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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Agriculture Secretary Explains New ‘Climate Hubs’

A herd of beef cattle in California's Central Valley give chase to a meal delivery of hay, Feb. 3, 2014. At this time of the year normally, the fields would be covered in lush green grass. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A herd of beef cattle in California’s Central Valley give chase to a meal delivery of hay, Feb. 3, 2014. At this time of the year normally, the fields would be covered in lush green grass. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is proposing today to create seven regional “climate hubs” with the goal of helping farmers and rural communities combat the most serious effects of climate change: drought, floods, pests and fires.

The move is taking place by executive action and will not go to Congress for approval. The hubs will represent a broad swath of the country’s rural regions and will include Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon and New Mexico.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has described the hubs as part of “our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions.” He discusses the proposal with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

Interview Highlights: Tom Vilsack

On what climate hubs are and how they work

“These hubs will be located in New Hampshire, in North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Oregon, and there will be sub-hubs in California, Michigan and the Puerto Rico. And each of the hubs will be focused on their individual region of the country. They’ll be partnering with land grant universities, the private sector and other sister federal agencies to really look at how we can strengthen and maintain agriculture production in the face of changing climate, how we can continue to better manage our natural resources and promote the economic opportunity they create. These hubs will analyze the risks of changing climates, they’ll conduct a vulnerability assessment. And what we’ll do is put together a research project to provide guidance, practical technologies that will work to allow folks to adapt or mitigate the impacts of changing climate, in the hopes of being able to preserve both the production, as well as the greenhouse gas carbon-sinking capacity of our growing lands.”

On how farmers will be able to benefit from climate hubs

“What will happen is that through extension, those farmers will be advised, ‘here are the risks to your operation, here are the risks to the crops you traditionally have grown and here are the strategies that you can utilize.’ It may be seed technologies, it may be a particular crop rotation, it might be a cover crop, it may be what to do with crop residue, it might be a nutrient management plan — all of this information and advice will be provided through extension. There will also be a repository of best practices in that region. And again, it’s really focused on each region of the country because each region is fundamentally different in terms of the threats and challenges they face because of changing climates.”

Guest

  • Tom Vilsack, United States Secretary of Agriculture since 2009.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And as another big snowstorm slams the Northeast and a drought continues to plague the West, the Obama administration is proposing today something called climate hubs. The goal will be to help farmers and rural communities by providing information and research to combat the most serious effects of climate change on the agricultural industry.

Now, it's an executive action. It will not go to Congress for approval. So we're joined now by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is with us from Washington to talk about the climate hubs. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: It's great to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, start by telling us what exactly is going to happen at these climate hubs and where they're going to be located.

VILSACK: Well, I think it's important for folks to know that 51 percent of the land mass of the United States is involved in either agriculture or forestry and that both agriculture and forestry combined basically are a net carbon sink, and we obviously want to continue that because of the importance of both agriculture and forestry to the economy.

Nearly 16 million people are employed as a result of agriculture and forestry, and so the concern we have is that with severe droughts and massive snowstorms, destructive tornadoes and other strong storms, we've seen a potential for crop losses, a potential for intense forest fires, increase in pests and diseases, and so we need to really be focused on how the changing climate is impacting agriculture and forestry pursuant to the president's climate action plan.

So one thing we're going to do at USDA is to establish seven regional hubs. Now, these hubs will be located in New Hampshire, in North Carolina, in Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Oregon, and there will be sub-hubs in California, Michigan and in Puerto Rico.

And each of the hubs will be focused on their individual region of the country. They'll be partnering the land-grant universities, the private sector and other sister federal agencies to really look at how we can strengthen and maintain agricultural production in the face of changing climate, how we can continue to better manage our natural resources and promote the economic opportunity they create.

These hubs will analyze the risk from changing climates. They'll conduct a vulnerability assessment. And then what we'll do is put together research projects to provide guidance, practical technologies that will work to allow folks to adapt or mitigate to the impacts of changing climate in the hopes of being able to preserve both the production as well as the greenhouse gas carbon sinking capacity of our working lands and forests.

HOBSON: So if there's a farmer in one of these locations, what are they supposed to be able to use the hub for?

VILSACK: What will happen is that through extension, those farmers will be advised that here are the risks to your operation, here are the risks to the crops that you traditionally have grown, and here are the strategies that you can utilize. It may be seed technology. It may be a particular crop rotation. It might be a cover crop. It might be what to do with crop residue. It might be a nutrient management plan. All of this information and advice will be provided to farmers through extension.

