Vilsack, Wojciechowski tour farm
HAMPSTEAD, Md. — With a Maryland farm as the backdrop, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski discussed their respective visions for sustainable agriculture and how domestic policies and transatlantic cooperation can help address challenges facing global agriculture.
The officials toured Lippy Brothers farm in Carroll County following the USDA’s 99th Agriculture Outlook Forum and were joined by farm operators Donald Lippy and Brad Rill, John Jansen, United Soybean Board and vice president of strategic partnerships, and Lars Dyrud CEO of soil mapping firm, Earth Optics in a panel discussion on the opportunities in “climate smart” agriculture.
Vilsack said the last two years have been the best in farm income in the nation’s history but the challenge has been it is not well distributed across the industry.
Half the farmers lost money in those years and 40 percent supplement the farm with off-farm income.
“That means 10 percent did very very well and it’s the other 90 percent we need to focus on.” Vilsack said.
EU Commissioner Wojciechowski said the EU faces the same challenges as U.S. farmers — “food security, stability, sustainability and solidarity” — and as trading partners their agriculture systems are complementary in many ways. With the EU nations losing about 800 farms a day, Wojciechowski said “generational renewal” is also a big hurdle in Europe.
A huge part of sustainability is being diversified, Vilsack said, and USDA is incentivizing farmers to put in place environmental practices providing ecosystem services and mitigating the effects of climate change.
In 2022, the USDA launched a Climate-Smart Commodities program, investing more than $3.8 billion into 141 projects.
Jansen and the USB are part of a grant-funded project called Farmers for Soil Health that seeks to double cover crop acres on corn and soybean ground and establish a credit trading platform to connect farmers and end users.
Jansen said soybean board has identified at least 20 farming practices that could be monetized into traceable credits once science and verification processes are established.
Last month, USDA announced new funding through the Inflation Reduction Act available for participation in voluntary conservation programs and adopt climate-smart practices. An additional $19.5 billion is going to several programs run by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service spread over five years for climate-smart agriculture.
Dubbed a “climate smart farm” by USDA, the Lippy Brothers operation manages 8,000 acres and along with commodity grain crops, it has diversified into egg production, soybean exports and processing vegetables.
About 15 years ago, Lippy Brothers started exporting when it was clear the region needed more outlets for soybeans, farm manager Brad Rill said.
He added in the last five years, they’ve seen much growth in that part of their business and it’s helped the next generation take a larger role in the farm operation. Last year they exported 3.2 million bushels of soybeans, with about 200,000 bushels coming from their farm.
“It’s just created more of a market opportunity that they really didn’t have, not only for us but for a lot of farmers in the area,” Rill said.
Vilsack said trading partners like the E.U. will be demanding products grown with practices the Lippy Brothers employs.
“It’s an exciting time for soybeans and corn,” Vilsack said.
Much of the climate smart initiative is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emission, especially carbon.
Dyrud said there is three times more carbon in the top meter of the Earth’s soil than anywhere else in the world.
That makes farmers the “majority shareholders of the largest carbon sink in the country” and puts them in a good position to take advantage of opportunities in the climate change battle.
“I don’t think there is a climate solution that doesn’t go through the soil,” he said.
Collecting and accessing data will be crucial, he added, as practices will need to be verified as beneficial to the environment and quantifiable to determine how much of an impact it has.
“Data is the new thing that’s enhancing food and market value,” Dyrud said. “It gives you the ability to improve carbon farming the way you would your production.
Vilsack noted the genesis of the climate smart effort was a meeting of several agriculture groups at another Maryland Farm — U.S. Farmer and Rancher Alliance Chairman Chip Bowling’s operation in Charles County.
“The first thing we did was listen to the farmers,” Vilsack said of the Southern Maryland meeting. The message was clear that a climate solution had to be voluntary, market driven, incentivized and verifiable to be successful, he added.
After the discussion, Vilsack and Wojciechowski were asked how the United States and European Union can help bring along other nations who tally much higher greenhouse gas emissions to accept climate smart agriculture. Wojciechowski said having a unified voice promoting its importance globally is important.
“We should promote this value together,” he said. “We should be the leader of this transformation in agriculture together.”
Vilsack added the Climate-Smart Commodities program will generate a lot of research and data to show the practices’ value and it will be shared throughout the world. Seeing American and European farmers being successful with it will be its own incentive, too.
“Farmers, I don’t care where they are, they’re peering over the fence and if their neighbor is making a buck more, they’ll want to know more about it,” Vilsack said.