Prevented Planting Costs Now Expected to Top $1 Billion,
Affecting 10 Million Acres
The USDA said last week that it expects farmers to file insurance claims exceeding $1 billion for some 10 million acres they have been unable to plant this year as a result of the unprecedented chain of storms that have struck the Midwest and the Mississippi River Valley in recent months.
Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Governor’s Office
Fresh in the memory from early March are the multitude of news photos from the weather-induced disasters occurring at an unprecedented rate in multiple points across the Farm Belt. The so-called “bomb cyclone” of heavy rains and snow falling on saturated ground sent river waters soaring well above their banks, breaching more than a dozen levees and causing fatalities. Farmers lost grains when thousands of storage bins were destroyed and roads were initially damaged to the point that access to fields, much less markets, was denied.
The weather onslaught continued as the year progressed. Days of deadly, severe thunderstorms late last month brought widespread damage across the southeastern and central United States. The threat of flooding and violent thunderstorms continues in much of the U.S. farm belt.
While factors at play in extreme weather events are complex, scientists say that what the nation – and the world – has been experiencing are consistent with the indicators of climate change.
Not all symptoms of a changing climate are as severe as those seen in recent months. But they do include higher, drought-inducing temperatures, wetter conditions, inconsistent growing seasons and other production altering events. The implications of the record-setting weather events that have occurred in recent months have driven home the need for adaptive management strategies like those advocated by the North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA).
Meanwhile, local USDA offices are calling on farmers to plant cover crops on acres where they have been unable to plant corn, soybeans and other program crops. Cover crops on acres where program crops are unable to be planted are eligible for minimal payments under an upcoming round of the Market Facilitation Program, a trade-assistance offering put in place by the Trump administration to help farmers during U.S. trade disputes and embargoes with major trading partners, including China.
The Agriculture Department says farmers planting cover crops also may be eligible for cost-share assistance from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota are among states that have started special signup dates for farmers who could not get into their fields this spring. Sign-up deadlines vary by state and farmers are urged to consult with their local NRCS office. USDA field agents can also offer guidance on what qualifies as a cover crop. The department says that for this year only, farmers will be allowed to plant cover crops on prevent plant acres to be used for hay or grazing as soon as Sept. 1, well ahead of the normal date of Nov. 1. But USDA officials assert that no cover crops can be harvested for seed or grain.
On June 6, President Trump signed a $19.1 billion disaster relief package the includes help for those communities devastated by the catastrophic flooding, as well as financial assistance for areas hit by wildfires and hurricanes.
The measure provides $3 billion for farmers to help cover crop losses; $720 million for the U.S. Forest Service to help cover wildfire suppression efforts; $558 million for the Emergency Conservation Program to help farmers restore storm-damaged land; $480 million for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program; and $435 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which assists landowners and communities in restoring culverts, stream banks, levees and other infrastructure.
The Congressional Budget Office says that the agriculture spending in the bill is expected to total $5.5 billion.
EPA Drops Biomass Co-Firing as Compliance Option in Final ACE Rule;
Offers RFS Rule That Would Increase Use of Cellulosic Biofuel Only
Biofuels are taking a hit on two policy fronts being mounted by the Trump administration, with the EPA removing biomass co-firing as a compliance option in its final Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule issued June 15, and offering a minimal increase in next-generation cellulosic biofuels only in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) targets proposed Friday by the agency for 2020 and, for biodiesel, 2021.
EPA officials say that while they hold burning biomass for power is carbon neutral, the Trump administration’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act precludes efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions “beyond the fenceline” of any regulated power facility. Biomass gains its GHG advantages through its ability to regrow. But because that regrowth occurs beyond the confines of the power plant, it is ineligible for designation as a means of compliance, EPA says.
The exclusion of biomass diverges from an August, 2018, version of the ACE plan which rejected the co-firing of coal with natural gas, but said then the co-firing of biomass would be an allowed compliance option that states could consider.
The final rule issued last month says, “Although biomass co-firing methods are technically feasible and can be cost-effective for some designated facilities, these factors and others (namely, that any potential net reductions in emissions from biomass use occur outside of the regulated source and are outside of the control of the designated facility, which is incompatible with the interpretation of the EPA’s authority and the permissible scope of [the Best System of Emission Reduction, or BSER] as set forth [in this rulemaking]) are the considerations that prevent its adoption as the BSER for the source category.”
