Agriculture and conservation could be considered by some to be two sides to the same coin. The National Association of Conservation Districts seems to believe this, as they welcomed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to deliver the keynote address at their Leadership Luncheon at their annual meeting in New Orleans on Feb. 13.

Vilsack told those in attendance that they are the ones “the people back home trust, rely on and look to for advice and counsel and direction and guidance in terms of being able to conserve and preserve our precious natural resources.”

The banner on the NACD website reads “conserving natural resources for the future,” and Vilsack said that simple statement identified two critical elements: the notion of conservation and the future.

“Oftentimes when people think of conservation they think of the present, taking steps now to make a difference, but you all recognize and appreciate that as we conserve more, and better, it guarantees a better, brighter future for folks who farm the land and for folks who live, work and raise their families around this great country of ours,” he stated.

Before discussing the future, though, he took a look at the past. He listed some pivotal moments: Abraham Lincoln establishing the Department of Agriculture in 1862; the Depression and the Dust Bowl; Ag Secretary Henry Wallace, who served from 1933-40, managing the supply of commodities so that farmers would be guaranteed a decent price; and Ag Secretary Earl Butz (served 1971-76) suggesting that the U.S. needed to lead productivity efforts, encouraging farmers to plant “fence row to fence row.”

The latest pivotal moment came into focus for Vilsack when he saw farm income statistics for the past few years. “The last two years are some of if not the best two years in agriculture and farm income in the history of our country,” he stated. USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that in the past few years, nearly 50% of America’s farmers had negative farm income. Another 40% made the majority of their income off the farm. “So in a record year, 10% of our farmers did incredibly well – 90%, not as much. We’re at a pivotal moment to ask ourselves what can we do about that?”

Vilsack noted his immediate predecessor Sonny Perdue said that with the economies of scale in America, you either get big or you go out. But Vilsack believes there’s a different way – and that the Ag Department, conservation districts and the people concerned about the future of this country need to create and chart a different model.

Programs that concentrate on the greatest good are one solution. He mentioned the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities, which will help farmers embrace climate-smart practices, conservation techniques and approaches that can improve soil health and water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

Creating and charting a new model

Ag Secretary Vilsack addressed the NACD meeting and had a sit-down conversation with Country Folks. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

Vilsack told Country Folks that the lead agency in each one of the climate-smart grants that was awarded has responsibility for administering the program, so they will be the ones to receive resources from USDA, and they will distribute those resources to the producers.

“We’re in the process of completing the contracting necessary to make sure that everybody understands what their responsibilities are, in terms of payment, in terms of the nature of the project and also in terms of how they’re going to collect data, how they’re going to assemble and accumulate that data … [and] how they’re going to transmit that to us so that we have a cumulative picture of what’s going on,” he explained.

Payment structuring will be in the contracts farmers sign with the lead agencies, and as they do their practices and they’re verified, payment will be forthcoming. “Then, as these commodities are being produced, the next step in the process is to work with a purchaser of those commodities and figuring out over time how to transition a government payment to a market payment,” Vilsack continued. “We’re going to ‘de-risk’ the activities for a while in the hopes that the market will come in and say ‘We value this, we place a value on it, and we’re working to continue and encourage farmers to do these practices.’”

The goal is to have these contracts finished by March and for the process to begin in the 2023 crop year, but it’s all based on the timelines that the lead agencies and the farmers agree to.

In his keynote, he said the program could also qualify farmers for ecosystem service markets. (Learn more at There are currently 24 of these in the U.S. today. They will evolve over time and create another opportunity for farmers to embrace climate-smart practices – to be able to market the result of those practices to industries or groups that need to offset their own greenhouse gas footprint.

To open up markets, Vilsack also spoke about expanding processing capacity. “What if we create new, independent small and mid-size processing capacity? We’d be creating a different market or a new market, one that doesn’t exist today. That’s yet another income stream,” he said. USDA has invested in over 300 facilities thus far, either for expansion or building new. He added that there will be additional support for processing beyond meat and poultry being announced later this year.

To continue this new model, the Inflation Reduction Act has set aside $850 million for four conservation programs in 2023 – $250 million for EQIP, $250 million for the Conservation Stewardship Program, $250 million for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and $100 million in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Funding for these programs could be as high as $1.7 billion in 2024.

With increasing focus on urban ag, Vilsack told the readers of Country Folks not to worry. “I don’t think those in rural areas can feel neglected,” he said. “The vast, vast, vast majority of our resources, whether it’s the most recent emergency relief payments – well over $7 billion that was distributed – went primarily to rural providers … All of these conservation programs benefit rural producers for the most part. There’s a relatively small amount of our budget that is dedicated to urban agriculture. When we talk about billions or hundreds of millions or tens of millions of dollars, in terms of some of these programs benefitting rural producers, the urban farmers are getting thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars.”

As he wrapped up his address, Vilsack said, “This is the time for folks to learn that as you embrace conservation you don’t have to worry about productivity because as you do this you’re going to be more productive over time … It all leads to more, new and better markets and jobs.”

It’s a simple proposition, he continued – the land gives to us but we have to give something back to it. “I hope you will join me in helping to carve and pave a new direction for American agriculture that basically opens up whole new vistas of opportunity, that creates more jobs and a greater commitment to sustainability and that we do it understanding that at the end of the day it’s not just about the individual farmer, it’s not just about an acre of land – it’s about our great country.”

by Courtney Llewellyn