NEW ORLEANS – Agriculture Undersecretary for Crop Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie told farmers gathered here last week at the Commodity Classic that they can use their conservation efforts to counter the narrative in a New York Times editorial video titled “Meet the People Getting Paid to Kill Our Planet.”
During a panel discussion, Bonnie told corn, wheat, soybean and sorghum farmers that they should tell the story of agriculture and forestry.
“There’s a counter-narrative,” Bonnie said. “We need to come up with a better narrative based on facts and science. We want to work with all of you to tell this story.
Bonnie, who spoke, was joined by panelists Zach Ducheneaux, Administrator of the Agricultural Services Agency, Marcia Bunger, Administrator of the Risk Management Agency, and Terry Cosby, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who answered the questions.
Bonnie pointed out that the USDA is returning more of its office staff to the field as soon as possible.
“We know how important it is to get people into field offices. We hear that a lot. We know how important it is,” he said.
He added that the USDA also knows the importance of providing disaster benefits and is trying to “facilitate that effort using existing data.”
Bonnie repeated previous statements that the USDA is looking for ways to engage with farmers to scale up climate-smart practices based on voluntary incentives and “the best science we have.”
“If the tools we design don’t work for agriculture, they won’t work for the climate,” he said.
Some of the practices have been called “nutrient management,” he said.
USDA’s plans won’t leave out so-called “early adopters,” he said. “We don’t want to take them out of conservation so they can come back in. That would be stupid.”
Asked about the role the USDA will play in the drafting of the next farm bill, Bonnie replied, “Obviously the farm bill is drafted by Congress”, although “USDA provides technical data “. If the USDA has “priorities that we pursue, we will do so by working with the people on the hill.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “wouldn’t want to say it’s our Farm Bill,” he added.
Responding to a question from a North Dakota farmer who complained about having to travel to multiple county offices to register for programs on the land he farms, Bonnie said he, Ducheneaux and Bunger were working on ways to make registration easier.
Ducheneaux said the USDA “will avoid triple reporting.” He noted that Bunger is a former county director of the FSA “who knows the issues,” and Bunger added that her own husband, a South Dakota farmer, is frustrated with the reporting requirements.
But when asked why the National Agricultural Statistics Service does its own reporting, Ducheneaux said NASS data was “privileged” and that NASS could not use FSA reports. “I understand there is a lot of redundancy, but please fill out the forms,” Ducheneaux added.
UKRAINE WAR AND BEGINNING FARMERS
When asked if concerns about global food security due to the war in Ukraine might encourage farmers to keep their land in production rather than leaving it unused under the conservation reserve program, Ducheneaux said “If producers choose this option, we won’t blame them. ”
In response to a question from a Minnesota farmer who complained that the definition of a beginning farmer is “inflexible” and does not take into consideration years of college education or military service, Ducheneaux said that farmers will have to help with that definition on Capitol Hill when the next farm bill comes around.
Also responding to a question from a farmer about dual-crop land cover, Bunger said RMA is “always a balancing act” because policies need to be “currently sound.”
But Bunger added that she wanted to see ‘what we can do to get you some coverage’ and told farmers that when you go to USDA offices, ‘don’t walk in with your head down’. .
A Wisconsin farmer said she needed new equipment to engage in some conservation and irrigation practices, but could not afford it. To be more sustainable, NRCS practices need to be more flexible, she said.
Cosby, the NRCS administrator, said there was not enough funding to meet all the demands.
He also noted that the NRCS is actively hiring staff for its field offices and urged farmers to tell people to apply to the agency “to get in that NRCS truck and roam the land.”
“Our No. 1 job is to be on the ground with the farmer writing conservation plans,” he said.
Ducheneaux said Vilsack urged him to try to fix the issues in response to the comments, noting that Vilsack told him, “I’d rather you made a mistake trying than not at all.”
Ducheneaux also repeated his email address and phone number which he distributed at other meetings and urged farmers to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 941-4675.