Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a plan to double cover crop acreage by 2030 and expand other conservation efforts last week at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Convention in Atlanta. 

The former Iowa governor also said the Biden administration is stepping up enforcement of trade agreements to rebuild trust and make sure farmers have access to export markets, beginning with China. He noted that China fell about $16 billion short of the purchases it agreed to make over two years as part of the Phase 1 trade agreement with the United States and also has been slow to remove non-tariff trade barriers.

“That’s why Ambassador (Katherine) Thai, our U.S. trade representative, continues to converse with China about the necessity of living up totally and completely to the Phase 1 trade agreement — making up that $16 billion deficit over the course of the next several years and also working on those sanitary and phytosanitary barriers that still exist in the Chinese relationship,” he said. “We’re going to continue to press China on the need for complete enforcement of this trade agreement before we begin the process of discussing the possibility of extensions.”

The USDA is also working “to diversify beyond our reliance on China” by breaking down barriers in other markets, as evidenced by recent announcements to reopen pork sales to India and reduce tariffs on corn, wheat and frozen pork going to Vietnam, Vilsack said.

Farmers for soil health

The cover crop effort falls under a new USDA partnership called Farmers For Soil Health with a coalition of groups including the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association and National Pork Board aiming to advance use of soil health practices — especially cover crops — on corn and soybean farms. 

“We’re announcing today in 11 states roughly $38 million to begin that process of expanding incentives and encouraging additional cover crop activity,” said Vilsack. The initiative is aimed at improving soil health through a targeted, rapid and streamlined application and contract approval process.

States include Iowa, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota. Sign-up dates will be determined at the state level, and applications will be selected for funding by Feb. 11.

Vilsack said the USDA also will make the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Conservation Incentive Contracts option available nationwide and implement new flexibilities to easily re-enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

Climate smart ag

The USDA is looking to Farm Bureau and other ag groups as it explores additional incentives and partnerships related to “climate smart” agriculture, Vilsack added.

“We know that the markets in both the U.S. and around the world are continually going to demand more climate smart commodities. They’re going to want to know where and how various products were produc­ed,” he said. “Listening to the Farm Bureau and listening to those in agriculture, we know that it’s important to establish a partnership in this effort. This is not something which is top down; this is really a bottom up effort.”

Video address from Biden

President Joe Biden also add­ressed the AFBF convention in a recorded message played before Vilsack took the stage. The president told attendees that his administration is working to provide fair markets for farmers, expand agriculture exports and boost infrastructure and conservation investments.

“You folks are the backbone of this nation,” Biden said. “You deserve: A) affordable seed and other inputs; B) markets that allow you to get a fair price for your livestock and other products; C) agricultural exports service, timely service, to get your goods around the world; d) the right to repair the equipment you own either yourself or at an independent shop.”