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Tina Casey headshot

New USDA Program Connects Farmers with Financial Benefits of Carbon Sequestration in Soil

By Tina Casey
Farm fields during daytime - potential for carbon sequestration in soil

More farmers are beginning to adopt regenerative farming practices that focus on building soil health, and now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has come up with a new program to help accelerate the movement. Called Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, the program focuses squarely on carbon sequestration markets as well as soil-building methods.

What is regenerative farming?

Regenerative farming can have different shades of meaning. As interpreted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the central theme encompasses farming practices that conserve renewable resources. The 20th-century publisher, author and organic farmer Robert Rodale is credited with popularizing the concept. 

Under the modern interpretation, contributing to biodiversity and community well-being are also essential elements of regenerative farming. In addition, the Joe Biden administration emphasizes equity and inclusion across all of its initiatives.

Spotlight on soil health in the era of climate change

The emphasis on soil health has taken on new significance as the real-world impacts of climate change takes shape. Researchers are compiling more data on the ability of soil to sequester carbon. That provides policymakers with a potentially powerful toolkit in the climate action toolbox.

By “climate-smart,” the organizers of Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities refer to practices that are consistent with regenerative soil-building principles, including the use of cover crops, no-till farming and nutrient management.

The USDA has generations of experience in assisting farmers on an individual basis. But this partnership is different. It is designed to promote systemic solutions that can be shared among thousands of farms. The end goals are to encourage farmers to deploy their land for carbon sequestration, and to connect them with financial opportunities in the carbon sequestration and sustainability markets.

Overwhelming demand for climate-smart farming

The partnership itself demonstrates the strong interest of researchers, farmers and other stakeholders in carbon sequestration. The program opened for applications in February and was quickly swamped with hundreds of proposals, leading the USDA to arrange for a second, upcoming round of funding.   

Meanwhile, last week the program announced its first round of 70 projects. The USDA expects this first group of projects to cover more than 50,000 farms, engaging up to 25 million acres or more in climate-smart methods.

“More than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent [will be] sequestered over the lives of the projects,” the USDA estimates. “This is equivalent to removing more than 10 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles from the road for one year.”

A systemic approach to carbon sequestration in soil

In a press announcement on Wednesday, the USDA highlighted five projects that showcase the potential for a broad impact on carbon sequestration. The five projects are expected to span up to five years each:

The Climate-Smart Agriculture Innovative Finance Initiative, led by the organization Field to Market, will assist climate-smart farmers with new financial tools and other support. Farms in more than 30 states are expected to participate.

Scaling Methane Emissions Reductions and Soil Carbon Sequestration, led by Dairy Farmers of America, will apply the cooperative business model to help farmers to connect with opportunities in the low-carbon dairy market.

The Soil Inventory Project Partnership for Impact and Demand, led by The Meridian Institute, will help farmers and other stakeholders to measure carbon in their soil and share it with an open-access database. The project includes farms growing value-added crops and direct-to-consumer specialty crops, as well as the 19 most common row crops in the U.S.

Developing Climate-Smart Beef and Bison Commodities, led by South Dakota State University, will connect climate-smart grazing and land management practices with market opportunities. 

Traceable Reforestation for America’s Carbon and Timber, led by Oregon Climate Trust, will help restore lands impacted by wildfire in the West. The project also covers depleted agricultural land in the South. It includes verification of climate benefits for every acre planted, and for the volume of forest products generated. 

First came "woke capitalism"... is "woke farming" close behind?

The partnership’s equity provisions are reflected in the inclusion of underserved communities and minority-serving research institutions in the first round of 70 projects. For the second round, the USDA is focusing more specifically on equity and inclusion.

“USDA is currently evaluating project proposals from the second Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities funding pool, which includes funding requests from $250,000 to $4,999,999," the USDA explains. "Projects from this second funding pool will emphasize the enrollment of small and/or underserved producers, and/or monitoring, reporting and verification activities developed at minority-serving institutions."

The emphasis on equity and inclusion could raise red flags among Republican office holders and candidates as the 2022 midterm election cycle heats up. After all, some high-profile Republican officials in Texas, Arizona and elsewhere have already taken up the “woke capitalism” canard against the firm BlackRock, along with other financial institutions engaged in the ESG (environmental, social governance) movement.

The slur could just as easily apply to the ongoing effort to relieve U.S. farmers from fossil energy costs. What could be called “woke agriculture” has been a feature of USDA programming since the 2002 Farm Bill, which established a carbon-cutting program called REAP (Rural Energy for America Program).

REAP covers grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades on farms, as well as renewable energy feasibility studies and other technical assistance. The USDA has also been leveraging agricultural biogas to help decarbonize livestock operations, organized under the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap.

The Department of Energy has also been active in the effort to reduce the fossil energy footprint of farming. One example is agency’s R&D work in the field of agrivoltaics, which overlaps with the field of regenerative farming.

On-farm electrolysis systems is another avenue of Energy Department exploration. The systems would run on electricity from co-located wind turbines or other renewable energy sources to produce green hydrogen gas. Farmers could deploy the hydrogen as fuel, use it as a feedstock to produce their own ammonia fertilizer, or sell it for new revenue.

The U.S. economy is decarbonizing, one way or another

The right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court stymied federal enforcement of greenhouse gas emissions with its Clean Power Plan ruling last summer. That means federal agencies need to rely on incentives and bottom-line motivation to steer the economy in a more sustainable direction. The Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities is just one example. Another example is the newly released Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap. The new Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is also front-loaded with new funding for decarbonization, with an assist from last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

It seems Republicans who hitched their star to the “woke” canard will have their hands full as the Biden administration continues to move forward with carbon-cutting programs that build bottom-line benefits across the U.S. agriculture industry and other sectors of the economy.

More information about the Partnership is available at usda.gov/climate-smart-commodities and usda.gov/climate-solutions.

Image credits: Benjamin Davies and Ryan Searle via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey