U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack participates in a roundtable discussion with farmers and ranchers at the CSU Spur campus in north Denver on Sept. 19, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Denver on Monday to promote billions in new federal funding to help farmers and ranchers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate.
Following the announcement of its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program earlier this year, the Department of Agriculture received applications for more than 450 projects proposed by agricultural producers and state and local governments. An initial $2.8 billion in grants will fund 70 of those projects across the country that seek to reduce agricultural emissions and incentivize the adoption of more sustainable farming, ranching and forestry practices.
“It’s important for us at the Department of Agriculture to figure out ways that we can partner with farmers, ranchers, producers and others, to create processes in which we learn how best to adapt to and mitigate a changing climate,” Vilsack said at a roundtable discussion with state officials and agricultural producers at the Colorado State University Spur campus in north Denver.
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Among the selected projects is a $25 million proposal by the Colorado Department of Agriculture to expand the Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources initiative, which allows farmers and ranchers to evaluate their practices and market their products as more sustainable.
State officials hope to enroll 500 producers in the expanded STAR program. They will be provided three years of technical and financial assistance to improve soil health and water retention on their farms and ranches. The results will help producers and researchers fine-tune what works in Colorado’s dry, diverse climates and share their findings with their peers.
“We’ve set up a good adaptive learning process,” said Kristin Boysen, a drought and climate specialist with the state Ag Department. “(We’ll) do some research, figure out what works, figure out what producers are able to implement. And then through the peer-to-peer learning networks we’re setting up, folks will learn, and we’ll expand and see exponential uptake of these practices.”
It’s tough for a farmer to be able to apply these things, so this is going to be a great program to help us.
– David Blach, Colorado farmer
Colorado’s agricultural sector emitted roughly 10 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent in 2019, or about 7% of the state’s greenhouse gas total, according to official estimates. Agricultural sources of greenhouse gases include livestock, which emit large quantities of methane as a result of digestion, and soils, which release nitrogen dioxide in the process of fertilization and other crop-management methods.
Through “climate-smart” practices, like reducing tillage or planting optimal cover crops, producers can reduce emissions and improve soil health, saving on costs and boosting yields in the process. But strategies that work in one climate may not work in another, and many farmers and ranchers are reluctant to experiment with such practices. Funding from the Climate-Smart Commodities program, Vilsack said, will help incentivize and “de-risk” these practices for participants.
“We take on responsibilities like this, as ag becomes more and more diversified — not only in technology, in crops, food, everything,” said David Blach, whose family has raised crops and livestock on Colorado’s Eastern Plains for four generations. “It’s tough for a farmer to be able to apply these things, so this is going to be a great program to help us.”
Overall, USDA officials say that 17 of the 70 projects funded by the program’s initial round of grants will impact Colorado. The Denver-based Western Sugar Cooperative, made up of 850 sugar beet growers across Colorado and several neighboring states, was awarded up to $6 million to study and improve the carbon-sequestration potential of soil within its growing area. Other projects aim to promote more sustainable practices for cattle ranches and dairy farms.
The USDA will award a second round of grants later this year. Vilsack also touted the impact of Democrats’ recently enacted climate and clean-energy bill, which includes nearly $20 billion in agricultural conservation funding — a sum Vilsack called “the largest commitment to conservation perhaps in the history of the country, certainly since the Dust Bowl.”
“(It) will allow us to nicely transition from pilots, where we know what works, to integrating them into our regular programming,” he said. “This is just a remarkable opportunity here.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:49 a.m., Sept. 20, 2022, to correct the spelling of David Blach’s name.
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