Congressional Briefing on Perennial Biomass Crops in the 2012 Farm Bill
March 29th, 2012
On Monday, March 26th, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute hosted a congressional briefing entitled Conservation, Energy Security and Jobs with Biomass Crops? – A Question for the Next Farm Bill. The briefing focused on how the establishment of perennial biomass crops can increase both environmental quality and economic opportunities in rural America. Presentation slides and an audio recording of the briefing are available on the Institute’s website.
The firs panelist Rick Cruse, Director of the Iowa Water Center, focused on the adverse water quality and productivity impacts of intensive row crop cultivation. He noted that in 2007 the average soil erosion rate on Iowa cropland was ten times greater than the soil replacement rate. He then discussed the environmental benefits of establishing perennial bioenergy crops on marginal cropland.
Steve Flick, Chairman of the Board of the Show Me Energy Cooperative, praised the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) as a key program in helping farmers establish perennial bioenergy crops. The Cooperative received the first BCAP project funding, which was used to establish mixed stands of native grasses to be harvested for energy production. Mr. Flick noted that BCAP projects for perennial bioenergy crops can increase farmers’ income, promote economic development, and lead to cleaner water without affecting the feedstock supply.
Steve John, Executive Director of the Illinois Agricultural Watershed Institute, described a number of small scale bioenergy projects around the U.S. that include water quality and wildlife habitat improvement as part of the project. He noted that even smaller scale projects can offer farmers significant economic benefits.
The final panelist, Nick Jordan, a University of Minnesota Agronomy professor, focused on political and institutional boundaries that must be addressed to bring together the resources of private enterprise, research, non-governmental organizations and government to integrate perennial bioenergy crops into the existing agricultural landscape. He recommended that the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative be provided a new program component with funding for engagement of stakeholders with knowledge and interest in perennial biomass crops. He also flagged the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program as sources of funding for farmers who want to establish farming systems that include perennial bioenergy crops.
Many of the speakers praised the BCAP program for its inclusion of projects to establish perennial bioenergy crops in projects that include conservation requirements. NSAC worked with the National Wildlife Federation and other organizations in the 2008 Farm Bill to ensure that BCAP project funding would give a high priority to perennial bioenergy crops. In its initial implementation of BCAP, however, the Farm Service Agency instead prioritized the Collection, Harvest, Storage and Transport (CHST) component of the Program which included subsidizing the removal of corn stover and other annual crop residues.
NSAC’s 2012 Farm Bill Platform calls for reauthorizing BCAP with the following improvements:
- Given the very significant problems with the Farm Service Agency’s administration of the CHST component of the program, the CHST component should be eliminated from BCAP.
- In contrast to the CHST component, the BCAP projects funded to date, have, for the most part, conformed to the program’s purpose, which is to help establish new bioenergy crops, particularly perennials. The next farm bill should require that if project money is used to fund the production of an annual crop for bioenergy, such annual crops must be part of a resource-conserving crop rotation.
- The BCAP project component should be competitive and targeted to developing new sources of energy. In selecting projects through a competitive process, the program should give higher scores to advanced bioenergy projects (at least second generation) that establish perennial crops and trees, with participating farmers or forest landowners who have a conservation plan approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
- While the current version of BCAP requires that farmers and foresters participating in BCAP projects must obtain a conservation plan, this requirement does not appear to be enforced. NRCS should be given a central role in BCAP and and the next farm bill should clarify the importance of BCAP project participants implementing conservation plans from NRCS that protect soil quality, including adequate soil carbon levels, and that protect water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and other natural resources; and
- The residues of Title I commodity crops are currently listed by the Farm Service Agency as eligible material under BCAP, despite the last farm bill excluding commodity crops from BCAP eligibility. The new farm bill should clearly state that commodity crop residues are not eligible materials and that commodity crops are not eligible crops within BCAP.