CULPEPER STAR EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER
Farmers, administration officials, and congressmen from both political parties found common ground Wednesday as Rep. Abigail Spanberger presided over her first hearing as chair of the House Agriculture Committee’s Conservation & Forestry Subcommittee.
They agreed that American farmers play a crucial role in conserving soil, cropland and forests, protecting water quality and trapping carbon that otherwise contributes to climate change.
The subcommittee reviewed federal conservation programs embodied in the 2018 Farm Bill. It heard testimony by Matthew Lohr, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce. Their two agencies administer more than a dozen farm and natural-resource programs affecting many millions of people.
The witnesses and subcommittee members discussed a wide variety of issues, including soil health, cover crops, small-scale farming, wetland conservation, disastrous forest fires and agriculture’s ability to sequester carbon, the biggest engine of climate change.
During the hearing in Washington’s Longworth House Office Building, the Virginia congresswoman emphasized that these USDA programs are voluntary, and praised their contributions to conserving healthy soils, water, fish and wildlife.
With brisk questioning led by Spanberger and Reps. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), subcommittee members explored new authorities afforded by the 2018 Farm Bill and their prospects to accelerate conservation work.
LaMalfa, the ranking Republican member, asked how the USDA can help prevent California’s forest fires and, after such a disaster, what the agency can do to remove burned timber, replant trees and reduce soil erosion.
In an interview afterward, Spanberger said the day’s topics took “a step forward in acknowledging the good work that farmers are doing and the value of these federal programs, which are vital not just to the livelihood of farmers but, in fact, to our larger efforts to address conservation challenges and global climate change. I think it was a good first hearing in how it addressed those issues.”
Private landowners manage more than 70 percent of the land in the United States, so their decisions deeply affect Americans on and off the farm, she said during the hearing.
“Much like the Dust Bowl era, the case for agricultural resiliency and sustainability applies today,” she said in her opening remarks. “According to the National Climate Assessment, climatic disruptions to agricultural production over the past 40 years have been linked to changes in crop yields and quality. Extreme weather events such as historic snowfall and flooding in the Midwest, destructive hurricanes across the Southeast, and devastating wildfires in the West lend urgency to conservation efforts.”
Dipping into U.S. history, she noted that the federal government began encouraging agricultural conservation during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. That’s when the Great Plains experienced long and severe droughts that eroded soil, caused terrible dust storms, forced families to abandon their farms, and prompted mass migrations. Congress created the Soil Conservation Service to save farmland and promote productive fields.
Spanberger and her colleagues also sought to learn how the USDA reaches out to and recruits producers and encourages them to try new practices.
She said she’s heard from producers in her district who use the USDA’s conservation efforts, such as its Environmental Quality Incentives Program or Conservation Reserve Program.
Enacted by President Reagan, CRP improves water quality, reduces soil erosion and increases habitat for endangered and threatened species. EQIP provides producers with financial resources and one-on-one help to implement conservation practices.
“With net farm income at just half its 2013 level, these voluntary programs that provide support to farmers—while at the same time protecting our natural resources—are critical,” Spanberger said.
One goal of the hearing was to highlight USDA conservation programs to other members of Congress and the public, she said.
The even-tempered discussion “recognized some of the forward momentum that farmers and producers are providing on reducing carbon-dioxide levels,” Spanberger said in the interview. “Talking about all of these environmental challenges and acknowledging this piece of the pie is a really important thing to do.”
Traditionally, the subcommittee has taken a bipartisan approach to the issues under its purview.
“The Agriculture Committee addresses concerns of an important American constituency—anyone who farms or or eats the farmers’ food or produce, which means pretty much everybody,” Spanberger said.
A Democrat from Henrico County, she is one of 19 House freshmen to wield a subcommittee gavel.
As a first-term member, Spanberger said she is honored to lead the Conservation & Forestry Subcommittee, a post she had sought. She said she was keen to serve on the House Agriculture Committee because agriculture is important to Virginia and it’s important to have a Virginian on the panel.
That is especially true for her district, she said. “We are majority suburban in terms of population but we’re majority rural and agricultural in terms of land mass,” Spanberger said. “Being able to address the concerns of people in our district is something I can best do when I’m engaged on this committee.”
She noted that she represents a diverse swath of Central Virginia, from Richmond’s suburbs to Nottoway County’s fields in the south of the 7th House District to Culpeper County’s rural communities in its north.
Before the hearing, Spanberger spoke with journalists from the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. She told them she is proud to be a voice in Congress for the 7th District’s agricultural producers and rural communities.
She pledged to keep working on smart and sustainable agricultural policies.
Spanberger said she hopes to hold field hearings and informal round tables in LaMalfa’s district as well as Virginia’s 7th District.