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By Beth Smoker 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative Gets Underway

During the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Month of May, Secretary Vilsack announced an additional $72.3 million for soil health investments to support the department’s 10 Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture. Secretary Vilsack established the USDA climate change initiative just over a year ago in preparation for last year’s Paris Climate Conference. The initiative aims to increase agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration in agriculture and forests.

This additional funding is being distributed through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), where each state will have the discretion to determine which Climate Change Building Blocks to focus their additional funds on. This is the first time EQIP funding has been explicitly allocated for climate-smart agriculture practices. California NRCS has received $4.3 million of this $72.3 million allocation.

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

California NRCS plans to fund agricultural management practices that address soil health, nitrogen management, grazing and pasture and private forest practices. All with an eye to increasing soil carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers and ranchers, beginning this summer, can go into their NRCS District Office to find out more about how they may qualify for the new EQIP climate change funding. The application process is the same as regular EQIP.

A learning opportunity for CDFA’s Healthy Soils Initiative

The USDA funding for climate-smart agriculture comes at an important time for California. The state is considering a new Healthy Soils Initiative, also aimed at providing financial incentives for growers for management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently released its draft framework for the program. The upcoming California NRCS experience of distributing climate-related EQIP funds can help inform the CDFA initiative. More information can be found here.

This article was published on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website on June 9. 

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The USDA’s climate change efforts are underway. Climate change is now officially embedded in the Department’s strategic goals, one of which seeks to make forests and working lands “more resilient to climate change." A 2011 Departmental Regulation requires USDA agencies to consider climate change impacts when making long-term planning decisions.

Meanwhile, USDA spending on climate change-related actions has grown in recent years – during FY 2013, USDA says it budgeted approximately $186 million across six of its agencies for climate change related research, outreach, and financial incentives.

USDA and the federal government have come a long way in starting to address the realities of climate change. But until the Department shifts its focus to existing, ‘shovel-ready,' sustainable agriculture solutions to climate change, we will not achieve the level of change that is needed.

Inordinate Focus on Biomass and Biorefineries

Over half of the $186 million in USDA’s FY 2013 climate change dollars were allocated to renewable energy programs —specifically biomass research and development.

According to a recent report, $88 million, or 47% of the USDA’s total climate change budget, went to just two biomass and biorefinery research programs. These programs seek to develop technologies for industrial-scale conversion of agricultural and forestry materials and by-products for fuels and electricity generation.

The inordinate focus of climate change funds on these projects—which will likely benefit only large agri-business interests, and few of them in California—is disappointing. Rather than throwing more millions into technology development, USDA should instead be focusing its efforts on ways to strengthen the resilience of all farmers and ranchers while also achieving on-farm greenhouse gas reductions.

By contrast, financial incentives for farmers to install renewable energy or improve energy efficiencies through the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program amounted to less than $13 million (7 percent).

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Below is a speech given by Val Dolcini, the State Executive Director of California for the USDA Farm Service Agency, to the Woodland Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 24, 2013. The event was the 46th Annual Farm-City Harvest Awards Luncheon at the Hotel Woodland.

Thank you for that kind introduction.  I kind of feel like the kid returning to school after a long summer vacation. I’m sure you all remember the first assignment of the year? Writing an essay on what I did on my summer vacation. In my case, it’s what I did during the government shutdown!

Well, I certainly stayed busy. The garage has never been cleaner, the dog has never been walked more, and there’s not a single blade of grass out of place in my yard. But at the end of the day, I’m certainly glad to be back at work!

When the chamber invited me to address you today, I went back and forth over what I should discuss. Coming from my vantage point, there are certainly many worthy topics to choose from. I could talk about the overall importance of California agriculture to the national and international economy … or the value of the world class ag research being done at UC Davis everyday and its impact on global agriculture.  We could discuss the cutting edge innovations pioneered by Yolo County’s many seed and bio sciences companies and their positive impact on our regional economy … or perhaps I could talk about the increasing importance of local and regional food systems, farmers markets, community supported agriculture operations, and other farm to fork direct marketing operations in this region.

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Earlier this year, it was hard to be optimistic about any progress in Congress on the farm bill. Fiscal cliff legislation on New Year’s Day extended the current farm bill through September, buying time for more delays. And, there was so much on the legislative agenda—from budget sequestration to appropriations and more. But after watching sequestration take hold in March, Congress addressed appropriations for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2013 and moved on separate budget resolutions for FY2014. 

