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USDA Ag initiative leaves 'early adopter' farmers feeling sidelined

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The USDA will invest $2.8 billion to expand market opportunities for farmers and ranchers who use climate-smart practices.

The plan provides incentives for people who employ sustainable practices such as crop rotation for soil health, no-tillage acreage, greener nutrient management and sustainable grazing.

However, producers who already use the practices said they will see little of that USDA money.

Ron Alverson, who's now retired, helps his son farm in the southeastern corner of the state. Alverson said the "climate-smart practices" have been around for a long time..

"Folks that have been doing these things, for decades in some cases, we're feeling left out," Alverson said. "We got some early adopters that are going to revert now and go back to not climate-smart practices, and maybe destroy the soil carbon, and then get back into this game of changing back to climate-smart. So, it's really silly."

Rancher Jim Faulstich has a 10,000-acre operation in central South Dakota. He employs sustainable practices to improve the health of his soil. Faulstich said it's unfortunate that producers who've been ahead of the curve, won't qualify for incentives with the new program.

"It's actually an incentive to bring other producers up to that level, but discriminating against producers that already have been managing their grasslands and livestock appropriately," Faulstich said.

The USDA is skeptical that farmers will revert back to poor management practices just to become eligible for the incentives since the benefits of implementation take a few years to see.

USDA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said early adopters should be leading the way, showing producers how to implement the practices.

"To the no-till guys and to the early adopters of these grazing practices, while the cash flow may not be there, the resilience is there," he said. "You've got soil health, you've got better infiltration of water. Producers often don't start in this for the short-term return. It's a long-term investment in soil health."

Ducheneaux said the early adopters should know the strategic importance of a strong market for food grown with sustainable practices. He said ultimately, that's a benefit for all producers.

For example, as part of the plan, South Dakota State University will get up to $80 million for a research project to strengthen the market for more sustainably raised cattle and buffalo.

And that's something that has people like South Dakota Cattlemen's Association President Eric Jennings excited.

"Beef raised in a climate-smart manner is important to consumers and results in a premium for producers. We're hopeful the climate-smart practices that ranchers have been doing for years will continue to be recognized and encourage other producers to follow suit through new incentive opportunities," Jennings said.

The USDA said the approach aims to use incentives and a market-driven focus to satisfy climate goals. The plan is phase one of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities two-part plan.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.
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