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Secretary Vilsack’s Announcement of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program – Remarks as Delivered

Secretary Vilsack announced the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program today at Lincoln University of Missouri in Jefferson City

To watch the recording, please view the Secretary Vilsack Highlights Biden-Harris Administration Work to Combat Climate Change video.

JEFFERSON CITY, MO, February 7, 2022:

Thank you, folks. Thank you.

President Moseley, thank you very much for a kind introduction and a great history lesson about this university, and also about the important role that land-grants across the board play in America today and the need for continued funding and financing of Lincoln University and other land-grant universities, which we definitely support and which the President's budget in FY22 and 23 I'm confident supports.

It's just great to be with everyone here today. I had a wonderful opportunity to meet some students and to see some of the great work that's being done at Lincoln University earlier today. Very impressed with the work that's being done on climate. Very impressed with the work that's being done on sustainable building materials, which I saw an opportunity as well to learn a little bit about ways in which we can eat more healthily. All of that activity is taking place here at Lincoln. And it's really a fitting place, if you think about it, to launch a major initiative. Universities are places that honor tradition, but also challenge us to think anew. About ourselves and the world around us. I know this University; Lincoln University is dedicated to educating the next generation of new leaders and thinkers in agriculture.

As President Moseley indicated, I met the 1890 scholars and what a tremendous array of individuals coming from big cities and small towns with an interest in agriculture. And this university is named after the founder of the Department of Agriculture. It was Abraham Lincoln who proposed in 1862 in the establishment of the people's department, a department that he felt was dedicated, as is the case with land-grant universities, to the extension of knowledge and information helping our farmers and our ranchers be more productive. It was President Lincoln at a time of great civil unrest, who warned us and cautioned us about staying united as a country and in his second inaugural address, he said it this way: “as our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew. We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.” He said that at a time of great, great challenge for this country and great opportunity to reunite the country.

Well, I speak today to you all at another time of great challenge, a challenge that's presented by a changing climate, which we've all seen the results of. Unprecedented storms. Extensive droughts. Horrific wildfires. All connected to climate. And there's probably no group of Americans who understand and see it more than our farmers, ranchers and producers. They've seen it, they feel it and they've been hurt by it. 19 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. And it's not just climate that's changing. It's also markets and consumers who are changing. They see what's going around the world and consumers are becoming more and more interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it was produced. And markets are responding by making sure that people are given information about climate-smart commodities. They're selling and marketing the concept of, if you use your consuming dollar, you'll be able to be assured that you're helping the environment and not hurting it.

President Biden has challenged all of American agriculture and his Department of Agriculture to respond to this great challenge and to listen to the market and consumers. It's his expectation that we provide in the United States global leadership in embracing the challenge and the opportunity of climate change. And he's challenged us to work collaboratively together to reduce emissions connected to agriculture to half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. He wants us to acknowledge the obvious, which is that our farmers, ranchers and forested landowners are partners in this initiative. They historically have been dedicated to good stewardship.

It's his idea and his view, that what we do should be voluntary and should be incentive based. And our strategy should be based on those two principles. So we began to work last year to create this strategy of how to deal with this amazing challenge we have and this extraordinary opportunity. We recognize that we have a wide array of conservation programs that can be tailored and targeted to supporting climate-smart practices, the kinds of practices that students here at Lincoln University are learning about.

We looked at our CRP program, that's our Conservation Reserve Program, which idles land for a period of time, and we asked the question: how can we focus it? How can we encourage it on highly erodible land? How can we take it from a historic low around 20 million acres and build it back up? And one of the strategies we focused on was grasslands, and the importance of investing in providing incentives for grasslands to participate in this initiative, and we saw a great response. 1.9 million acres of the 5.3 million acres added to the program in just a single year. We looked at our Regional Conservation Partnership program. That's really focused on watersheds as you are here at Lincoln University. You understand the necessity of focusing on larger landscapes. And we are encouraging partnerships and collaborations and focusing on climate-smart practices in those large landscape and watershed scale projects.

