The farmers settled into their chairs at the Congressional briefing room. With the urgency climate change demands, they came from a diverse array of states with an important and powerful message to share: keep IRA funding for conservation programs in agriculture. The group gathered on January 11 on Capitol Hill to share their stories with members of Congress in a briefing hosted by the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) and organized with the support of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and its members. Representing the states of Arkansas, Indiana, New York, and Oregon, the group spoke before members of the Coalition and Congressional staffers about the ways that they are using programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
Both EQIP and CSP are conservation programs available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA. EQIP helps farmers and ranchers integrate climate-friendly conservation practices into their land management with technical assistance to increase soil health, reduce soil erosion, conserve ground and surface water, and improve water and air quality. CSP for its part helps build on existing conservation already in place on a farm. This can include improving practices already carried out, or finding new conservation practices that complement what farmers are already doing. Both of these programs receive funds through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) Congress passed in 2022.
The IRA and Climate Solution Agricultural Practices
The briefing is the culmination of a larger project in which NSAC members shared farmers’ climate stories to highlight the role of agriculture in addressing climate change. The farmers spoke in turns detailing how they use these programs on their farms along with their personal stories of how they came to this work. Afterward, they visited the offices of different members of the House and Senate including the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s chair and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (MI) and John Boozman (AR). Each testimony contained a story of challenge, perseverance, and hope in the fight against climate change and what Congress can do to lead in that fight.
“Farmers are some of the best-placed people to help protect the ecosystem services found in healthy ecologies,” said Jared Phillips of Branch Mountain Farm who spoke on the panel alongside his wife Lindi Phillips. The Phillips’ farm, nestled in the Ozarks in northwest Arkansas, raises livestock. They used EQIP to expand livestock watering and fencing infrastructure to enable rotational grazing. “This means we move our sheep flock through a pasture one section at a time using mobile fencing,” Lindi Phillips explained. “Season over season this technique builds soil health and increases soil’s water holding capacity. This is huge both in times of drought and in times of extreme precipitation, both of which are becoming increasingly common.”
Denise and John Jamerson of Legacy Taste of the Garden in Princeton, Indiana, shared that thanks to funding through the NRCS for a program like EQIP, they installed high tunnels, and that their use had extended their growing season. “Without EQIP, we wouldn’t be able to produce at that scale,” Denise Jamerson explained. More importantly, Legacy Taste of the Garden was created to pass on generational knowledge of sustainability and entrepreneurship for black farmers in Indiana.
“We have dedicated our farm to be a demo farm so that others can witness the implementation of small farm conservation practices, new practices that IRA Funding has allowed to become available to small acreage growers,” she said. “We understand that although these are great new opportunities, there is large learning curve for the farmers as well as staff to understand the planning, implementation and use of the practices.”
Ariana Taylor-Stanley of Here We Are Farm in Trumansburg, NY (who also serves as NSAC’s Grassroots Co-Director) has used CSP to plant hundreds of fruit, nut, and fodder trees that also serve to sequester carbon and manage water. Ariana spoke about the challenge of prioritizing climate-friendly practices against economic pressure, and how conservation programs make it easier “to make the right choice in a pinch.” With visible satisfaction, she highlighted the impact of the program. “CSP turned my tree-planting dreams into a real priority that actually happened,” she told SEEC members.
NSAC has long advocated for agricultural practices that help address climate change and policies that help fund those practices. These practices involve rotational grazing, implemented by the Phillips on their Arkansas farm, the installation of high tunnels, as accomplished by the Jamersons at Legacy Taste of the Garden, and contouring, as Taylor-Stanley did on her property in New York. Other practices include no- or reduced-till farming, cover crops, and crop rotation.
Obstacles for Farmers
While these practices are useful and offer an applicable solution to the climate crisis, challenges remain for farmers who want to access funds offered by these programs. In 2022, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which allocated 20 billion dollars in funding for conservation programs extending from fiscal year (FY) 2023 until FY2026. Taylor-Stanley drove this point home in her testimony to SEEC members, saying that: “The Inflation Reduction Act made a historic investment in these programs among many others, which means that many more farmers like me will get to work their dreams of better practices into realities.” However, some members of Congress have proposed raiding these funds, and doing so would leave farmers without the tools necessary to continue these practices to build resilience.
The application process itself presents an obstacle for farmers who want to implement some of these practices in their farms. Pryor Garnett of Garnett’s Red Prairie Farms in Sheridan, Oregon, cited the need for more staffing at NRCS and for simplification of the software through which applications are processed.
“There are programs and funding sources,” Garnett said. “EQIP could be put to many different uses,” he added. To that point, Lindi Phillips shared that “These are practices that our grandparents were doing, but when our parents became the first in their families to not work on a farm, we lost that knowledge.”
These programs clearly help address climate change, yet more can be done to make them more accessible. Jared Phillips likewise underscored the undue financial burden on farmers to implement such climate practices.
“Farmers and ranchers… often must take low prices for their hard work while also being expected to care for the nation’s ecological well-being. And that’s where we think that Congress can step in and help out more,” he told coalition members. Funding for these programs is essential to implement more sustainable agricultural practices. As Garnett put it, “Without EQIP and NRCS we would only have monocrop agriculture.”
Advancing Racial Equity
An important aspect of leaning on more sustainable and regenerative farming practices is the diversity of agricultural knowledge that is transmitted through cultural heritage. John Jamerson explained that the farm is located in the only remaining African American settlement in the state and pre-dates the Civil War.
Representative Kim Schrier (D-WA-8) acknowledged the history of enslavement, and subsequent discrimination and dispossession of African American farmers in the United States that resulted in the loss of family wealth and knowledge. Schrier underscored the need to remedy those injustices through agricultural legislation like the farm bill. Denise Jamerson closed off her testimony with a strong statement:
“IRA Funding in these programs is critical to the future of agriculture. We know that regardless of whether you believe or know about climate change, conservation is the key to the future in our food system. We understand that to destroy and not conserve our land is to destroy our children’s future.”
Her words highlighted the immediate need to fund conservation practices but also highlighted how these practices are crucial for community self-investment, sustenance, and ensuring a future for coming generations.