THE long-term challenges of a changing and shifting climate aren't going away, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is calling for increased collaboration among the federal government, producers, researchers and industry to develop future tools and strategies that will help agriculture mitigate and adapt to modern climate challenges.
During a speech at the National Press Club on June 5, Vilsack noted that the U.S. produces an amazing amount of food because it adapts to today's threats while preparing for tomorrow's threats. However, the new challenge comes in the form of a changing and shifting climate.
"We know what we're seeing on the ground: more intense weather events, and a greater number of them," he said. "Right now, our farmers and forest landowners continue to adapt. New technologies and advanced practices have managed to keep production steady, even in the face of these new and more extreme weather patterns."
Vilsack emphasized the need to work closely with farmers and ranchers, who stand "on the front line" of risk adaptation, and pledged that USDA will take steps to help producers adapt to new threats. He announced a number of new measures USDA will take to help producers create climate solutions.
The first measure is the establishment of "regional climate hubs" to advise farmers and forest owners on ways to reduce risks and manage change.
Seven regional hubs will be established for the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, northern Plains, southern Plains, Pacific Northwest and Southwest. Each hub will be the center of a network of connected activities and services and will be located in a USDA facility within its region, USDA said.
Working with other agencies, the hubs will serve as a source of regional data and information for hazard and adaptation planning in the agriculture and forestry sectors. The hubs will provide outreach and extension to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners on science-based risk management and will seek to partner with land-grant universities, extension services and the private sector.
Vilsack said the hubs will serve as a starting point to further implement new strategies for adaptation, soil health and water protection.
Fred Yoder, chairman of the National 25x'25 Alliance's Adaptation Working Group, said the proposed hubs will provide tools and localized strategies to help farmers meet the challenges of drought, heat stress, excessive moisture and changes in pest management.
The timing of the initiative comes just as Yoder's group is about to build on recommendations announced in April. The group plans to work with partners like commodity groups and the American Farm Bureau Federation to offer presentations, workshops, webinars and additional forums to generate dialogue and foster a greater understanding of climate change impacts within the agriculture and forestry sectors.
Next, Vilsack said the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is launching an online resource assessment database — the results of a study known as the Rapid Carbon Assessment — that will be particularly useful for researchers and scientists.
Called "COMET-Farm," the Carbon Management & Evaluation Tool, the free online tools are designed to help producers understand the greenhouse gas footprint of their operations.
Producers will enter information about their land and current and past management practices to establish a baseline. 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, Vilsack said.
The tool is available for use at www.comet-farm.com.
Cover crop advice
Vilsack announced that USDA agencies worked together this spring to establish common, science-based guidance on when cover crops should be terminated, using a new model based on local climate data, tillage management and soil information to account for daily crop growth and use of soil moisture.
With this information, experts determined the latest possible time to terminate a cover crop to minimize risk to the cash crop yield. USDA's Risk Management Agency, NRCS and Farm Service Agency will all uniformly refer producers to these guidelines and will use them to administer programs.