We've invested over $405 million in 100 projects targeted and focused on climate. We've used our Conservation Innovation Grant Program to think outside the box and to encourage folks to think about ways in which these resources can be creatively and innovatively used. Over $20 million committed to that. We embraced the notion of cover crops. Even our risk management agency, the one that operates our crop insurance program said, 'Hey, we can be part of this. We can provide financial incentives for folks who, notwithstanding the drought, can embrace cloud cover crops.' Over 12.2 million acres enrolled in this program received a premium. Over $60 million in the pockets of farmers who invested in cover crops. And now we have the Farmers for Soil Health Initiative, the Soybean Association, the Soil Institute and many others who are working with us because we believe we're just getting started on cover crops.

We believe we can double the number of cover crops. In fact, we believe we can get to 30 million acres by 2030. So one pillar is using our existing conservation programs. Another pillar of this strategy was to make sure that farmers have the tools, the ability to understand what's going on on their land and be able to adapt and adopt practices and procedures to take full advantage.

You're doing some of that work here at Lincoln University. You're helping to develop the tools and the knowledge base that will enable farmers to do a better job. And we've been working hard at USDA to create those tools. Let me give you a couple examples: tools that are based on the latest science, peer-reviewed, things that are valid. We've got our COMET Farm Program, which is a program that allows folks to estimate the impact of greenhouse gas reductions by certain practices. We've got the GRACEnet Program, which is allowing farmers to adopt better management practices as they try to enhance carbon sequestration and storage, reducing emissions and promoting sustainability. And now we're creating the Ruminant Farm Systems Model, which is simulating whole farm activities and the impact of that commitment to climate-smart practices can have on the environment and on the economic bottom line for producers. It wasn't just farming and ranching.

It was also the notion that on farms and ranches, we can create the next wave of feedstocks for biofuels. A tremendous challenge coming from President Biden to create an aviation biofuel. 36 billion gallons of drop in aviation fuel so allow our planes to fly. I don't know about you folks. I kind of get the electric car thing. You know, you get in the car and if by chance the battery runs down, you pull off to the side of the road. You get your cell phone, you call for help. If you're in an airplane, the battery wears out. How exactly is that going to work? So I think it is important for us to have a biofuel as we transition to the next iteration of transportation fuels. Now Lincoln University with its hemp research could very well be in the middle of all of that. So research and focus on renewable energy and feedstocks and on fuels, another pillar to this better climate environment.

And it's not just agriculture and forestry and renewable energy, but it's also our forests. We recently announced a 10 year commitment to reduce the risk of these horrific fires. We can do everything possible on the land and on our farms and ranches, but if our forests continue to burn at the rate they've been burning, a lot of carbon is going to go back up into the atmosphere. So it is important for us to have as a pillar better forest management.

So we're now faced with looking at what else could we do? How could we think anew how could we act anew? How could we accept the climate challenge and the opportunity side of that challenge? How can we understand that appreciate what markets want and need and what consumers are looking for and be able to help them? How can we make sure that farming is more profitable? And this is a very important component of this effort. Because you see, 89.6% of American farms today do not generate the majority of income for the farm families operating the farm. Now just think about that for just a second. That means that those farm families have to have off farm income, maybe one job, maybe two jobs, maybe three jobs, to be able to afford to continue to farm, which is what they want to do and which is what they love to do. So we can do better, and we have to do better.

So that's what brings me here today. As we focused on this issue, the first thing we did was to think anew. We reached out to folks and we said what do you think over the last year? We talked to stakeholders across the board farmers ranchers, producers, environmental groups, conservation groups. We solicited written comments: how could we approach this slightly differently? How could we accelerate the adoption of these practices that we know work?

We talked to policymakers. The chairs and ranking members of the Ag Committee were very helpful in giving advice and direction. We paid attention as the Senate passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act and as it now awaits action in the House, because we know that inherent in that act is an effort not only to have USDA be helpful, but specifically to make sure that that help is also provided to small and mid-sized operators. That isn't just for large scale agriculture, production agriculture and commercial agriculture. It's for those folks who in a small way, but when aggregated together can have a very powerful impact in helping to deal with this challenge and seizing the opportunity.