The agency uses similar reasoning in rejecting biomass co-firing as a compliance option with language that critics say could undercut other EPA efforts to define the fuel as carbon neutral.
“While the firing of biomass occurs at a designated facility, biomass firing in and of itself does not reduce emissions of [carbon dioxide] emitted from that source,” the final rule says. “Specifically, when measuring stack emissions, combustion of biomass emits more mass of emissions per [British thermal unit] than that from combustion of fossil fuels, thereby increasing [carbon dioxide] emissions at the source. Recognition of any potential CO2 emissions reductions associated with biomass . . . relies on accounting for activities not applied at and largely not under the control of that source, including consideration of offset terrestrial carbon effects during biomass fuel regrowth.”
Friday’s announcement of EPA’s proposed Renewable Volume Obligation (RVOs) drew criticism from biodiesel producers for what they say is the agency’s failure to recognize the sector’s increased production capabilities. And ethanol producers slammed the proposal for failing to take into account the huge revenues the sector lost to a flurry of hardship waivers granted to refiners in recent years that have cost the sector millions in lost revenues.
As proposed by EPA, 20.04 billion gallons of biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, would be required in 2020, up from 19.92 billion gallons this year. The increase is entirely due to an expected 122-million-gallon increase in the production of cellulosic biofuels. The RVOs for 2020 include 5.04 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, which take in the higher cellulosic ethanol amount as well as biomass-based diesel, and 15 billion gallons of conventional corn ethanol.
The EPA proposed to keep the biodiesel RVO, which is set for a year ahead of other regulated biofuels, at 2.43 billion gallons, the same as it was set last year for 2020. Biomass-based diesel includes biodiesel, typically made from soybean oil, and renewable diesel, a form that is chemically similar to petroleum diesel.
Kurt Kovarik, the National Biodiesel Board’s vice president of federal affairs, said the proposed RVOs “would turn the RFS program on its head. It is likely to reduce America’s use of cleaner, lower-carbon biodiesel and renewable diesel for transportation over the next several years, encouraging more petroleum use. The proposal sends a chilling signal to America’s biodiesel and renewable diesel producers of EPA’s intent to limit market growth for cleaner fuels.”
Kovarik said that by repeating the previous biomass-based diesel volume of 2.43 billion gallons for 2021, the agency has failed to analyze the industry’s ability to achieve higher volumes.
The Renewable Fuels Association says that by neglecting to “prospectively reallocate small refinery exemptions and blatantly ignoring a court order to restore improperly waived gallons,” EPA’s RVOs “betra President Trump’s commitment to uphold the integrity” of the RFS.
“As long as EPA continues to dole out compliance exemptions to oil refiners without reallocating the lost volume, the agency may as well start referring to the annual RFS levels as ‘renewable volume suggestions’ rather than ‘renewable volume obligations,'” said Geoff Cooper, RFA’s President and CEO. “It is a complete misnomer to call these blending volumes ‘obligations’ when EPA’s small refinery bailouts have essentially transformed the RFS into a voluntary program for nearly one-third of the nation’s oil refineries.”
CA Legislature Funds CMA Programs, But CalCAN Says It’s Not Enough
The California legislature last month approved a state budget that included$1.4 billion in climate change investments. The results were mixed for the state’s suite of Climate Smart Agriculture programs. Under the programs, farmers and ranchers receive financial and technical assistance to adopt management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sinks and provide multiple benefits to farms and the environment.
The California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), a coalition of the state’s leading sustainable agriculture organizations, advocates for the investment in multiple-benefit Climate Smart Agriculture. The silver lining in the budget was the boost to the Healthy Soils Program, which went from $15 million to $28 million in FY 2019-20.
The program funds farmers to adopt new soil management practices like cover crops, compost, mulch, conservation tillage and more to increase carbon sinks and lower greenhouse gas emissions overall.
Earlier last month, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced its latest round of Healthy Soil Program grants, distributing $12.48 million throughout the state. CalCAN greeted the announcement with praise, noting that the amount making up the 217 grants to farmers and ranchers across the state “almost triples the reach of the program to California producers, and represents the largest investments in the country in building healthy agricultural soil as a climate mitigation strategy.
