The Obama administration would like to persuade farmers that they can replace their federal crop subsidies with payments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It isn’t an easy sell.
The administration not only needs the budget savings from cutting farm subsidies. It also needs the support of farmers — and their allies in the Senate — to win passage of a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions.
And the only way to get the agriculture sector behind a cap-and-trade bill is to persuade farmers that the benefits they’d get would outweigh the expected higher prices they’d pay for diesel, fertilizer and other oil products.
So far, farm groups aren’t ready to buy the deal.
The administration’s proposal to phase out some farm subsidies is dead in Congress.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to sell farmers on the idea that they could make up the money from future carbon payments. But he couldn’t even get the National Farmers Union, normally aligned with Democrats, to go along.
Vilsack, even as he conceded last week that the subsidy cut was in trouble, insisted there “are unlimited opportunities” for farmers to benefit from a cap-and-trade system “so long as agriculture is at the table” when Congress writes the law.
Vilsack is telling farm groups that the carbon payments could be worth an astounding $100 billion a year, a claim based on a report by the 25×25 Steering Committee, a group promoting the development of renewable energy. By comparison, USDA paid farmers $12 billion in subsidies last year, and the nation’s total net farm income was $89 billion.
The problem is that there are major unanswered questions as to how and whether farms could qualify for such payments.
One way farmers could get them is by stopping or reducing their tillage, keeping plant matter in the soil, or by converting cropland to grass.
But many farmers already follow no-till practices and may not qualify for payments. The whole point of the cap-and-trade system is to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions, so why pay farmers for emission reductions they’ve already made?
And what about growers who farm in areas less suitable to no-till practices? How do you get them to support a cap-and-trade plan?
Another key issue is enforcement. Who will make sure farmers are doing what they’re paid to do?
“As we go to the Hill and start posing these questions to congressional staff, they’re always astounded about how many questions need to be answered,” said Jon Doggett, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association.
The nation’s largest farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has been especially skeptical of cap-and-trade legislation. Energy prices are almost certain to “go up far in excess” of whatever payments farmers receive, the group’s president, Bob Stallman, said recently.
“Everything looks sort of negative (for farmers) with regard to climate change legislation, as opposed to any positives,” he said.
A good measure of where farm country is on the issue should come in a few weeks. The House Agriculture Committee plans to hold hearings this spring and survey farm groups, universities and businesses on the issue.
The committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over the legislation. It’s under the purview of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by liberal California Democrat Henry Waxman.
But the agriculture committee does plan to write a bill of its own to define how agriculture is treated.
That alone is a sign of how much is at stake for the farm lobby. And how tough of a job the administration has on its hands.
Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is cap-and-trade?
A cap-and-trade program would force industry to reduce its use of fossil fuels by imposing caps on greenhouse gas emissions. Electric utilities, oil refiners and other companies that exceed the caps would have to reduce their emissions or buy credits. Those credits could come from farmers and others who reduce emissions through such measures as storing carbon in the soil or generating alternative energy.