And we also applied the equity lines, to President Mosley's comment. We saw the need for us to make sure that the underserved producers in this country are also part and parcel of this effort. It's going to take all of us and we need to make sure we reach out.

We heard from the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, major ag companies, organizations and businesses as well as major farm groups the Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, commodity groups, major ag and conservation groups as well, the Environmental Defense Fund. They came to us and they simply said 'look, you can help us. You can get us to the point where we can accelerate the use of these of these practices. You can help us create climate-smart commodities,' but to do so we need large scale pilots. We need large demonstration projects. We need a wholesale adoption of climate-smart practices, and we need to measure and verify the impact, not just on individual farms or on small groups of farms, but on large numbers of farms.

And with that information, we can then determine how to establish the standard for climate-smart commodities, and we can begin to meet that market and consumer demand. And in doing so we can create a higher value product for our farmers, ranchers and producers. Create more income for them and allow them to fully participate in private carbon market activities, private water quality market activities.

But it's expensive. It requires resources to adopt these practices. And farmers with tight budgets simply are not in a position today to do so. So the expectation was that the Department of Agriculture would respond. And the reality is we have a long history of market facilitation and development of agriculture and forestry products. I think this makes us uniquely positioned to help address this challenge of climate change in partnership with landowners and producers. So that's why I'm here today at Lincoln University to announce the launch of the partnerships for climate-smart commodities.

It's why I'm here today to say that we are now in a position at the USDA to begin accepting project applications for this new climate-smart commodity opportunity. It's designed specifically to expand markets for US agricultural products and forestry products through voluntary deployment of conservation practices that will lead to the production of these climate-smart commodities. It's another pillar, a new pillar, if you will, in this overall strategy to address climate, meeting the President's goal, responding to market demand and improving income for producers.

We know that consumers and retailers here at home have an interest in purchasing commodities produced using climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices. We know global markets are beginning to place an increasingly higher value on climate-smart and forestry products, agriculture and forestry products. And we know there's a wide range of market-based approaches that are already starting to occur in the private marketplace, making opportunities for our producers to add value and create revenue streams that haven't existed before for our farmers.

Now as with anything new, there are going to be questions: Do the practices work as attended? Are the benefits real? Are they having an impact? How do we know they're having an impact? But we need to be prepared to answer those questions. And so as part of our effort, we're also going to focus on tracking our progress of understanding the benefits of these improved practices on the climate. We're gonna require these projects who are seeking our assistance to accurately measure and track the benefits of producing these commodities and the climate gains made for agriculture and forestry from this effort in order for it to reach its highest potential. And obviously, there's a role for land-grant universities in that effort. And we need to invest in greenhouse gas measurement, monitoring and verification systems that provide credibility, while also working better for producers and landowners, who currently face major barriers in this area. And we intend to work and we hope our partners will intend to work with research agencies, land-grant universities, and other innovators to quantify and monitor and verify the climate benefits of these projects based on sound, peer-reviewed science. Lots of innovation is occurring in this space. I recognize that and we encourage the use of these innovative approaches while also making use of USDA's own peer-reviewed methods and tools.

We've invested, as I said earlier, heavily in the underlying science behind these existing tools. But these partnerships are in a position to test them at scale, to build on them, and to improve them. We're hoping a wide range of public and private entities will come together to develop pilot projects that seek to deploy climate-smart practices across numerous farms, ranches, and forested lands. And we're looking to cover an inclusive, broad set of folks from across agriculture and forestry. Eligible entities looking for these grants can span anywhere from farmer groups to counties and towns, state governments and tribal governments, small businesses and nonprofit organizations, public and private institutions of higher education including minority-serving institutions, and these partners will help to develop plans to implement these climate-smart practices and to measure, monitor and verify the climate gains. I think we'll find that the successful proposals will be those that aggregate farmers, come up with innovative, producer-friendly ways to do the measurement, monitoring and verification of greenhouse gas benefits.

