Topsoil protection should be stressed in the next farm bill, U.S. House Ag panel told

USDA more than triples funding for ‘climate smart’ agriculture

The Biden administration plans to distribute more than $3 billion to fund projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in agriculture and forestry — a tripling of its initial commitment in February.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was set to publicly announce the expansion of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program on Wednesday, along with 70 projects that will receive the initial funding.

“This is a really, really important day for American agriculture,” Vilsack told reporters Tuesday. “I just hope everybody fully appreciates the significance of what we’re doing here.”

The program is being funded through the Commodity Credit Corporation, which has been historically used to support farmers with loans and payments and to fund conservation programs of the farm bill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said it can use the CCC to fund the new climate program without congressional approval because it will “aid in the expansion of markets for agricultural commodities,” a provision of its charter. A key goal of the program is to create markets for climate-friendly products.

“We have significant resources left in the CCC account to be able to adequately and fully and completely respond to any farm bill program payments,” Vilsack said.

The initial selected projects will get a total of about $2.8 billion over the course of five years, and the companies, universities, conservation groups and others that have proposed them will contribute a total of about $1.4 billion, Vilsack said. Funding for a second group of projects is expected later this year.

It’s part of a voluntary approach the Biden administration is taking toward its goal of “net zero” agriculture that would boost the amount of carbon that remains in soil and reduce the emissions of livestock, machinery and other sources. Rather than force farmers to reduce emissions and improve soil health through regulations, Vilsack hopes to give farmers lucrative markets for products that are the result of those reduced-emissions strategies.

The initial round of projects is expected to encompass the production of livestock, milk, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, peanuts, cotton, timber and others, with producers in each state included in at least one project. The program requires that those project leaders make periodic reports of their progress.

“This will be a very transparent process,” Vilsack said. “We will be reporting on it on a regular basis.”

At least 15 of the 70 projects will include Iowa producers, according to project summaries provided by USDA. Up to $95 million will go to an Iowa Soybean Association program that pays farmers to implement conservation practices to keep more carbon in the soil and improve water quality. The greenhouse gas reductions can be sold to companies and organizations who seek to offset their own emissions.

Agriculture accounts for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Jared Strong is a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, which first published this report.

Siler City wastewater treatment plant racks up more fines, files for Special Order by Consent

An aerial view of the Siler City wastewater treatment plant (Photo: Town of Siler City)

An aerial view of the Siler City wastewater treatment plant (Photo: Town of Siler City)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has fined the Siler City wastewater treatment plant another $36,000 related to Clean Water Act violations the facility incurred in March, according to state documents, bringing the total to $154,000 in penalties over the past two years.

As Policy Watch reported last month, the town’s wastewater treatment plant is overwhelmed by discharge from the Mountaire poultry processing facility. The slaughterhouse sends extremely high amounts of nitrogen and ammonia to the plant, which then discharges into Loves Creek, a tributary of the Rocky River. Portions of those waterways are on the federal impaired list; aquatic biologists have also spotted sick and dying fish just downstream of the wastewater treatment plant.

Siler City is responsible for regulating its industrial dischargers, like Mountaire. DEQ issues discharge permits to, and regulates, wastewater treatment plants.

The recent fine stems from eight separate violations, including exceedances of Total Nitrogen as much as 129%. Total Suspended Solids — the quantity of particles in water that are large enough to be trapped by a filter — were over the regulatory standard by 312%. DEQ assessed the town $10,000 for failing in its “duty to mitigate.”

Since the March incidents, the wastewater treatment plant has also amassed four more violations, according to the EPA. These include Total Nitrogen levels at 207% above the limit and cadmium concentrations at 43% higher than legally allowed.

According to state documents, DEQ does not believe Siler City is violating the law “willfully or intentionally.” However, “there is ample evidence that negligence has occurred across multiple program areas,” DEQ wrote.

