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Lawmakers using farm policy to offset climate change

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GHENT—Our elected representatives all acknowledge the climate change crisis; what are they doing about it? The Columbia Paper interviewed the congressman, state senator and state Assembly member to find out.

Although newly elected to Congress to represent the 19th Congressional District, which encompasses all or part of 11 counties, including all of Columbia County, Republican Marc Molinaro has been advocating for the environment over the 29 years of his public service in the state. He describes it as “a deep passion for the natural environment.”

He believes that addressing climate change is essential and can best be served by local actions. Agriculture is a key focus both because it can emit substantial greenhouse gases and because there are techniques that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to use farmlands to sequester gases.

As a member of the Agriculture Committee, he will press for inclusion in the upcoming Farm Bill of funds for research concerning, and investment in, measures to drive down the carbon footprint of farming.

In addition to funding academic and technical research at Cornell University, among others, he believes investments should be made in New York’s small farms, which are ideal laboratories to explore different techniques for regenerative farming. Subsidies to assist farmers to transition to carbon neutral methods are on his agenda. Ensuring that New York farms are competitive and can survive is of urgent importance to him.

Rep. Molinaro believes that renewable energy (for him, all of solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear) must be a focus of investment, but the siting of facilities must become more sensitive to the need to preserve agricultural lands which are crucial to the ecosystem. He notes that solar arrays can readily be sited on virtually every school roof (they are always flat), on hospitals and on many municipal buildings instead of removing valuable agricultural lands from use.

The Congressman also serves on the Transportation Committee. He believes that the $2 trillion in infrastructure investments must construct highways, roads and bridges that are resilient to climate change, must be directed away from natural resources and must include investment in much needed public transportation to drive down the emissions of individual car use.

Asked about his support of a bill that would overturn an EPA rule broadly defining the phrase “waters of the United States” for purposes of federal jurisdiction over areas such as wetlands and streams—a rule many environmentalists believe is crucial to clean waters preservation—the Congressman explained his reasoning that the rule (1) is beyond the authority of the EPA, and (2) is so extreme as to eliminate from use active areas of farming, preclude infrastructure development and potentially conflict with New York’s already-strict wetlands protection laws.

State Sen. Michelle Hinchey

On the state side, Michelle Hinchey (D-41st) represents Columbia County in the New York Senate and chairs its Agriculture Committee. She views her work there “through the frame that the nation’s food supply over the next 10, 20, 50 years is critical. Climate change and the death of the Colorado River are greatly harming California agriculture, and New York must again become the breadbasket of the country, as it was at the dawn of the nation. That will require not just supporting agriculture but also expanding it.”

She notes that even if the state meets all the goals of its ambitious climate legislation, known as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), we have already done irreparable harm; but she believes that agriculture can be a key to mitigation.

Agriculture Committee-sponsored legislation that has recently passed in the state Senate and awaits Assembly action would strengthen farming and encourage climate smart methods in a variety of ways.

First, Senate Bill 3125 would establish (for the first time) goals for state agencies that buy more than $2 million/year in food, setting a percentage that must be bought from in-state producers. Similar requirements have now been proposed by the governor in her budget but Senator Hinchey believes that rooting a requirement in legislation assures that it will not be subject to change from administration to administration. Currently Democrats control the legislature and the governor’s office.

Hemp is a product that can do and be many things, from “hempcrete,” which acts as a carbon sink, to paper, to clothes, to biodegradable packaging, to the dashboards of cars. In New York, bringing hemp production to industrial scale and gaining and holding market share depends on developing processing and manufacturing facilities. Senator Hinchey is promoting a large incentive package to center hemp production, processing and manufacturing here.

The Agriculture Committee has also passed legislation to develop a carbon farming tax credit that would provide incentives to farmers to adopt regenerative techniques. These include no-till, cover-cropping, and rotational grazing, all of which minimize carbon emissions from disturbing the soil and allow the soils instead to sequester greenhouse gases. Senator Hinchey, like Congressman Molinaro, says that agriculture is a cornerstone of any climate solution and local farms are national leaders in implementing smart farming techniques.

Together with Assemblymember Didi Barrett, Senator Hinchey is pursuing legislation around solar farm siting so that we do not trade one crisis (environmental) for another (agricultural) by using fertile lands instead for solar farm arrays. Senator Hinchey has introduced a bill to require regional coordination of siting decisions in order to protect prime soils. She also notes that “dual use” solutions such as “agrivoltaics” (grazing animals on lands also used for solar arrays), while promising, have not been tested at scale.

Another “first” proposed by Senator Hinchey and her committee is a fund that would provide financing to farmers to maintain forest lands on their properties and pay for agroforestry, like using goats to maintain woodlands or selectively cutting to enhance carbon capture. She is urging the inclusion in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund of $15 million to cover the expenses incurred by farmers to better manage their forest ecosystems to maximize carbon sequestration. Once techniques have been tested and proven, Senator Hinchey envisions expanding the program to all woodland owners.

Assemblymember Didi Barrett

State Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), whose district includes Columbia County, has partnered with Senator Hinchey on a number of initiatives that support local agriculture, including the solar mapping legislation that Assemblymember Barrett first introduced and a bill to update the state’s soil data surveys, which were last reviewed in the 1930s. Both bills seek to balance the need to protect New York’s farmland and food security, on the one hand, with renewable energy production goals, on the other.

She also continues to work to support pilot programs that explore ways to improve soil health and carbon smart farming, so that agriculture can have a net positive carbon impact.

Having just been appointed to chair the Assembly Energy Committee, Assemblymember Barrett is committed to achieving the ambitious goals of the CLCPA “equitably and justly, with respect for all perspectives and recognizing that upstate both produces and uses energy,” while downstate is primarily a consumer.

Among other things, Assemblymember Barrett acknowledges that to meet the CLCPA goals, significant investments must be made in infrastructure and workforce development. For example, to meet the mandate that all school buses must be electric, the state must construct a sufficient number of charging stations; to conduct mandated energy audits, we must train additional workers who can conduct them; to install the many electrical appliances for which federal incentives are available, we must license many more electricians.

The Assembly member is working with local community colleges and others to create the human and other infrastructure necessary to make CLCPA targets achievable. She sees great opportunity for our community colleges to develop a local workforce of a type the community has been lacking for many years and that can attract and keep young people in the county.

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