Here's a really important point that I want to emphasize, and that is we're doing everything we can across the Department to instill equity in all of our decisions. Equity is going to play a critical role in this effort as well. That means we want to make sure that all projects funded through this opportunity meaningfully include small or historically underserved producers. We want to make sure that while we drive climate benefits, we're also driving forward our other priorities of equity and ensuring opportunity for all. We can't be successful in this if we're not inclusive. We want to make sure that this opportunity is reflective of the diversity of American agriculture as well. That means it has to be available to producers of all sizes, all methods, all locations, all types of production.

Our goal will be to find a portfolio of projects that will include a wide range of agriculture and forestry operations, from cropland to specialty crops to livestock to forestry and range land. The diversity of producers and landowners needs to be large and small. We also want to ensure that our approach includes early adopters, those innovators who've been out front, who've led the efforts to establish innovative conservation practices on the lands they manage and own. So let me tell you how exactly this funding opportunity will work: USDA will provide grants – now these are not loans; these are grants – to partners through a competitive process to implement these pilot projects.

The projects have to incentivize producers to adopt production and marketing practices that will ensure that the agricultural commodity has climate-smart properties. They must also have a plan to measure, monitor, and verify the carbon and greenhouse gas benefits associated with those practices. And finally, these projects must also address how they're going to go about helping to develop markets that will promote the resulting climate-smart commodity generated from these practices.

Now in practice, this might look for example, like a group of small farmers working with a nonprofit to implement and quantify climate-smart practices in partnership with a retailer. Or it could be a network of commodity organizations recruiting specialty crop farmers to quantify reduced emissions and market the resulting products. It may be a project of a farmer-partner organization working with universities to test innovative approaches to monitor and verify climate benefits to aid in marketing. It could be all of that or any of it along with a lot of other ideas and concepts.

Now we'll start with a request for applications for partners who serve producers of all sizes and all methods and in all locations as I said earlier. We'll encourage creativity and innovation for the use of new technologies and the formation of new partnerships in the development of these pilot projects, and to apply, they need to be able to take part in this partnership for climate-smart competition.

The first round of applications will be due April 8. These will fund large projects – and I mean large projects where the grant funding could be $5 million, $25 million, $50 million or more. We'll fund a second round of project proposals where applications will be due by May 27 and this will be for smaller proposals. It could be $250,000 or could be something less than $5 million. In total, we're going to make available $1 billion from the Commodity Credit Corporation, as authorized by that Corporation's charter, because we're authorized to use funds for the expansion of markets of US commodities and the promotion of U.S. exports.

Now, let me be clear about this. This billion-dollar commitment will in no way interfere with our ability to use the Commodity Credit Corporation for other purposes, including funding Farm Bill programs. We are confident we have the resources to be able to it all. Now as I mentioned, we're going to be looking for all of these projects to meaningfully include small, historically underserved producers. And importantly, this effort is designed to complement and not compete with the private sector initiatives surrounding climate-smart agriculture. For example, there are a variety of existing platforms today that we know that are working on lowering barriers to entry for farmers, ranchers and forested landowners to access private carbon markets. Now, this program is not a carbon market program. It's focused on commodity production. And working alongside some of the great activity that we're already seeing out in the market. We're hopeful that we'll see additional adoption of climate-smart practices across all regions of the country and all commodity types for those producers by themselves or their partner to obtain those private sector markets, another revenue source if you will, for farmers.

Additionally, these pilot projects we expect will work in tandem with the Growing Climate Solutions Act once passed by the House. And this legislation, as I said earlier, underscores the need for action in the aid of development of markets of sustainably produced products by small and mid-sized operations. Now as groups of farmers and ranchers and producers and foresters voluntarily come together, we can provide the resources to support the investments and reduce the cost for those choosing to embrace these climate-smart practices. In other words, eliminate the financial risk or barrier that may exist today.