However, while the boost in the program’s funding by the legislature comes as welcome news, CalCAN says it falls short of the annual investment of $50 million the alliance says is needed to reach the state’s goal of a million acres under Healthy Soils management by 2030.
Other Climate Smart Agriculture programs did not fare as well. The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) was zeroed out, despite being the most popular of the Climate Smart Agriculture Programs and the only state incentive for on-farm water conservation.
Finally, CalCAN says the state’s most popular dairy methane program saw its budget cut by two-thirds. The Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) funds dairies and livestock operations to turn wet manure into dry manure to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Most of the AMMP projects are turning manure into compost, an important resource for the Healthy Soils Initiative.
This year 91 dairies and livestock operators applied for the program, seeking $55 million in funding. Instead, the legislature cut AMMP funding to just $7 million. CalCAN says the cut will not only hurt methane reduction efforts in the state, but it will also hurt industry efforts to address water quality issues at a time of steep declines in dairy prices.
“Today’s budget vote is a mix of wins and losses for advancing agricultural solutions to climate change,” said CalCAN Policy Director Jeanne Merrill. “We must continue to invest in our farmers and ranchers to support Climate Smart Agriculture that keeps producers on the land, our communities healthy and our food security thriving.
Congressmen Call on EPA to Process RFS Apps, Including Electricity
A letter sent by a bipartisan group of 21 House members last month called on EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to “expeditiously review and approve worthy pending applications to produce RFS-certified fuels, permitting them to proceed to market.”
The lawmakers, led by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), specifically highlighted the contributions of electricity from biomass, biogas and other qualifying forms of renewable energy to rural economies. They cited the need for the EPA to include these and other pathways in the RFS “to allow approved pathways the market access that Congress intended them to have.”
“We are extremely grateful to the 21 signers of this letter to the EPA articulating the EPA’s violation of implementing Congress’ intentions by not including electricity in the RFS,” said Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of Biomass Power Association, one of three founding organizations of the RFS Power Coalition. “As of today, it’s been 11 years and 174 days since Congress passed RFS2, which included electricity.
“As the letter points out,” Cleaves continued, “the EPA’s refusal to process electricity applications has an impact far beyond our individual power producers; entire supply chains including farms, forests, loggers and local governments are suffering due to the EPA’s failure to act.”
Patrick Serfass, executive director of American Biogas Council, extended his organization’s thanks for to the sponsoring lawmakers.
“We hope this is the wakeup call that EPA needs to include electricity in the RFS” ahead of the agency’s release of release of the 2020 Renewable Volume Obligation.”
Crop Pests More Widespread Than Previously Known: Research
Insects and diseases that damage crops are probably present in many places thought to be free of them, largely attributable to foreign trade and likely climate change, new research shows.
Pests that have not been reported in a certain area are usually assumed to be absent, but analysis by the University of Exeter shows many pests are “currently unobserved, but probably present” – at a likelihood of more than 75 percent.
The study identified large numbers of pests in this category in China, India, southern Brazil and some countries of the former USSR. The researchers used data for 1,739 pests in the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) pest distribution database.
“Our model allows us to quantify the risk that a certain pest is present in a certain place,” said Dr Dan Bebber, of the University of Exeter. “Our trick for testing model accuracy was to use pest observations from China published in the Chinese literature, which have not yet been incorporated into global pest databases.
“A lot of species that people are worried about finding in certain places are probably already there,” Beber continued. “That early stage is crucial if we want to stop the spread – so these are the pests we should be focusing our efforts on.”
The discovery of crop pests and pathogens in new areas has accelerated in recent years, driven primarily by global trade, but also potentially by climate change. Targeting areas where new pests are probably present – or are highly likely to arrive – could be a key aspect of tackling their spread and reducing the resulting crop damage.
“Prior studies have often assumed that unreported pests in a global distribution database represent a true absence,” Bebber said. “Our analysis provides a method for quantifying these ‘pseudo-absences’ to enable improved distribution modelling and risk analysis.”
CalBio, Dairies Partner with Chevron on Dairy Biomethane Fuel Projects
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. and California Bioenergy LLC (“CalBio”) have made a joint investment in a holding company with California dairy farmers to produce and market dairy biomethane as a vehicle fuel in the state.
The holding company, CalBioGas LLC, secured funding from Chevron to build infrastructure for dairy biomethane projects in California’s San Joaquin Valley, adding to the investment from dozens of dairy farmers. Chevron will also provide services to bring this product into the California vehicle fuels market.
