As former Secretary Tom Vilsack reprises his role at the Department of Agriculture, he will face a rural America crushed by compounding crises. The Trump administration’s ruinous trade and economic policies were only the match which lit decades of kindling. Our repeated failure to invest in rural infrastructure and put the needs of family farms over the profits of Big Agriculture has left communities dangling by a thread. The climate crisis is accelerating all of these harms at an alarming rate.
Agriculture and forestry could prove up to 10–20% of the carbon sequestration and emissions reductions needed to decarbonize our economy. The USDA has the potential to revitalize rural communities while rapidly decarbonizing this sector. The agency must act decisively to fund rural clean energy development using all of its financing authorities and direct investment. The USDA must also fund 21st century sustainable farming techniques, support small farmers, and build resilience to climate disruption within vulnerable rural communities.
Vilsack has served in this role before. But the solutions of 2013 will not be sufficient to solve the problems of 2021. Vilsack must rapidly mobilize the USDA to become a climate agency and he must go far beyond business as usual.
As President-elect Biden begins an all-out government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis, today, Evergreen Action is releasing 5 concrete actions for how the next Department of Agriculture must act:
1. Leverage USDA Rural Development Programs to Bring Clean Energy Economic Opportunity to Rural Communities
The USDA’s Rural Development Administration (RD) programs invest $33 billion annually in rural America, and these grants and loans can be used to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency to drive economic development. Several RD programs, such as the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and the Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP), as well as the over $200 billion in loan authorities at the Rural Utilities Service and Rural Housing Services, can finance deployment of clean energy, efficiency and smart grid upgrades for rural electric co-ops, homes, farms, and businesses — accelerating the clean energy transition and creating jobs in rural communities. The Secretary of Agriculture should immediately direct RD to prioritize this effort in a new Next Generation Rural Electrification initiative, much like the visionary New Deal-era policies that fueled technology deployment and rural economic development throughout America. These efforts should be particularly focused on front-line and fossil fuel transition communities. And RD should leverage the billions of dollars it holds in loans and loan guarantees for coal power plants owned by rural electric cooperatives. Many co-ops have been slow to transition from coal to renewable energy thanks to long-term contracts and outstanding coal debt. Under the new secretary’s leadership RD should champion a “Coal to Clean” debt swap program, allowing cooperatives to trade coal plant debt for reinvestment in clean energy, enabling them to retire coal plants early and accelerate investments in renewable resources and local economic development.
2. Investing in Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices to Make Farming Pay
There exist enormous opportunities for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to deploy climate solutions on their lands — and to make a buck doing so. These solutions can create both economic opportunity and environmental protection: in new revenue streams for sequestered carbon and captured methane, enhanced crop productivity, as well as drought and flood resilience and the preservation of pollinators and other biodiversity. For example, on-farm soil health conservation practices, such as cover crops and no-till, can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre. The new Secretary of Agriculture should use USDA programs to fund these ecosystem services directly, using existing authorities and the $30 billion Commodity Credit Corporation to pay farmers and forest landowners for sequestered carbon. They should also work with Congress to expand popular USDA programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for these purposes. The new secretary should also direct the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) to set insurance rates and rules to incentivize farmers to adopt climate-smart, sustainable agricultural approaches, including efficient water use and diverse and resilient crop planting.
3. Expand NRCS Staff Capacity for Collaborative Community Climate Solutions
The new Secretary of Agriculture should act immediately to restore and to massively expand staff capacity and improve morale at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to accelerate voluntary partnerships that drive locally-driven plans in rural communities for sustainable agriculture and clean energy development. NRCS staff function in nearly every county in the U.S., and work collaboratively with farmers, ranchers, conservation organizations, as well as states and local governments, to organize and implement solutions that protect the environment and promote healthy economies. This includes through successful initiatives like the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program (RCPP). NRCS can function as a massive field army for the new secretary’s efforts to drive climate action and sustainable rural economic development throughout the country. Additionally, the Agricultural Extension Services represent another source of capacity for technical assistance and direct community engagement to promote and accelerate sustainable economic development in rural America. The USDA can be pivotal as the nation mobilizes to fight climate change, and to support the agricultural communities that depend on natural systems for their economic livelihood.
4. Direct USDA Resources to Promote Agricultural Innovation, Research and Commercialization
The USDA’s conservation and research programs can provide critical support for the advancement of climate-resilient agriculture and forestry practices. Agency research and development efforts should prioritize areas such as soil and forest carbon sequestration, resilient crop development, and low-carbon advanced biofuels. Further, building on proven examples from the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), it is time to unite the power of federal research funding with a concerted effort to move from a petroleum based economy to one grounded in renewable biological feedstocks and enhanced agricultural productivity. The 2018 Farm Bill created the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA) pilot authority, providing a foundation for the USDA to launch a new permanent Advanced Research Projects Agency-Agriculture (ARPA-Ag), to develop climate-smart and sustainable agriculture innovations. This agenda can also leverage state land-grant universities, and direct research dollars into rural economies and new economic development and job creation for farming communities, as we navigate the path to a more modern, innovative and efficient U.S. economy.
5. Enhance Forest Service Planning for Wildfire Response and Risk Mitigation
The next Secretary of Agriculture must fight for increased investments in the U.S. Forest Service, to prevent wildfires and protect forest health. And along with this, the next administration should pursue federal-state-local collaboratives to capture the full carbon storage and forest health potential for reforestation, and to address the million acres of forest not yet under best management practices. The Biden administration should direct the Forest Service to develop a comprehensive plan to improve wildfire response and reduce fire risk on national forest land, including plans to modernize and improve safety in wildland firefighting, deploy controlled burns as a tool for wildfire risk reduction, and restore impacted lands using climate-smart restoration practices. In developing its wildfire response plans, the Forest Service should seek consultation and involvement from tribal leaders, state governments, and fire-impacted communities. In addition, by using sustainable forest biomass from forestry thinnings to make renewable materials, the next administration can create a sustainable, revenue-generating product for rural communities that helps displace plastics. Sustainably sourced forestry waste can put into motion a virtuous cycle of sustainable job creation, forestry protection, carbon removal, and wildfire protection.