There will also be a repository of best practices in that region, and again, it's really focused on each region of the country because each region is fundamentally different in terms of the threats and challenges that they face from a changing climate.

HOBSON: Aren't there, though, farmers in this country who won't be able to do anything with additional information, it's just they live in a place that is in real trouble because of climate change and they won't be able to farm anymore?

VILSACK: Well, I don't think that's necessarily the case. It may very well be that they're advised that they can't farm what they've done in the past, but they can farm a new crop or a new product. And that's one of the reasons why the passage of the farm bill that passed the Senate yesterday and the House last week is so important, because it provides us not just the ability to expand on this research and to provide this advice and guidance, but it also will provide the financial assistance and help for farmers who want to make transitions to different systems or who want to embrace new conservation practices, who are interested in just simply continuing to produce at the same levels that they historically have been able to produce.

HOBSON: You bring up the farm bill. I just wonder your thoughts. Do you think it was a good bill?

VILSACK: I do, and the reason I do is because I think a lot of the publicity has been focused on the support system for farmers and the SNAP Program for struggling families, but there's a great deal in the middle - a new research foundation, which is obviously going to help build on the climate hubs that we're announcing today, a new microloan program that's going to be expanded that will help smaller sized operators get in the business, greater support for local and regional food systems, a new manufacturing opportunity in rural America that we finance when we take crop residue and turn it into new chemicals and new materials.

There's a tremendous amount of conservation opportunity here, working with partners in large landscape-scale operations that will play into and certainly support whatever we figure out in terms of these climate change hubs. So there's a great deal of good solid policy and financing, and at the same time we're saving a little money, and we're reforming the support structure and system for farmers that makes it much more defensible than it was before.

HOBSON: Many people may notice that given this announcement today and the State of the Union Address, in which the president said climate change is a real thing, that the administration is getting a little more outspoken about climate change and dealing with climate change. I wonder, do you think that the drought that's going on in California right now is the result of climate change?

VILSACK: Well, I think there are an awful lot of reasons why we have extended drought. There's no question that we're having more intense weather patterns. I can take you to California with the severe drought. I can take you to the Dakotas, where they had snowstorms that were massive, that were unprecedented and unexpected. I can take you to still the damaged areas of Hurricane Sandy.

There's more intensity, there's greater frequency, and there are many, many reasons for this. But the bottom line is that things are changing, and things are getting more intense, and it is going to have an impact on a very important industry and a very important part of America, which is American agriculture and forestry.

And we don't want to lose the advantages that we have. We don't want to lose the jobs that are connected to this great industry, and we want to continue to have this industry contribute to reducing greenhouse gases, as it's currently doing. So that's the reason why we're setting these climate change hubs up, and hopefully we'll be able to provide some very practical guidance, science-based, for producers and for forest landowners that allow them to do a better job of dealing with what is clearly a changing climate.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think when you hear people on the news and in other places say, oh, they say global warming is happening, of course this is such a cold winter. These two can't go together.

VILSACK: Well, what I refer to is the fact that the climate's changing. And it can be reflected in a variety of different ways: severe drought, longer droughts, a more intense fire season because we've had pests and diseases that are able to survive that weren't surviving before because winters did not get as cold. We've certainly seen that with the pine bark beetle infestation in the western part of the United States, in the forested area.

Clearly our storms are much more intense and more severe, and the damage to crops is pretty significant. And so we can take you to just about any part of the country, and you're going to see the impact of changing climate, and the challenge is to maintain the 16 million people who are employed as a result of agriculture and food production, to maintain the manufacturing opportunities, to expand on that, to allow us to continue to export and create jobs as a result of a trade surplus that we've had in agriculture for 50 years, and to be able to be a food-secure nation, where we basically produce all that we need to feed our own people, which is an enormous national security advantage.

All of that is jeopardized if we don't pay attention to the fact that we have less water in some areas, more water than we need in other areas, snowstorms that occur that devastate livestock, and other storms that really can do a substantial amount to crops in a very short period of time.

HOBSON: U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, joining us from Washington. And Mr. Secretary, thanks so much.

VILSACK: You bet, thank you.

HOBSON: And if you're a farmer, let us know how you think these climate hubs might change things for you, and if you're out in the West how the drought is affecting you right now. Or Robin, if you're right here in the Northeast, how this unbelievable snowstorm is affecting you. Go to hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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