President Biden announced a major goal this week--for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade as compared to 2005 levels. Agriculture will play a key role in that reduction by “deploying cutting-edge tools to make the soil of our heartland the next frontier in carbon innovation,” according to President Biden. Several bills introduced in Congress recently could help agriculture fulfill that key role. The proposals offer incentives and assistance for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to engage in carbon sequestration practices.
Here’s a summary of the bills that are receiving the most attention.
Growing Climate Solutions Act, S. 1251. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed S. 1251 today. The bipartisan proposal led by sponsors Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) already has the backing of over half of the Senate as co-sponsors, including Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown. The bill has come up in prior sessions of Congress without success, but the sponsors significantly reworked the bill and reintroduced it this week. The new version includes these provisions:
- Requires the USDA to conduct an initial assessment of the domestic market for carbon credits, to include assessing market actors, market demand, estimated credits in process, supply and demand of offsets, barriers to entry, monitoring and measurement technologies, barriers for small, beginning and socially disadvantaged operators, among other factors.
- Creates a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program to ensure that technical service assistance providers who work with farmers to establish and sell carbon credits have sufficient expertise, including agricultural and forestry knowledge. Certified parties are to act in good faith to provide realistic estimates of costs and revenues and to help farmers, ranchers and forester receive “fair distribution of revenues” derived from carbon credit sales.
- Establishes an online website providing information for farmers, ranchers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets.
- Creates an advisory council that would oversee the certification program. At least 16 of the committee’s 25 members must be farmers, ranchers, or private forest owners.
- Charges the USDA with producing a report to Congress identfying barriers to market entry, challenges raised by farmers and forest owners, market performance, and suggesting additional ways to encourage voluntary participation in carbon sequestration practices.
- Authorizes up to $9.1 million in USDA funding for the program, including $4.1 million immediately and an additional $1 million per year for the next five years.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) will soon introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
Rural Forest Markets Act, S. 1107. A second proposal in Congress aims to remove barriers for small-scale private forest landowners and help them benefit from carbon markets and other climate solution markets. Senators Stabenow and Braun are also sponsors of this bill, along with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). The bill echoes previous similar legislative attempts and includes these provisions:
- Directs the USDA to create a Rural Forest Market Investment Program to guarantee up to $150 million to finance eligible projects for rural private forest landowners to participate in an “innovative market for forest carbon or other products.”
- States that eligible projects will be those developed by private entities or nonprofits to aggregate sustainable practices by rural private forest landowners for sales in a carbon or environmental market, using approved methodologies.
- Requires that eligible tree planting projects may take place only on historically forested lands using native species and be planted at ecologically appropriate densities without causing negative impacts to biodiversity or the environment.
The interest in carbon reduction practices and monetizing carbon sequestration at the federal level doesn’t end with these two proposals—there are several more that may gain interest. While not addressing private landowners, another Senate proposal focuses on public land reforestation. The “Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees Act” (REPLANT Act), with Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman as a sponsor, proposes increased funding in the Reforestation Trust Fund for replanting 1.2 billion trees over the next ten years on public land in need of reforestation. The USDA is weighing in on the issue as well, and has recently announced plans to target carbon reduction through existing programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program. And just after passing the Growing Climate Solutions Act today, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee held a hearing on “Farmers and Foresters: Opportunities to Lead in Tackling Climate Change” featuring testimony from several farmers and groups. Readers may get a sense of what more is to come by viewing the hearing on the committee’s website.
Transition Incentives Program aims to help new and disadvantaged farmers obtain land.
The Farm Bill's new Transition Incentives Program (TIP) is now available in Ohio. The addition to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will provide rental payments to transition CRP land from a retired farmer to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer who returns the land to sustainable production. TIP received $25 million in funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. Program supporters hope the funds will enable beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to obtain affordable land for agricultural production.
Here's how the program will work:
- The CRP landowner must be a "retired" or "retiring" landowner.
- The CRP contract must expire on or after September 30, 2010, but there is an exception for certain contracts that expired in 2008 and 2009.
- The landowner must enroll all or a portion of the CRP land in TIP by the enrollment deadline. Contracts expiring in 2010 and eligible 2008 and 2009 contracts must be enrolled by September 30, 2010. Later contracts must be enrolled during the last year of the contract.
- The new or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher must develop a conservation plan for the TIP land.
- By October 1 of the CRP contract expiration year, the landowner must agree to sell or lease (for a minimum of five years) the land to a non-family "beginning" or "socially disadvantaged" farmer or rancher and must allow the farmer to make improvements on the land in accordance with the approved conservation plan.
- The beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer must return the land to production using sustainable grazing or crop production methods.
- The beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer will be eligible to enroll the land in continuous CRP, Conservation Stewardship Program or Environmental Quality Incentives Program, with a waiver of the provision requiring 12 months of continuous ownership.
- The landowner will receive up to two additional CRP annual rental payments if all TIP requirements are met.
A few important definitions:
- A "retired or retiring" owner is one who has ended active labor as a crop producer, or plans to do so within five years of the TIP arrangement.
- A "new or beginning farmer or rancher" is one who has been farming for less than ten years and who will materially participate in the operation of the TIP land. If an entity, at least 50% of the entity's members or stockholders must meet the ten year, material participation requirements.
- A "socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher" is a member of a group that has been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice. Examples include American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Asians, Asian-Americans, Blacks, African Americans, Hispanics. Unlike other federal programs, this definition does not encompass gender prejudice; hence, women do not qualify as socially disadvantaged for purposes of the TIP program.
A few questions arise when considering whether there will be interest in TIP. Are there sufficient incentives for the CRP landowner to transition the land, are there connections between CRP landowners and beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers, and how will the rental payment affect the purchase or lease price for the land? Ohio will soon have an indication of program interest, with the first enrollment deadline of September 30, 2010 quickly approaching.
For more information on TIP, visit the FSA site.