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Dairy a Sustainability Leader, USDA’s Bonnie Says

March 7, 2022

Dairy has long been an agricultural leader in efforts to enhance sustainability and combat climate change, said Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm Production and Conservation, in a Dairy Defined podcast released today.

Even during times when farmers had questions about how climate policy was evolving, “Dairy stayed engaged, and continued to look for ways to, advance opportunities for, for producers,” Bonnie said. “That is notable and really important.”

Bonnie in the podcast explains USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative that it rolled out last month, as well as how climate-smart agriculture programs may evolve and expand. He also notes that the farmer signup deadline for the Dairy Margin Coverage Program ends March 25, encouraging dairy producers to participate.“One of the things USDA is really interested in, is making sure we have better data to make that case, to drive a narrative that demonstrates that agriculture can be part of a solution that it already is, that has already done things, and that there’s more to do and that agriculture is engaged,” he said. “I think driving that narrative to the broader public is really important.”

The full podcast is below. You can find and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify,   Google Podcasts and Amazon Music under the podcast name “Dairy Defined.” Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file below. Please attribute information to NMPF.

Transcript

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. From the health of the soil to the future of climate, Robert Bonnie has a wide portfolio at the US Department of Agriculture. He’s the current Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation at USDA, and he’s no stranger to the department, having served as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environments under President Obama.

In his current role, he oversees farmer safety net programs like the Dairy Margin Coverage Program, which features important improvements and a signup deadline of later this month. He’s also a leader in developing and promoting Climate Smart Agriculture, an approach that promises new revenue streams and enhanced stewardship as farmers continue their role as environmental guardians. Thank you for joining us undersecretary Bonnie.

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Thanks for having me, Alan. It’s good to be with you.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So, let’s start with a DMC. Deadline is March 25th and that’s an extension, and this year farmers aren’t just choosing enrollment, they also in many cases may receive supplemental payments that account for production increases to the 2014 benchmark under the farm bill. We think at NMPF that DMC’s important, because the future’s hard to predict, but what would you tell producers, especially ones who might have enrolled in past years, but are still considering what they should do in 2022?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Well, I think you said it well, the future’s hard to predict and we think DMC is a really useful risk management tool for our dairy producers. I think in 2021, we paid out about $1.2 billion and sizable support for folks in dairy. So, far this year, you mentioned the deadline on March 25th, that’s right, and so far I think we’ve got about 75% of the folks that enrolled last year are back. We obviously hope everyone comes back. And you noted as well the opportunity for supplemental coverage here, and the fact that folks, small and medium size dairies that have increased their production, there’s an option there, which I think can be really helpful as well. The other thing I’d say is we’ve changed the formula around the feed cost side of the margin and are taking into account Premium Alfalfa as part of that, and that should help producers as well. So, we obviously encourage producers to sign up.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now, one thing that makes DMC unique is that it ensures margins. That’s different from a typical price support program. What’s significant about that approach in our current environment?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Across most of agriculture right now, people look at the prices and they think they’re good, but there’s a lot of concern, as you all know on the input side and well inputs eat up folks’ margin, and the nice thing about DMC is this one program that actually takes that into account, specifically with respect to feed costs and other drought and other things that are going to drive up potential to drive up feed costs. So again, we think the margin part of the program as you point out is really important. It’s unique in USDA.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Switching over to climate. You’ve played a major role in developing the departments recently announced partnerships with Climate Smart Commodities initiative, which has generated a lot of interest in dairy, because there’s opportunity here. What’s USDA hoping to learn and what should farmers be thinking about?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: You’re exactly right. We are thinking about pilots here. We’re at the same time, we’re hoping to get some projects that can demonstrate we can get adoption of climate smart agriculture and forestry at scale. So, some of these pilots we hope will be large. And we’re really trying to finance two things here. One is the deployment of Climate Smart practices across both agriculture and forestry and then the measurement monitoring verification on the other side. As folks think about whether they want to undertake these practices, they’re risks associated with that. We’re asking them to take on some potentially new practices and to take on some costs.

So, the idea here is to have groups of producers come forward with projects, allow them to develop the projects, but it’s all about climate smart commodities. If you want to produce climate smart milk, climate smart soybean, whatever it is, carbon, whatever it is we’re willing to de-risk that.

