Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a two-part blog series highlighting the stories of farmers who have used practices from the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry practice list to build climate resilience and mitigation solutions. The second post in the series shares additional stories created and gathered by National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) members around the country about how farmers are preparing for and responding to climate change. Some of the links below include multiple stories, so we encourage you to explore them all.
On August 16, 2022 when the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law, it solidified an historic investment in addressing the climate crisis and reflected key priorities lifted up by the farmers and communities that NSAC’s members serve. Chief among these priorities was the IRA’s allocation of nearly $20 billion in new agricultural conservation funding in four key conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
More than a year later, this once-in-a-generation investment approximately doubled the funding available for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) core conservation programs. Of the four programs, farmers can directly apply to CSP and EQIP – both of which are incredibly popular among farmers – in order to improve on-farm conservation outcomes. Spending began in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 and already farmer demand has exceeded available FY2023 funding.
As the recent release of the 5th National Climate Assessment reminds us, these funds come at a time when farmers are experiencing ever more volatile climate impacts. Through interviews with farmers, this post highlights both the climate-related challenges farmers are facing and how the IRA investments are building farmers’ resilience .
Wild Weather Threatens Farm Viability
Although the IRA funds are directed at greenhouse gas mitigation, many forms of agricultural climate mitigation also increase farm resilience. The farmers in this blog post have all experienced the volatility and challenges of new climate patterns, increasing their economic risk and need for assistance as they shift to new crops and systems to cope with shifting weather.
In central New Mexico, for example, Christy Everett’s family ranches, Jones Corona Ranch and Jones Mountainair Ranch, have seen not only hotter, more challenging summers, but a shift in the summer monsoons. As monsoons have increasingly begun later in the summer–or not come at all–the hot season grasses on which the family ranch used to depend have begun to suffer and decline.
For Estelle Lemler, in Mississippi, little is predictable. In the first year of her new farm, endless downpours washed away soil and left standing water in her fields. Her second year found the farm parched. She went from deepening the pathways for water to flow away from her crops to an intensive focus on overhead and drip irrigation. One of her key crops, tomatoes, experienced heavy splitting one year and struggled to grow in the next.
Historically cooler climates, too, are experiencing these sorts of rapid and unpredictable shifts. As Doug Crabtree, of Vilicus Farms in Montana, says, “There is no normal anymore. We just cannot predict what will happen.”
Doug has found crop diversity essential in dealing with the volatile rains and temperatures. No crop has consistently thrived across the adverse conditions the farm has experienced in recent years. One crop thrives in some years and others in another year. As Doug puts it, “Climate change is bringing more variability, not a consistent change toward a new pattern.”
From drought to flooding, the IRA funding was specifically designed to incentivize agricultural practices that can both support farmers in weathering these challenges, while simultaneously sequestering greenhouse gasses.
Practices That Sequester Carbon and Increase Resilience
Within EQIP and CSP in particular, the practices that receive funding through the IRA tend to accomplish multiple ecological goals.
For example, reducing tillage and maintaining in-field residues can reduce the losses of carbon dioxide and may reduce nitrous oxide emissions. Since current agricultural soil management practices create 73% of the country’s nitrous oxide emissions, multiple practices must contribute to emissions reductions. Keeping nitrous oxide out of the atmosphere is not the only conservation contribution of practices like these, though. By reducing the oxidation of organic matter in the soil, reduced tillage can create long-term increases in organic matter in the soil. A reservoir of carbon, organic matter also improves water holding capacity. That means that when there is a heavy rainstorm, the soil will keep absorbing it even while less fertile soils let the rain (and associated nutrients) wash off into nearby bodies of water. Conversely, it means that when drought hits, the soil stays healthy and supports plants longer than in soils that are not well protected by reduced tillage and consistent plant matter.
In addition to reducing tillage, increasing the presence of plant matter through other means can also accomplish parallel increases in organic matter. Thus, rotating crops so that there are always roots–preferably living roots–in the ground can also improve water holding capacity and carbon sequestration. Cover crops, especially when carefully managed for living cover year-round, can do the same. Such practices can also reduce nitrous oxide emissions, in part by reducing the need to apply synthetic fertilizers.
