While side-stepping the debate over whether climate change is man-made, on Tuesday afternoon (June 25) President Obama is set to unveil a series of proposals aimed at ameliorating the effects of warming temperatures.

How might agriculture be affected?

The strategies were previewed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a June 5 presentation. This followed several reports released in the last six months that were authored by USDA scientists on how climate change will affect agriculture and forests in coming years (more here).

"Our farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are the most innovative on earth, and they're up to the task of meeting environmental challenges that lay ahead," Vilsack said.

Like Obama, Vilsack did not engage the claims of climate change skeptics. Instead, he offered up a list of what’s being seen “on the ground.” That includes, “more severe storms. We're facing more invasive species. More intense forest fire threatens communities each year. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reported that 2012 was the second most intense year in our history for extreme weather events -- droughts, flooding, hurricanes, severe storms and devastating wildfire. NOAA also advised that last year was the warmest on record for the continental United States.”

Currently, U.S. farmers, through the use of new technologies and agronomic practices, have kept production up even in the face of so many problems. Vilsack warned, however, that, “the latest science tells us that the threat of a changing climate is new and different from anything we've ever tackled.”

As a result, the Obama administration is proposing the following:

  • Regional Climate Hubs.

The USDA will establish seven of the hubs – in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Northern Plains, Southern Plains, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest.

“If we are to be effective in managing the risks from a shifting climate, we'll need to ensure that our managers in the field and our stakeholders have the information they need to succeed,” said Vilsack. “That's why we're bringing all of that information together on a regionally-appropriate basis.”

As “service centers for science-based risk management,” the hubs, “will enhance coordination of the science assets of USDA. They'll encourage folks to accelerate the development and delivery of forecasts and solutions to improve risk management in ways that matter for folks on the ground.”

The Hubs will also provide, “regionally-appropriate climate change risk and vulnerability assessments, and get data out to the field more quickly. Practically, the hubs will deal out advice to farmers and forest owners on ways to reduce risks and manage change.”

The hubs will be starting points, “to further implement new strategies for adaptation, soil health and water protection. One very promising example is the possibility of multi-cropping production that will add additional nutrient value to the soil, better protect cropland, store more carbon and allow producers to expand income.”

Furthering carbon sequestration markets will also be a focus for the hubs.

In the effort, said Vilsack, “we intend to fully leverage our relationship with the Land Grant and public universities, agricultural experiment stations, and Extension to provide new platforms for collaboration.”

Databases and cover crops

  • COMET-FARM.

Created by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Colorado State University, the free, on-line "Carbon Management and Evaluation Tool" helps producers calculate how much carbon their conservation actions can remove from the atmosphere.

Access the tool here.

“Producers will input information about their land and current and past management practices to establish a baseline,” said Vilsack. “The tool will let them select from a list of alternative conservation practices to see how each one changes their greenhouse gas emissions and carbon capture. For example, a producer planning to implement conservation tillage could estimate how that conservation practice will increase soil carbon, and decrease emissions for the operation overall.”

The hope is the tool will allow producers to make decisions “that reduce energy costs while building carbon stocks in the soil. It would also serve as a gateway for future efforts to help producers participate in voluntary carbon markets.”

Another NRCS online project, a database, will allow researchers access to the most extensive database on soil carbon in the world. “While NRCS has collected soil samples for more than a century, this rapid assessment is an ambitious project. In fact, it is the largest concentrated soil sampling effort in history. NRCS scientists collected more than 144,000 soil samples at 6,000 locations across the country to provide baseline data on regional carbon stocks.

“This will allow outside researchers and scientists to begin taking a fresh look at carbon in soil, which ultimately will have regional benefits to crop production.”

  • Cover crops.

New cover cropping guidelines are coming from USDA agencies.

Why is this necessary?

Despite the benefits of the practice, “some producers have encountered conflicting cover crop management issues when working with multiple USDA agencies,” said Vilsack. “For example, there was a perception that crop insurance policies did not always allow cover crops -- which conflicts with the NRCS incentives to plant cover crops. Some cover crop recommendations conflict with language in the 2008 farm bill for how the Farm Service Agency (FSA) is to give commodity payments. That's a problem.”

The new cover cropping model, “uses local climate data, tillage management and soil data to account for daily crop growth and use of soil moisture,” said Vilsack. “With this information, experts determined the latest possible time to terminate a cover crop, to maximize carbon sequestration and at the same time minimize risk to the cash crop yield.”

It would also establish four cover crop termination zones across the country.

“These provide a regionally-appropriate approach to cover crops and the tools to identify the proper cover crop management in an area, taking into account local climate and cropping systems. We took the time needed to get this right -- including truth-testing our recommendations with folks on the ground. Going forward (the Risk Management Agency), the NRCS and FSA will all uniformly refer producers to these guidelines, and will use them to administer programs.”

That will result in farmers having “more flexibility and a greater opportunity to utilize cover crops on their operations, while staying in compliance across all USDA agencies,” said Vilsack. “They can reap the conservation and economic benefits that cover crops can provide -- healthy soils and sustained food and fiber production. Producers will have a greater degree of certainty that they can use these practices, while still being eligible for crop insurance and other programs.”