Still, when both the Senate and House agricultural committees announced plans for farm bill markup, no one could have expected the speed of deliberations in committee and the quick movement to floor consideration. On May 14, the Senate Agriculture Committee marked up the farm bill legislation in little more than three hours. The following day, the House Agriculture Committee took about nine hours to get the job done. 

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The future outlook for agriculture is bright. Food production will have to roughly double by 2050 in order to meet population projections. And if we look where much of that growth is expected to occur–Asia–we know that California farmers and ranchers will have an excellent opportunity to meet the new demand. But there will be challenges, too, as increased food production will have to occur with diminishing arable land suitable for farming, pressures on water quality and availability, potential shortages of mineral inputs, and climate change.

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Dissident raisin farmers from California’s San Joaquin Valley and their ideological allies will get a shot at attacking a federal farm program, under a case that the U.S. Supreme Court accepted Tuesday.

Bucking the odds, Fresno-area farmers Marvin and Laura Horne succeeded in convincing the high court to hear their challenge to federal handling of the raisin industry. Though the legal questions are complicated, the real-world stakes add up.

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By Julia Freedgood of American Farmland Trust and Christine Fry of ChangeLab Solutions. Cross-posted from the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition.

We’ve all heard the drumbeat from nutrition experts: Eat more fruits and vegetables. We know this advice is good for our health. But what does it mean for our land—and for the farmers who grow food on our land?

With obesity rates at epidemic levels, easier access to fruits and vegetables is important, especially in low-income neighborhoods where healthy options can be hard to find. But ramping up demand for affordable produce means stepping up production, which means more demand on land and water.

How we use these resources will affect our environment and communities for years to come. We need to find new ways to protect both human health and the health of our land long into the future.

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Cross-posted from the Colorado Health Foundation’s Health Relay blog and the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition blog

In the United States, and increasingly around the world, it’s easy for consumers to find high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, including sugar-sweetened drinks, fast foods and highly processed snack foods — they’re abundant, easily accessible and perceived as more affordable than healthier foods.

The Farm Bill renewed every five years or so, plays a significant role in shaping this food environment by influencing what foods get produced, how they are produced, who has access to them and, in some cases, how foods are marketed.

The majority of dollars in the bill primarily support the production of agricultural commodities (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton) and food programs (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], formerly called Food Stamps) for low-income Americans.

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The poverty of the Central Valley of California and the abundance of the region’s agriculture is a conundrum. Even though there has been a decrease in community-based access to healthy food, and a rise in chronic disease in the heartland of the state of California, and the nation, we are beginning to see people and agriculture coming together for the good of both.

The exciting change arising in the Central Valley, honoring our agricultural roots and reinventing our regional economy, has been led by the smart growth investments of Smart Valley Places, with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation. These buds of change are blossoming into a new triple-bottom-line Central Valley economy that honors the environment, equity and economics. Environmentalists, supporters of the organic movement, and advocates for social justice, are not the only ones talking the regional food system talk anymore. The Fresno Business Council, the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley and regional cities are choosing smart growth and healthy communities and realizing that the Central Valley, a place with the capacity to feed the nation, can also feed our region. Institutions (such as schools, hospitals and city and county governments) are looking at their ability to access healthier, affordable local food, and the ability for local purchasing to drive their economies home.

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The National Young Farmer’s Coalition recently released a report showing that the nation’s young and beginning farmers face tremendous barriers in starting a farming career. Building a Future With Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed surveyed 1,000 farmers from across the United States and found that access to capital, to land, and to health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners. Farmers rated farm apprenticeships, local partnerships and community supported agriculture (CSA) as the most valuable programs to help beginners.

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Definitions of “rural” are not standardized – some programs use definitions such as "communities under 50,000 that are rural in nature," "areas of less than 2,500 not in census places," or "Nonmetro County." In addition to the confusing nature of the definitions, they generally do not relate well with realities of western states and mountainous topography – greatly impacting the eligibility of communities and individuals to access programs. The negative impact of these definitions is especially true for rural communities that have been experiencing inordinately high in-migration from other areas; growth not necessarily due to increased economic opportunity within the region, but rather from lack of affordable housing for low- and middle-income people in nearby areas.

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