March 11, 2019: USDA Holds Farm Bill Listening Sessions; Congressional Climate Change Debate Heats Up - American Farmland Trust

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March 11th, 2019

DC Update: USDA Holds Farm Bill Listening Sessions; Congressional Climate Change Debate Heats Up

In February, USDA held its first listening session as part of its public-facing efforts to gather input from individuals and organizational partners before it releases regulations for implementing the 2018 Farm Bill. In Congress, climate change has moved up the list as a major topic of conversation.

USDA Listening Sessions

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, the USDA Farm Production and Conservation, or FPAC, mission area—which includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and Risk Management Agency—hosted a listening session for public input as the rulemaking process for the 2018 Farm Bill begins. The notice for the listening session included requests for responses to specific questions about some of the policy changes found in the Farm Bill, including several questions about implementing changes in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and improving risk management options for specialty crop growers. AFT addressed some of these questions in its oral comments, presented by AFT President and CEO John Piotti. AFT’s written comments addressed several additional issues under the FPAC mission area, including highlighting proposals from partner groups on heirs’ property, better risk management for specialty crop growers, and better management of conservation and risk management data.

The USDA has now posted other listening sessions, webinars, and teleconferences to gather public input for other missions areas throughout the month of March. The full listing can be found here.

Additionally, some information has trickled out about timelines for the release of formal rules. AFT expects that more information about the implementation of ACEP will be available this spring, and that more information will be available about RCPP in the fall. NRCS Chief Lohr noted that, if all goes according to plan, the agency is aiming to have rules completed by October, in time for fiscal year 2020.

Green New Deal Introduced, Climate Discussions Ensue

On Feb. 7, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey introduced a sweeping climate change mitigation, work, and healthcare resolution that they are calling the Green New Deal. The resolution mentions the beneficial role of agriculture in climate change mitigation in several sections, including calling for, “investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health,” and, “removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as land preservation and afforestation.”

To date, 89 House Democrats have signed onto the Green New Deal, along with 11 Senate Democrats. However, other Democrats have been apprehensive about the breadth of the resolution and its lack of details. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that he plans to put the resolution on the Senate floor to force Democrats to take a politically difficult vote. In addition, some Republican members of Congress took issue with a prematurely released set of FAQs about the Green New Deal that addressed emissions from cows.

After the resolution was introduced, several other efforts on climate have come to the fore. Senator Carper of Delaware introduced a more defined resolution on Feb. 28, calling on Congress to tackle climate change as an issue. This effort united Senate Democrats, all of whom signed onto the resolution. While several pieces of climate-related legislation are likely to be filed this year, Senate Democrats have signaled that much of their focus in this Congress will be setting the stage for consideration of comprehensive climate legislation after the 2020 elections.

AFT’s climate initiative, Farmers Combat Climate Change, focuses on protecting farmland and promoting smart growth to significantly reduce emissions, improving soil health to sequester carbon and improve farmer and rancher productivity, and making smart solar siting decisions to avoid using prime agricultural land. Over the next year, the initiative will be expanding its engagement in federal policy efforts to advance agricultural solutions for climate change mitigation.

Looking Ahead

In the coming month, USDA will continue to gather input through listening sessions for each of the Farm Bill titles and will continue to work on the release of regulations for its various programs. Climate change will continue to be a topic on the Hill, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Roberts has mentioned to the press a few times his intention to hold a hearing on the subject. In addition, the President’s budget is expected to be released in March, and discussions on budget and appropriations for FY20 will follow.