Agri-Pulse: Technical, financial assistance eyed as key needs for sustainability push

AGRI-PULSE, SPENCER CHASE

Stakeholders from Capitol Hill to the Corn Belt are backing a push to incorporate sustainable practices into production agriculture, but farmers will need additional know-how and monetary support to make that happen, panelists said at an Agri-Pulse webinar Monday. 

The push to incentivize producers to sequester carbon in the soil and take other conservation practices has amplified in recent months as lawmakers — including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Ag Committee — look to incorporate language on agriculture into potential legislation to address climate change.

One such vehicle, Stabenow’s Growing Climate Solutions Act, would create a process to certify third-party verifiers of conservation practices, but Stabenow and others are also pushing for a big funding increase — about $50 billion — in conservation programs.

“I’m very hopeful that we will see additional funding because we know that the current funding levels for the conservation title absolutely do not yet meet the scale of the challenge posed and the scale of interest,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the Virginia Democrat who has introduced the GCSA in the House, said during the webinar, “Sustainability in Agriculture: Moving from promise to practice.”

But that level of investment — and the legislative vehicle to make it happen — has been a sticky subject on Capitol Hill, particularly with Sen. John Boozman, the Ag Committee’s top Republican. He’s expressed concern the funding might amount to a reshaping of conservation priorities by lawmakers outside of the traditional House and Senate Ag Committees.

Spanberger, who chairs the House Ag Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, called the need for technical assistance “one of the largest obstacles” producers face in the thought process of whether or not to do things like incorporate cover crops or adopt other agronomic approaches.

“If you’re looking at changing the practices, literally the way you do business on your family farm, there is no room for error in that,” she said.

Iowa farmer Mitchell Hora has dealt with the need for better technical assistance through operations of his own farm and his soil health consulting company, Continuum Ag. He said producers like to hear from a variety of voices when thinking about changing practices.

“Farmers need just kind of a helping hand and somebody that’s there to help to guide them,” Hora said. “What I see as being most successful is when farmers are learning from other farmers.”

Some private entities are already working to incentivize certain practices, including the use of cover crops to improve soil health and water quality. Moira Mcdonald, environment program director of the Walton Family Foundation, said they’re trying to use grants and other incentives to get cover crops on more acres and celebrate the acreage already using the practices. 

“We’re counting each and every acre that changes over time and trying to applaud the farmers that make those changes,” she said. The foundation also wants to “try to look for opportunities to advance the money that’s needed for transition and the long-term incentives needed to help farmers stay with those practices year-on-year.”

Many agribusinesses are also leaning into the space through sustainability goals and benchmarks. Anne Alonzo, chief sustainability officer and senior vice president for external affairs for Corteva, discussed the company’s recent sustainability report and 14 sustainability goals that stretch from the supply chain to on-the-ground activity with producers.

The company, Alonzo said, found it necessary to come up with ways to add tangible metrics to its efforts as a way to add tangible measurements to an often intangible conversation.

“They’re being done in a measurable, transparent, quantifiable manner,” Alonzo said. “I can assure you that we are very closely tracking our progress.”

Better metrics have also proven elusive at the farm level, posing an additional technical hurdle in the effort for a firm policy approach to the issue. But Spanberger said she’s optimistic there will be an undertaking to address the matter on Capitol Hill yet this year.

“At this point, we’re seeing a change in the tide of the conversation, so I am quite hopeful,” she said.

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