Now these efforts will also work alongside our existing Farm Bill conservation programs to provide producers with new opportunities, expanded opportunities, new tools to adopt climate-smart practices. This is exactly what we're doing. We're trying to incentivize the creation of climate-smart commodities that hold higher value in the marketplace so farmers can generate additional profit from and capture that value.

This is about creating domestic markets that will provide American agriculture and forestry with the resources to do what they know to do best: to feed the world while serving as great stewards of our land and water. This is also about positioning American agriculture as a global leader, advancing competitiveness in our markets abroad. We know that export markets will depend on our ability to competitively compete with those who have a different approach to climate-smart agriculture. We need to get there first. We need to be able to say to the world, 'We have led in this effort,' in order to maintain and expand those export markets. I think producers will also find as they embrace these practices that they'll also benefit from improved soil health and the productivity that will come from it over time.

For far too long, in rural America, we've taken products off the land and from the land and we've shipped them to someplace else. Opportunity is created someplace else and wealth is created someplace else. With this opportunity, we have a chance to change it from an extraction effort to a circular effort with the ability to create climate-smart commodities and opportunity to convert waste into a wide variety of bio-based materials. I saw some of them today: one was hemp in construction material, for example. Those processing facilities can be located right where the crops are being grown. They can be sustainably produced. They can be a higher value. They can create jobs in rural communities. They can increase farm income. They can expand population centers in rural places, taking pressure off our urban centers. They can restore life and vitality in our small towns. That's the opportunity side of this.

We just need to understand the opportunity that we have and we need to fully seize it. We can, with this program, position producers to be part of the solution to climate change. In fact, I believe we can lead the nation in that solution while at the same time creating enormous economic opportunity in rural places. Whether it's leveraging our conservation programs, restoring our forests, accelerating the development of science- based solutions, investing in clean energy, or more, the US Department of Agriculture will continue to be a partner in combating climate change, increasing agricultural productivity and improving rural America.

Before I close, I'd like to say once again, thank you to Lincoln University for the opportunity to be here. This university provides, I think, incredible opportunities to engage students in agriculture and cultivates the next generation of leaders. Through the scholarship program that we talked about, Lincoln University also established the David Scott full ride scholarship program. It's an extension of the 1890 Scholarship Program and in this first year, this new program provided full scholarships for approximately 29 students majoring in agricultural-related sciences. More than a dozen additional students will be funded in year two. These scholarships are intended to encourage outstanding students at 1890 institutions to pursue and complete degrees that would lead to a highly skilled food and agricultural work system and a workforce. That's David Scott's vision and he is continuing to work in providing potentially additional resources for this program by asking his friends in Congress to add in another $100 million to this effort.

Agriculture: it is such an exciting but challenging, critical, but dynamic space. It's easy to make the case to young people to get engaged in this. It's at the heart of our fight against climate change. It provides the basic food and fiber we need to survive. It leverages the strong natural resources of our country and enhances and improves them. It allows our great nation to be a food-secure nation. Never take them for granted: The ability of America to feed itself. There are a lot of countries in the world today that can't say that. It helps to create enormous flexibility in our economy as we pay so little for the food we eat, allows us to go out and purchase a lot of other consumer goods that support the jobs that are critical to this economy.

So, this is an incredibly great time to think anew and to act anew. This is an incredibly great time to elevate the awareness within this great country of the important role that agriculture and forestry plays in all our lives. I think Lincoln would be proud. He'd be proud of this university that bears his name. I think he'd be proud to know it was started by veterans of the Civil War. I think he'd be proud to know that it was started in order to give others a chance to be farmers and ranchers and producers. I think he'd be proud to know that we're here today to talk about America being united in an effort to accept another great challenge that not only threatens us, but threatens the entire world, and to see not just the challenge, but the opportunity.

I think he would be pleased that we're thinking anew, that we're acting anew. And I think he would be very pleased that we are doing anew. Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today.