Last week, on the same day that Wolfspeed announced it would build a new silicon carbide factory in Siler City, bringing with it 1,800 new jobs, the town applied with DEQ for a Special Order by Consent,  also known as an SOC, according to an agency spokesperson. The planned Chatham County-Siler City megasite will also strain the capacity of the wastewater treatment plant unless it is upgraded.

Policy Watch requested the application, but DEQ has yet to provide it.

An SOC is a legal agreement between the state and a facility that can’t consistently comply with the terms, conditions, or limitations in its permit. However, SOCs can only be issued if the non-compliance is because of plant design or infrastructure. Siler City plans to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant by early 2025, although those improvements are already 18 months behind schedule.

Agriculture and the environment: U.S. Ag secretary says America’s voluntary approach is better than Europe’s mandates

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack promoted voluntary federal programs to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

BOONE, Iowa — The more than $1 billion the federal government is devoting to voluntary efforts to reduce agriculture’s adverse effects on the environment is a better long-term strategy than mandating new rules for farmers, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

While state and federal officials in the United States have tended to avoid implementing rules that might force farmers to radically change their long-held practices, the European Union has specific requirements about crop rotations, permanent pastures and the use of buffer strips and other conservation practices that improve soil quality.

Dutch farmers have protested some of their country’s efforts in recent years to limit pollution from agriculture, particularly the proposals to significantly reduce the number of livestock raised in the country.

“Candidly, our view — and I’ve expressed this to EU officials — our view is that their approach may very well result in reduced production,” Vilsack said at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, in response to a question about whether U.S. farmers might eventually face similar requirements. He added: “I think our approach is better.”

The European Union recently suspended some of its crop rotation requirements to increase production because of global food shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

When asked to elaborate later about his comments, Vilsack said they pertained to organic farming and were the views of some European farmers. The European Green Deal seeks to increase the amount of farmland that is being managed to produce organic crops to 25% by 2030. The practice is more environmentally friendly but often produces lower yields.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered programs to expand organic farming in the United States but hasn’t set goals for converting farmland to organic. Vilsack said Tuesday that demand for U.S. agriculture products will continue to rise. Read more

State attorneys general, including NC’s Josh Stein, support new poultry rule but question oversight

Federal regulators say poultry producers are disadvantaged by the consolidation of meat processing. (Photo by Stephen Ausmus/Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

The attorneys general of 10 states, including North Carolina’s Josh Stein, are backing a proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is meant to get poultry growers fair agreements with meat processors, but they want stronger oversight.

“One of the many reasons it’s tough for small poultry farmers — and small farmers of all kinds — to afford their lives is because of imbalances of power, money and information between farmers and processors,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Monday when he joined his counterparts in nine states to publicly comment on the USDA proposal. “These imbalances lead to unfair competition and bad outcomes not only for these farmers, but for their communities and way of life.”

The USDA is soliciting comments on its proposed rule for Transparency in Poultry Grower Contracting and Tournaments until Aug. 23. It is built on the provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 that was adopted to ensure fair competition and trade for farmers and ranchers.

The proposal would require poultry dealers to provide information to producers about the minimum number of chicks they might be given to raise and what the dealers have paid other producers, among other information.

Further, those dealers that pay producers based on how they perform compared with other producers — what is referred to as a “tournament-style system” — would be required to divulge more specifics about the chicks that they provide to help the producers predict how much meat might result from them.

About 90% of broiler chickens — those that are raised for their meat — are brokered through contracts with meat processors, wrote the attorneys general of California, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

“Half of the chicken farmers in the United States work in regions that are dominated by one or two chicken processors,” they said. “The high buyer concentration in local markets allows poultry processors to respond punitively to any grower’s complaints about their contract. This leaves poultry growers no room to negotiate their contracts.”

As Policy Watch reported last year, Perdue suddenly canceled its contract with Robeson County chicken farmer Rudy Howell after he invited environmental and animal welfare advocates to his farm to document Perdue’s allegedly poor sanitation practices, as well as his public health concerns regarding the sick and dying hatchlings he received from the company. Read more