident that working together, American agriculture and the Nation's forests can continue to play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon storage in our forests and our soils.