CalBio officials say the company is the leading developer of dairy digesters generating renewable electricity and vehicle fuel in California. Founded in 2006, CalBio has worked closely with the dairy industry and state agencies to develop programs to help the state achieve its methane reduction goals while delivering a new revenue source to California dairies.
Officials with all of the parties involved say the combination of Chevron, CalBio and California dairy farmers working together to produce and market dairy biomethane demonstrates a commitment of all to find creative, cost-effective solutions to achieve compliance with California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS).
Manure storage on dairy farms results in the release of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. CalBio brings technology, operational experience and capital to help dairy farmers build digesters and methane capture projects to convert this methane to a beneficial use as renewable natural gas (RNG).
Chevron has signed an agreement to provide funding for as many as 18 digesters across three geographic “clusters” in Kern, Tulare and Kings counties. Once complete, these projects will significantly mitigate the dairies’ methane emissions and help make them among the most environmentally efficient and sustainable in the world.
The clusters of digesters have been awarded California Department of Food and Agriculture grants, which must be augmented with additional capital to complete the projects.
Firm Launches Plan to Cut One Trillion Tons of CO2 From Atmosphere
A company that says it is “dedicated to harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet,” announced last month the launch of The Terraton Initiative™, a project designed to accelerate carbon sequestration at an unprecedented scale.
Noting that for the first time in human history, Indigo Agriculture says that atmospheric carbon dioxide has exceeded 415ppm, representing an increase of one trillion tons – or, a teraton – of atmospheric carbon dioxide since pre-industrial levels of 280ppm.
Utilizing the potential of agricultural soils, The Terraton Initiative seeks to remove one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“With Indigo’s integrated approach to agriculture, and partnerships with representatives from across the value chain, The Terraton Initiative will unlock the most scalable, immediate, and affordable opportunity to address climate change that exists today,” the company said.
Among the steps cited by Indigo are regenerative farming practices – management techniques that sequester carbon, while restoring soil health and resiliency – which the company notes are currently implemented by a small percentage of growers. Minimal tillage, cover cropping, crop rotations and perennial cropping, among other practices, increase soil’s carbon content, water permeability and water retention, the company notes. The practices also increase a crop’s ability to withstand drought and flooding.
“If implemented on the 3.6 billion acres of farmland across the globe, regenerative farming practices, combined with increased scientific understanding and new technologies, have the potential to return the carbon levels in agricultural soils from an average of ~1 percent back to ~3 percent,” Indigo says. “This shift is enough to account for the sequestration of one trillion tons of carbon dioxide.”
To catalyze The Terraton Initiative, Indigo is creating Indigo Carbon™, a market providing growers with the financial incentive to implement regenerative farming practices and remove carbon from the atmosphere. In partnership with the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) and other organizations, Indigo will use its digital agronomy capabilities and satellite imagery analysis to measure and verify soil carbon sequestration and on-farm emission levels.
The other side of the market will be made up of food companies looking to offer products that are climate positive, businesses seeking to be carbon neutral, not-for-profit organizations seeking to maximize the impact of their sustainability investments, investors and insurance companies seeking to hedge climate risks, and individuals that want to contribute to climate change solutions.
Growers who join Indigo Carbon within the first twelve months are eligible to receive a minimum of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide sequestered. The market price will ultimately be set by supply and demand, but at $15-$20 per metric ton, Indigo Carbon says it offers the most economical price to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while providing substantial incentives to farmers.
Partnering initially with the Soil Health Institute, The Rodale Institute, and a network of grower partners, Indigo is launching The Terraton Experiment, the world’s largest atmospheric carbon sequestration experiment. The goal of the experiment, which will include tens of thousands of farms followed for a decade or more, is to quantify farming practices that maximize soil carbon sequestration and understand the impact of these practices on farm profitability and crop nutrition.
Officials say the results of the experiment will form the blueprint for maximizing soil carbon sequestration. Indigo says it will make the data from the study available to other research institutions.
Additionally, Indigo is launching The Terraton Challenge, calling on innovators and entrepreneurs to develop technologies for maximizing soil carbon sequestration rates, improving soil carbon measurements, and reducing the need for chemical and fertilizer inputs. Winning innovations will be awarded $1M contracts by Indigo.