Vilsack, at forum, talks drought mitigation
By Larry Dreiling
The efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to mitigate the effects of the current national drought situation were a hot topic at the recent USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum.
Speaking Feb. 21, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said there were other things USDA was studying about mitigation beyond opening up Conservation Reserve Program land, offering some relief on crop insurance premium payments and other things.
"It occurred that perhaps we should be focused more acutely on the need to encourage multi-cropping throughout the United States in order for us to do a better job of conservation, in order for us to create additional biomass that could be a revenue source, and potentially allow us to conserve precious water resources with the use of cover crops from multi-cropping," Vilsack said.
"Which in turn would allow us to get through these drought circumstances in a more favorable circumstance. And so we have begun a process of looking at ways in which we could provide assistance."
Vilsack described the operation of Ohio farmer David Brandt, who gave a presentation to the conference on his no-till nutrient management system that has been put in place since the 1970s that involves multi-cropping and double-cropping.
"He tells us that this has increased the organic soil matter in his soil," Vilsack said. "It saves about $100 an acre on nitrogen. It's increased his corn yield seven to 10 bushels an acre and his soybean yields 8 percent.
"That is something that ought to get everyone's attention, and at USDA, we ought to be looking at ways in which we can reduce the manmade barriers to multi-cropping, so that that can be another strategy for managing risk, recognizing that there are different types of multi-cropping, whether it's double-cropping or cover crops or an integrated crop-livestock arrangement or even agroforestry."
Vilsack announced USDA was going to spend time better understanding the barriers that exist for market availability, for product that could be produced, to the lack of insurance or the difficulties that we can create through the crop insurance programs that discourage multi-cropping, to looking at the effect on the yields of the primary crops that are being planted, and where the knowledge gaps exist in terms of the supply chain and the delivery system, so that more of the activity may be encouraged.
"We will use our Conservation Innovation Grant money at NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) to provide some financial assistance. We intend to develop an atlas that will provide producers a lot of information about what currently is working in multi-cropping arrangements around the country--there are great examples--and we will provide information on the steps that we will be taking to reduce those barriers that we have created within USDA," Vilsack said.
"And we hope that we will do a better job of improving our communication about the conservation benefits that will come from multi-cropping and in turn give us yet another tool to deal with a changing agriculture and managing the risk of weather."
With multi-cropping, Vilsack alluded to the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, or "AC21." This is USDA's conflict resolution effort between growers of biotech crops and non-biotech, or organic producers.
"It's important for us at USDA to recognize and to respect all production processes and trying to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to choose the type of operation that's best for their family and themselves," Vilsack said. "That's why we put together a group of folks, and we challenged them to think about how could we create a system and support in this country where different production processes could, in a sense, coexist in the same geographic area, recognizing that this is a tough question and that there are passions on all sides of this issue.
"We put 22 people in a room for about a year and a half, and they had great leadership from (chairman) Russell Redding, and these folks worked really hard to come to a set of recommendations and conclusions."
The AC21 committee recommendations are now available at the usda.gov website.
The next steps in AC21 process, Vilsack said, is to engage in research to create measures to strengthen the idea of coexistence.
"Part of that research will focus on creating an inventory of actual economic loss, so that we know precisely how often there may be circumstances where crops are compromised as a result of activities in other areas," Vilsack said. "We are going to do case studies, and we will better understand from those case studies exactly what the challenges and barriers are to this notion of coexistence.
"We hope to be able to develop best practices to be able to provide information, so as folks are looking at coexistence plans or stewardship efforts that they'll know precisely what works best. We are going to create a competitive grant, and that grant will basically fund a conference that will be held this year.
"We will bring experts in to discuss information about gene flow, so that we have a better understanding of precisely what happens, so in turn we can mitigate the risk of that occurring that could potentially be damaging to someone else's crop. We will continue to look at ways in which we can indemnify or compensate those who may have suffered an economic loss.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service, Vilsack added, has been ordered to review its data to get a better handle on how to price organic crops.
"There is a premium associated with those crops, and they are, in a sense, sort of a different commodity, if you will, and some of the normal practices, the normal surveying techniques and so forth may not work quite as well for organics as they do for conventional agriculture," Vilsack said. "And that will give us enough information to be able to do a better job of understanding how to set up insurance policies and programs for these organic crops."
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.