The decades-long decline in the number of U.S. farms can be stanched by adopting climate-smart farming practices and crops, increasing biofuel production, and expanding local and regional marketing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the largest U.S. farm group on Monday. There are 2 million farms in operation today; the number of farms peaked at 6.8 million in the 1930s.
“We can’t afford to continue to lose farms and farmland. We have to figure out a better way, a different way.” said Vilsack at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Salt Lake City. He listed a handful of Biden administration initiatives as alternative ways to boost income, potentially helping small and medium-size operations.
Vilsack announced $50 million in grants to seven projects to expand independent domestic fertilizer production and $157 million in assistance for 675 projects to help farmers and rural small businesses install renewable energy systems or improve energy efficiency.
The fertilizer grants include $32 million to Biogas Corp, which describes itself as a leading U.S. developer to anerobic digester/biogas projects. The grant would be used for a digester that produces organic fertilizer and biogas 25 miles southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina. At least five other, smaller projects in USDA’s Fertilizer Production Expansion Program employ digesters. So far, the USDA has awarded one-fifth of the $900 million available in the program.
From the 1930s into the 1970s, farm numbers plummeted during an era of agricultural consolidation driven by mechanization, hybrid seeds, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Since 1982, the number of farms has drifted slowly lower. A relatively small number of large-scale farms produce 80 percent of crops and livestocks and reap the lion’s share of farm revenue.
“I don’t think the country can stand to continue the acceleration of the loss of small and mid-size farming operations,” said Vilsack. “We can do better. We can figure out ways in which large production agriculture can continue to flourish, as it is important and necessary to meet the food demands, not just of the United States, but of the world. But at the same time, we can also provide an entrepreneurial opportunity for the small and mid-sized operation.”
Farmers could also earn revenue from the nascent market for sustainably produced commodities and so-called environmental services, such as practices that sequester carbon in the soil and plants or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Vilsack. The USDA has allotted $3.1 billion in its climate-smart farming initiative for 141 pilot projects to test the idea. The Treasury Department has opened the door for biofuels to qualify for tax credits in production of low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel, potentially twice as big a market as the Renewable Fuel Standard. The USDA also have programs to encourage larger sales through local and regional food networks and to expand local processing of agricultural products to return more money to producers.
Vilsack was scheduled to speak at the grand opening on Wednesday of a Georgia plant that produces sustainable aviation fuel from ethanol.