In Iowa, Mark Peterson of Bent Gate Farm has experienced some of these benefits first-hand. Since the 1990s, he has reduced his tillage, and for the past 10 years he has been incorporating a multi-species cover crop with 12-18 species into his system. In addition, he has been having a neighbor graze his cattle on the cover crop, adding even more organic matter to the system. The result? “In the first seven years, we pretty much increased organic matter by one percent. That’s an extra inch of water holding capacity–an extra inch of reserve for wet or dry.”
In addition to Mark’s existing practices, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a practice standard that would help ensure that he is applying any fertilizers in the best locations, at the best times, and in only the amounts needed. This practice standard–Nutrient Management–has the potential to further reduce damaging nitrous oxide emissions while improving surrounding waterways.
Perennial livestock systems have similar capacities to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts. At the same time, they decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Prescribed grazing, for example, including forms such as management intensive rotational grazing that allow for short-duration presence of livestock on a given part of the landscape, can improve the quality of forage and increase the presence of native perennial plants. Such changes leave the system less vulnerable to temperature extremes, droughts, and floods. Moreover, by increasing the presence of deeper rooted perennials and distributing manure, such practices can increase the overall carbon sequestration of a grazing system. The most carefully managed pastures can improve the quality of forage so substantially that they reduce the methane produced by grazing cattle, and carbon sequestration in pastures can more than offset the remaining greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.
Other forms of perennials also provide both important resilience reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the highest impact comes from agroforestry practices. Planting trees or shrubs can reduce the impacts of high winds and hot temperatures. Some selections can increase yields and profits per acre. Even in arid climates, like Montana’s Hi-Line, agroforestry can provide substantial reductions in risk. Vilicus Farms, for example, grows 20-foot shrubs between some fields, which noticeably reduce crop damage from the drying winds of the High Plains. As Doug Crabtree notes, “So often, farmers in our region are ripping out shelterbelts to increase efficiency of wheat production, but getting more perennial shrub species in our system would increase resilience.”
Inflation Reduction Act Funds Support Farmer Practices
While some climate-friendly practices, like building soil, improve a farmer’s bottom-line, some practices are more about protecting the farm landscape as a whole. So, removing invasive species that allow a native ecosystem to thrive and better sequester carbon, for example, may improve the presence of pollinators or make for better bird habitat, but the specifics of how it improves a farm’s finances may not always be clear. That is one reason that federal investments in on-farm conservation are so key–they support farmers in focusing their energies on the area’s ecology alongside their direct work on improving their cropping systems. And such work will ultimately benefit the financial and environmental health of the farm as a whole. Programs like CSP and EQIP help farmers integrate these types of practices into their landscapes.
It can also be expensive to get started using some practices that provide long-term benefits, and farmers may not be able to afford it. Chaw Chang, in New York state, for example, was able to afford a bale chopper for his mulching practices because of help from CSP.
Many of the practices on the NRCS Climate-Smart list build and improve soil in some way. When farmers are first adopting such practices, they may be replacing synthetic fertilizers with cover crops, more effective rotations, reducing tillage, or similar practices. That may mean that they are starting from degraded, chemical-dependent soil. It can take 5-7 years to build back the soil structure and organisms that come with more living roots in the ground. So, farmers may need financial assistance to get over that hump to a more productive system.
Challenges Accessing Conservation Funding
Many farmers are committed to improvement, but often need financial support to adopt practices. Unfortunately due to chronic underfunding, only one in four applicants is successful. Although committed to the improvement of their farm’s conservation practices, without federal cost-share or similar sources of help, many farmers may lack the funds to implement such practices
The reasons farmers do not receive NRCS assistance vary. Competition may simply be high because of high rates of applications. But unfunded applications do not tell the whole story. Some farmers may face additional barriers even to submitting an application. Beginning farmers, especially those with smaller, diverse operations, may struggle with agent perceptions that theirs is not a “real farm.” Fat Cat Farm is a small-acreage, diversified vegetable farm in Mississippi that includes acres of forest, as well. In her first year of owning Fat Cat Farm, Estelle Lemmler’s NRCS agent asked her, “Are you sure it’s not a hobby farm?” Estelle was growing full time, but the size and style of operation gave her agent pause.
