USDA secretary stops by Brunswick

(This article is reprinted with permission from The Brunswick News)

August 22, 2023

By Taylor Cooper


U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stopped by Brunswick on Tuesday to make an appearance at a conference celebrating 10 years of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention network.

The network coordinates between organizations in eight states — Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Caroline, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia — and the USDA and state agricultural agencies to help small forest landowners take care of and ultimately profit from their land, said Ben Sterling with McIntosh Sustainable Environment and Economic Development, also known as McIntosh SEED.

SEED is a part of the network’s Georgia branch. Especially in the South, most small landowners of forestland are African Americans who inherited the land down the generations from their families, Vilsack said.

But those who simply inherit land without any knowledge of how to work it are left in a hard situation, he said. There are ways to make the land profitable, and the USDA has plenty of grants to help.

One of the goals of his administration is to help the “little guys” get a slice of the pie. He wants the USDA and networks like SFLR to be the bridge between forestland owners and funding programs.

The U.S. is about 38% forested, he said, and half of that is privately owned. Of that, 60% are what he called the small landowners, owning as little as 10 acres.

Vilsack served for eight years as USDA secretary under former President Barack Obama and was tapped for the role again in 2021 by President Joe Biden. When he returned to the office, he was given reports showing that the year prior, 2020, was a banner year for forestland income.

He then pulled out a whiteboard to illustrate why that wasn’t necessarily good news.

It was true that revenue for such properties had been higher, but 89% of that revenue went to the “big guys,” he said — those who made $500,000 in revenue that year.

“If you’re smaller, you’re having to share 11% of that income,” Vilsack said.

His predecessor, Sonny Perdue, was “painfully honest” about that, he added.

“The way things are, you’ve got to get big or get out,’” Vilsack quoted Perdue.

But Vilsack said that’s not the way he wanted things to be, and Biden agreed. The Inflation Reduction Act includes substantial amounts of money for grants and favorable loans to help people turn their forestland into income-producing properties.

There are plenty of ways to do that, he explained. Crop lands produce food and tree farms produce wood, both well-known industries, but he spent some time talking about a relatively new market called “climate-smart agriculture.”

He directed the audience to for more information on exactly what it entails and what government programs exist. It allows landowners to use their forest to do things like sell carbon sequestration certificates and timber for biofuel.

The USDA has also spent years preaching the uses of mass timber, which has caught on as a building material in recent years. It’s a type of compressed wood material that allows for the construction of high-rises almost entirely made of wood.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes around $150 million in grants for small forestland owners to pay for projects that will feed into the climate-smart agriculture market.

His administration is also taking the attitude that the USDA’s responsibility is not to simply foreclose on borrowers who can’t make payments but to do what it can to help them keep their land. A distressed borrower program takes aim at doing just that.

He also introduced another program for those who experience discrimination by the USDA when applying for farming, ranching or forest loans prior to 2021. The Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion in funding for those who did.

Vilsack said he wasn’t proud about it, but the USDA had discriminated by favoring the “big guys.” He encouraged everyone in the room to spread the word.

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