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USDA Runs the Most Expensive Manure Program in the World

by Alan Guebert

Published: Friday, April 19, 2024

The following is from Alan Guebert, a freelance agricultural journalist from Illinois.

If the third time is a charm, Michael Happ might finally make an impression on federal lawmakers and administrators with his fact-filled, 24-page report on the Department of Agriculture's continued financing of Big Ag's big manure habit.

This is Happ's third detailed look at EQIP, USDA's nearly 30-year old Environmental Quality Incentive Program, in as many years. In each, Happ, a climate and rural communities associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, has focused on where USDA often directs chunks of EQIP's $1 billion-plus annual budget.

What Happ found in all three was USDA often reverting to its traditional role of backing Big Ag's big-is-better solutions to multi-faceted environmental problems when better, more effective solutions go begging for EQIP's limited funds.

What that often means for on-the-ground EQIP spending is to pour concrete, Big Ag's go-to solution to most problems. And the bigger the problem, the bigger the pour.

In 2023, Happ called these physical, rather than biological, responses "practices that are often structural rather than plant or natural systems-based."

In turn, some of ag's most pressing environmental threats—like climate change, soil erosion and water quality—are never really challenged, much less solved. Instead, wagon loads of taxpayer money often underwrite complex and questionable technologies like today's methane-managing manure digesters.

If 30 years and billions in taxpayer money on these "more concrete" programs actually worked, livestock-heavy, ethanol-soaked states like Iowa would have the safest, cleanest rural water in the nation. They don't; in fact, it's the exact opposite.

These "more infrastructure" fixes carry other consequences, Happ notes.

For example, as "disproportionate shares of program dollars go toward high-cost practices that have little to no climate or conservation benefit," his April 2024 report details, "we find that ... nearly two-thirds of farmer applicants (are) being turned away from EQIP" because the handful of Bigs have vacuumed up much of the free cash year after year.

In 2023, Happ writes, "Over $182 million ... or about 11% of the annual EQIP funding" was spent on "10 EQIP practices (that) averaged over $50,000 per contract ... such as waste storage facility, waste storage facility cover, and anaerobic digester (that) have questionable environmental benefits and bolster the polluting concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) system of the largest livestock operations."

In fact, building a manure digester—often with vital EQIP seed money—has become one way big CAFO livestock and dairy farms grow even bigger.

Happ explains: A "recent study found that dairy operations that installed digesters grew their herd sizes by ... 24 times the growth rate of dairies without digesters" despite the fact that "less than 10% of the methane emissions from cattle come from manure storage ..."

Still, EQIP continues to throw taxpayer cash at digesters even as mounting evidence confirms that "with increases in herd sizes, the methane reduction benefits of digesters shrink dramatically."

The spending, like the manure, is a waste. "As the U.S. pursues its methane reduction strategy, we cannot afford to waste billions of dollars on false climate solutions, such as digesters that encourage herd growth," Happ asserts.

And yet, we will. The Biden administration's Inflation Reduction Act will boost total EQIP spending to $8.45 billion between fiscal year 2025 and 2031.

Instead, USDA should increase spending on other, cheaper and more effective farm-directed practices that are popular, Happ suggests. For example, "Of the top 10 most popular practices (underwritten by EQIP), not one averages over $10,000 per contract. For a small grazier, a $3,000 prescribed grazing contract can be life changing ..."

All of this makes solid financial and environmental sense. USDA should stop spreading EQIP's big spending on Big Ag and recommit to financing more directed, more impactful environmental programs that actually work.

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