Moreover, Lemmler experienced further challenges. Unbeknownst to this young farmer, her Farm Service Agency (FSA) number was originally assigned to acreage well beyond her own.
Among the practices Lemmler had hoped to carry out was controlled burns. Because of the mistake in her FSA number, she missed out on having her application for funding placed in the running that year, despite having completed the application process. Moreover, she says, the agent “didn’t really understand the layout of the farm,” which complicated her application.
Lemmler’s experience speaks both to the need to train staff in the issues small farms face and the need for adequate funding for the programs. Sufficient funding serves as an incentive to ensure that all farmers desirous of implementing conservation activities are well and promptly served. The NRCS Act Now Initiative, for example, designed to move IRA money quickly out the door, could have served Lemmler by ensuring an earlier second look at her application so that issues were identified and resolved before the window closed for the funding.
Farmers Experience Benefits from Conservation Funding
For those farmers and ranchers whose applications have been successful, the benefits of implementation have been substantial. At Christy Everett’s ranch, CSP funding has allowed her to care for the ranch and build its resilience to hotter, drier summers. The funding supports rotating pastures and pulling them out of production so they can rest and recover and so that cool season grasses can grow and thrive to replace former hot season forage.
Everett has also used the funds to set up photo points and transects to track vegetation change over time. As she has allowed pastures to rest, she has seen the return of species diversity and a rise in perennial grasses. The latter not only sequesters carbon more consistently and profoundly than annual grasses. They improve the resilience of the ranch with their extensive roots encouraging deep water penetration–and they are also able to reach that water during drought.
On his 125-acre New York vegetable, nut, and fruit farm, Stick and Stone Farm, Chaw Chang has also made multi-faceted use of CSP. From adopting increasingly diverse cover crops, to mulching, to clearing out exotic species in woodland so that native species can grow and support beneficial insects and birds, much of Chang’s approach has benefits for increased on-farm biodiversity, both below and above-ground.
Chang’s increasing use of reduced tillage practices, diverse cover crops, and mulching are all contributing to increased organic matter in his fields. Formerly at three percent, he now sees his vegetable-producing fields maintaining higher levels of total organic matter, and staying at four percent throughout his production cycle.
Support from CSP allows Chang to address issues on both farmed land and on surrounding land that especially benefit native species. However, support from CSP has also helped Chang to invest in perennial crops like hazelnuts, whose deep roots sequester carbon and improve resilience to wet and dry extremes. Such support, when combined with growing markets can help ensure that a more diverse, more perennial farm landscape thrives in a climate-altered future. A nut processing facility near Chang, begun with grant funds, is making nut production an increasingly viable proposition for him.
In Montana, Doug Crabtree’s shelterbelts increase the resilience of his farm, and so do the prairie strips and diverse rotations that are supported with CSP funds. Counter to the kinds of production most directly supported by many USDA programs, CSP allows Crabtree to include more species, both within and alongside his cropped fields. Prairie strips offer benefits in the form of increased soil organic carbon, as well as more pollinators and other beneficial insects.
The farmers described throughout this post have all received funding under NRCS programs that pre-date the IRA. However, many more farmers, like Lemmler, have applied for this cost-share support than those who have received it. In most states, three and sometimes four times as many farmers apply for the funding as receive it.
The availability of IRA funding means many more of the farmers who are committed to improved conservation practices will be able to carry out their plans. Farmers will be able to carry out projects on their non-cropped land that increases pollinators and birds, like Chaw Chang. They will be able to build cropping systems that more closely emulate nature, like Doug Crabtree. Indeed, the IRA funds enhance government programs that are among the only existing sources of federal money that foster crop diversity and its climate and environment co-benefits.
In short, the benefits of the IRA agricultural conservation funds are substantial to all farmers, the climate, and the environment writ large. Their focus on greenhouse gas mitigation leaves ample room for building on-farm resilience. Their availability means big opportunities for many more farmers to implement long-dreamed-of conservation practices.
So, whatever the fate of the current Farm Bill, the IRA funds should be kept within agricultural conservation programs with a focus on climate change mitigation.