Ag Secretary Vilsack Flexes His Authority.

(For a very, very modest climate action program.)

With the ongoing budget negotiations and Build Back Better package still stalled in the Senate, President Biden’s repeated commitment to take action to reduce climate pollution is an initiative without a lot of punch. The White House, through executive orders and other administrative tools, can accomplish a great deal, but Congress ultimately wields the power of the checkbook.

Much of the Democrats' proposed funding to support climate action in rural areas would run through USDA. The most up-to-date version of the Build Back Better Act sets aside more than $80 billion in additional money for USDA programs over the next decade, including tens of billions in new farm conservation spending, support for forests and clean energy incentives.

In addition to the standard budget reconciliation process and through farm bill programs, the Secretary of Agriculture does have the ability to fund USDA programs from its “Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).” Yesterday, after a year of speculation, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack decided to dip into the CCC to fund his new $1 billion climate program, Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities

Vilsack’s new grant program “will finance pilot projects that create market opportunities for U.S. agricultural and forestry products that use climate-smart practices and include innovative, cost-effective ways to measure and verify greenhouse gas benefits,” according to the USDA. The competitive grants will provide incentives for producers and landowners to:

  • Implement climate-smart production practices, activities, and systems on working lands.
  • Measure/quantify, monitor and verify the carbon and greenhouse gas benefits associated with those practices.
  • Develop markets and promote the resulting climate-smart commodities.

I obviously support USDA action to reduce climate pollution. And I would prefer that Congress actually do their job and fund the government instead of turning to administrative tricks like the CCC. But this climate-smart commodities approach just seems like such a drop in the bucket when it comes to the scale of the problem. And it feels like a lot of greenwash to justify ever-expanding row-crop and livestock production.

The CCC has $30 billion in borrowing authority and can be a very effective way to address issues. Former President Trump’s USDA famously spent tens of billions through CCC several times, providing bonus payments to commodity farmers first for impacts of his trade policies and next for perceived lost income due to Covid-19. I don’t particularly agree with the Trump approach, but it was effective in flooding the agriculture system with cash, which blunted much criticism from the Farm Bureau and commodity groups during the Trump term. Secretary Vilsack—and the White House by extension in this case—are playing it too safe. They are thinking way too small, and they risk bungling one of the biggest opportunities to truly make meaningful reductions to agricultural pollution.

Rural Reading List

I could go on about the climate-agriculture-forestry-land-use nexus for hours, but I’ll stop there in order to leave you wanting more in the future (and if you're accustomed to skimming or skipping the weekly soapbox, that's cool too). Anyway, here’s some rural stories for your enjoyment:

What the Left Doesn’t Understand about Rural America

Excellent Yonder commentary from Skylar Baker-Jordan of the “why don’t Democrats do better in rural America” flavor.

Small Cities Worry Cybersecurity Money Won't Reach Them

An interesting look at the ins-and-outs of accessing cybersecurity resources from the federal infrastructure bill, courtesy of Pew’s Stateline and the Deesmealz.

The Town That QAnon Nearly Swallowed

One of my favorite areas of rural America is the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. One of my least favorite political movements is the Qanon conspiracy cabal. Here, you get a two-for-one in The Nation.

Rural Access to Care Even Worse for Minority Communities

If you’re not familiar with racial and ethnic disparities in rural health care, this is a(nother) story that will drive home the message.

One More Thing: Bring on the Maple Syrup

I’m not a person with a giant sweet tooth. I do like an annual sleeve or two of thin mint girl scout cookies, and ‘tis the season for those modest delights (at least here in Western NC). I can do a hunk of dark chocolate or a brownie pretty much any time. I’m not some kind of purist health nut, but I do generally prefer my cornbread sour, my coffee black and my salad dressing salty with a spike of garlic.

That said, I did grow up eating a pretty sugary diet. We were a sweet tea family, and polished off a pitcher of Kool Aid most days as well. Cheap calories for a working class family with three boys who can really put the food away was the name of the game.

I’m beating around the bush a bit here, but that’s because I wanted to contextualize my point: One of life’s truest glories has to be really amazing, delicious, high-quality maple syrup. I don’t know if I ever had actual, real maple syrup until I was quite a ways into my 20s. But now it turns out some of the coolest people I’ve ever known are maple syrup makers.

Two of our favorite topics here at Keep It Rural are climate change and government funding for rural people and places. Today, I scrolled into a story that involved those things and maple syrup. So naturally, I thought you might like it too. “Rural maple syrup producer wants more to tap into business,” is good reporting from those intrepid winter souls up in the Great Lakes zone. I hope that someday the craft maple syrup biz will grow and thrive. And I hope a growing supply of the good stuff will also bring the price down a bit so my wallet can actually afford it. Excellent maple syrup is more valuable than gold right now.

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