And you’re exactly right about the ability to learn here. The idea here is to try some things, to allow for innovation for USDA to be more outcome oriented and less prescriptive, and let producers go out and be creative and think about how they deploy these resources in a way that will benefit the climate. We’re pushing up against the 23 Farm Bill but I actually think the types of projects we get in the response from producers and landowners and others will be really instructive as we look at the 23 Farm Bill and figure out, okay, “What’s the toolbox look like, that our producers need in order to respond to climate change.” Both on the mitigation side, how do we reduce emissions, but then on the resilience side as well, how do we make sure our farmers and ranchers and forest owners have the tools they need to address extreme weather or other events.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Drill down a little further into dairy?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Well, I mean, it’s important to note that dairy has been forward leaning on climate for a long time, and it’s been one of the leading groups. And when I was in the Obama administration in ’09 and ’10, dairy was already taking a bunch of action around climate, everything from, dairy digesters to improving on farm energy use, to looking at ways that they can reduce inter emissions through feed choices, and there’s new technology there as well, to manure management, crop, land management, all that stuff. And so dairy’s been at this a long time. We are as part of this, hoping to spur more of that, more commitment, more opportunity to pick up the cost to allow producers to deploy more of those practices. And it’s pretty simple. We’re interested in practices that are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and then the measurement and monitoring that goes along with that, there’s a real opportunity for dairy here, both to think about maybe the carbon and greenhouse gas side, but also the new market side, the markets associated with folks that are interested in greening their supply chain or whatever it is.

And so, we want producers to be innovative here. We want… you know, our hope is that partnerships will come together with commodity groups, conservation groups, conservation districts, maybe universities that can help on the measurement and science side. So, we’re hoping to foster some of those partnerships and our initial indications from interest in the program is, that’s the way people are thinking or thinking about potentially some unique partnerships here.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You’re talking about dairy, being a leader in sustainability and climate, and you’re preaching to the converted.

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Oh yeah.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: But you get outside of dairy and you definitely get outside of agriculture and you will hear criticism about farmers not being part of the solution, dragging their feet on climate change. What’s been your experience with agriculture and climate and what is an appropriate approach for the role of the government versus the private sector versus the regulators to make all this work?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: The thing I say about where agriculture is right now, and I think the same is true on the forestry side, in ’09 and ’10 climate policy was new. People were concerned about it. They didn’t know what this cap and trade thing was, and agriculture was legitimately concerned about what climate policy might look like.

Agriculture is at the table leaning in and helping design climate policy right now, we’re doing a lot of listening here because we… the input of agriculture and forestry is critically important. And dairy, even when it was challenging in the environment to stay engaged on climate, dairy stayed engaged, and continued to look for ways to, advance opportunities for, for producers. And so, I think that is notable and really important.

One of the challenges we’ve faced on climate for a while is that people don’t look at climate as a land issue. They look at it purely as an energy issue, and there’s an enormous opportunity for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to help there. And we’ve got to do more to promote that, and to drive a narrative that recognizes all the good things that agriculture has been doing for a long time it hasn’t always been called climate smart, but it was conservation tillage or manure management, or a lot of things have already contributed to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the things USDA is really interested in, is making sure we have better data to make that case, to drive a narrative that demonstrates that agriculture can be part of a solution that it already is, that has already done things, and that there’s more to do and that agriculture is engaged. And I think driving that narrative to the broader public is really important. Part of it is data, part of it is going out and demonstrating and showing this stuff. We think the partnerships program can be important there, but there are other areas that we… where I think we can demonstrate that commitment as well.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Dairy has a net zero emissions goal for 2050. Where do you see US agriculture in 2050 in terms of the two areas you oversee at USDA, farm production and conservation?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Well, it’s important to recognize that actually both production and conservation are actually really important to the climate change question. We’ve got to continue to produce food and fiber for a growing population, and if we can produce that more efficiently from a greenhouse gas standpoint, that’s really good. And so it’s important sometimes this… the production part of the climate think its lost, but maintaining production and increasing the efficiency of that related to the greenhouse gas emissions is really important.

And I think as we look to 2050, there are parallel paths. We need to continue to provide the food and fiber that society needs, even while we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the great thing about agriculture is that we can go negative.

We can take methane, we can turn it into energy and displace fossil fuel. We can take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into soils through carbon sequestration. We can reduce emissions associated with fertilizer use, or use of energy in other ways. And so, that I think is really important, and it is unique and there’re similar things on the forestry side about the way to use forest is to store carbon out of the atmosphere. And so if we’re smart and we design the policy in a way, which is based on incentives and voluntary approaches, and approaches that take advantage of markets, agriculture, I think will stay at the table and will make enormous contribution to addressing climate change.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything you need to add?

Robert Bonnie, USDA: There is in some parts of the public, the environmental community and others, there is interest in pushing a regulatory approach towards agriculture. I don’t think it will work. I think even if you could do it, I don’t think it would work, because I think there’s too much diversity in agriculture, too difficult to draw up the regulations and we’ll get significant resistance from agriculture and forestry. I think a far better approach is one based on voluntary incentives, that creates opportunities for folks to come to the table that understands the diversity in agriculture. And if we look at what works in conservation across the country, it’s these locally led efforts that are based on incentives and partnerships that work. That’s the approach, that’s going to work here for climate change. And I think ultimately for agriculture and forestry.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Thank you.

Robert Bonnie, USDA: Thanks for having me.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And thank you for joining us and don’t forget to sign up for Dairy Margin Coverage. There’s more information on our homepage, nmpf.org and for more of the dairy defined podcast, we’re on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google podcast, and Amazon music under the podcast name, Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.