Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Sec. Vilsack Announces 'Climate Hubs' To Help Farmers & Rural Communities Deal With Impact Of Climate Change

Vilsack speaking at the White House on Wednesday
President Obama's executive action is first in a series to address climate change, and could alter the face of US agriculture, Vilsack says...
Washington, DC - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday joined Press Secretary Jay Carney at the White House daily briefing to announce the Administration's plan to establish seven regional 'Climate Hubs' and three 'Sub-Hubs' in an effort to help farmers, ranchers, and rural communities use scientific analysis to respond to the impact of climate change, including storms, drought, floods, wildfires and insect infestations.

President Barack Obama has identified combating climate change as a top priority for 2014, and the Hubs will be created by executive action.  According to aides, it is one of several moves he will make this year using executive authority, rather than waiting for Congress to address the issue. 

"We’ve been waiting a while for Congress to act on climate," Vilsack said. "Fair enough; multiple reasons why they haven’t.  But in the meantime, we’re going to take action."  

The President first announced plans for the Hubs in June of 2013 when he unveiled his Climate Action Plan.  They will be at USDA facilities and land-grant universities in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon that were selected through a "competitive process," with the Sub-Hubs in California, Puerto Rico, and Michigan, Vilsack said.

With 51% of the US landmass (over 1.2 billion acres of land) devoted to "either agriculture or forestry," the Hubs are a much-needed intervention to help producers adapt to and mitigate the risks from climate change, Vilsack said.

"These climate change hubs and the substations are going to do a risk analysis of crop production and of forestry in terms of changing climates," Vilsack said.  

"We’ll determine from those vulnerabilities strategies and technologies and steps that can be taken to mitigate the impacts and effects of climate change, as well as adapting to new ways of agriculture."

Climate change has led to a longer crop-growing season in the Midwest, a fire season that is 60 days longer than it was thirty years ago, and a series of droughts that cost the US $50 billion in losses between 2011-2013, according to USDA.  Thanks in part to warmer weather, Bark Beetles have overrun millions of acres of forest, Vilsack said, which makes wildfires more frequent.

There are seven regional hubs "because each region in the country does things a little bit differently in terms of agriculture and forestry," Vilsack said.  "Each of them are faced with slightly different circumstances." 

Thus the three Sub-Hubs will "focus on a narrow and unique set of issues relative to what will be going on in the rest of the Hub," USDA said.  

The Southwest Sub-Hub in Davis, CA, will focus on specialty crops (fruit and vegetables) and Southwest forests; the Southeast Sub-Hub in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico will address "issues important to the Caribbean;" and the Midwest Sub-Hub in Houghton, Michigan will address climate change and Lake State forests.   

When asked about potential impact, Vilsack said the information from the Hubs could ultimately change the face of US agriculture as producers develop new strategies in response to the research. 

Those in a particular region who are impacted by a particular risk will be able "to either adapt and shift to a different crop that they produce, or use a different seed technology, biotechnology, whatever they might, to eliminate the risk," Vilsack said.  

Those who can't eliminate risk will know how to better mitigate it, he said.

When questioned about the reality of climate change, Vilsack said he is a believer.

"When you take a look at the intensity of the storms that we have seen recently and the frequency of them, the length of drought, combined with these snowstorms and the subzero weather that we’ve experienced, the combination of all those factors convinces me that the climate is changing," Vilsack said.

He pointed to livestock producers in the Dakotas as an example of producers who could have been helped if the Hubs already existed.

"I can tell you without any hesitancy that because we didn’t have a good assessment and didn’t have good forecasting and didn’t have a disaster assistance program, that some of the livestock producers in the Dakotas, for example, just couldn’t make it," Vilsack said. 

"When that snowstorm hit, it didn’t wipe out just a few animals, it wiped out the entire operation.  Nobody anticipated and expected that severe a storm that early. That’s one impact." 

He added that he is relieved the 2014 Farm Bill has now been passed, since it offers disaster assistance that has been unavailable since the last bill expired.  President Obama will sign the Farm Bill on Friday in Michigan

NOAA, run by the Commerce Department, and the Department of the Interior will also be involved with the Hubs, Vilsack said, which will "will take full advantage of the partnerships that we have with land-grant universities, our sister federal agencies, as well as the private and non-profit sector."

Vilsack stressed that the Hub project does not duplicate other federal of USDA programs, but instead coordinates efforts and information into central databases that will make it easier for producers and rural communities to take action.  $120 million in research money that is already part of USDA's budget will go toward the project, with more funding coming from the new Farm Bill, Vilsack said.  

*Download: The USDA Climate Hub Fact Sheet {PDF}.

USDA's Climate Hub Map
The Hub locations...
*Midwest: National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Agricultural Research Service, Ames, Iowa, with a Sub-Hub in Houghton, Mich.  

*Northeast: Northern Research Station, Forest Service, Durham, N.H.  

*Southeast: Southern Research Station, Forest Service, Raleigh, N.C., with a Sub-Hub in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.   

*Northern Plains: National Resources Center, Agricultural Research Service, Fort Collins, Colo.  

*Southern Plains: Grazinglands Research Lab, Agricultural Research Service, El Reno, Okla. 

*Pacific Northwest: Pacific Northwest Research Station, Forest Service, Corvallis, Ore. 

*Southwest: Rangeland Management Unit/Jornada Experimental Range, Agricultural Research Service, Las Cruces, N.M., with a  Sub-Hub in Davis, Calif

Vilsack discusses the Hubs in this USDA video:

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama.  USDA graphic.