Farmers Taking the Lead for a Healthier Future

This story is republished from The Nature Conservancy in Idaho’s website.

In the face of a changing climate, more farmers are joining a growing movement to build healthier soil and more resilient water supplies using regenerative agriculture. By shifting to practices that restore nature instead of deplete it, farmers can improve yields and profits, meet increasing consumer demand and support generations of farmers to come.

In the following profiles, you will meet Idaho farmers and TNC partners who are embracing soil health practices to create a better future for their families, communities and nature.

Brad Johnson

A Lifelong Passion for Soil Health

Brad Johnson Agricultural Strategy Manager, Photo Credit: TNC/Neil Crescenti

Brad Johnson, The Nature Conservancy’s agriculture strategy manager, grew up farming the same land in Tensed, ID that his father and grandfather had farmed since the 1930s. For generations, his family grew wheat, barley, peas, lentils and blue grass seed using conventional farming methods, including tillage. The tillage caused heavy erosion where soil washed out in ditches or piled up on surrounding highways.

But when Brad was 12 years old, he had an “ah-ha” moment that would change his view of farming. His father began using a no-till drill and for the first time, the erosion was gone. “We saw results that very first year,” Brad says. “Every time we no-tilled, the erosion stopped. And every time we tilled again, the erosion came back.”

Witnessing these results firsthand sparked in Brad a lifelong passion for soil health. When he worked as a ranch hand implementing no-till practices in Salmon, ID, he started learning about other regenerative techniques, like integrating livestock and crop rotation and diversity. “I began to see that soil health was a system of regenerative agriculture principles, with each practice being an essential cog in the wheel,” he says.

Brad joined TNC in 2019, where he now manages a demonstration farm and works directly with Idaho farmers to provide them with resources, equipment and consultation to implement regenerative agriculture practices on their own farms. And while Brad has seen a growing interest in soil health over the years, he still feels concern every time he sees a “mini-Dust Bowl” of eroded topsoil alongside fields. “Healthy soil takes a long time to build back once it’s lost. We can do substantial repair in 5 years or less if we start now.”

For Brad, the many rewards of regenerative agriculture outweigh the risks. “We get healthier food when we work with nature instead of against it,” he says. “When we use regenerative practices that mimic nature, we can increase farm income, improve the quality of life for producers and have healthier communities. We can be part of the solution to climate change and help create cleaner, more abundant water supplies.”

As a third generation farmer and soil health advocate from a young age, Brad is excited by the opportunities for agriculture and conservation to work hand-in-hand. “Supporting Idaho agriculture and soil health is my passion,” he says. “Farmers are inherently stewards of the land because it’s the basis of their livelihoods, and conservation is the key to protecting the land farmers make their living from.”

Bob Howard

Leaving the Land Better for the Next Generation

Bob Howard, Bob has partnered with TNC’s agriculture program, Photo Credit: TNC/Neil Crescenti

Hammett-based rancher Bob Howard does some of his best thinking in his “four-wheeled think tank,” driving along fields and pastures to check on his cattle. A longtime rancher, co-founder with the Wilsey family of Desert Mountain Grass-Fed Beef—a cooperative of ranches and farms that use regenerative farming practices—and grandfather to 12 grandkids, Bob is eager to think outside the box and learn new practices that build soil health. His reason? “I’m always thinking about my grandkids, what kind of future they’ll have,” says Bob.

Bob’s willingness to experiment is what led him to partner with a local farmer on regenerative agriculture practices in Grand View. United by a shared interest in soil health, and with TNC providing consultation support, they teamed up to create a regenerative system of farming and ranching by planting 75 acres of corn into living Timothy hay. “We’re trying new things, and we’re doing it better all the time,” says Bob.

As the Timothy grows as a cover crop, the living roots help store water, absorb carbon and promote biodiversity, resulting in a healthier landscape and watershed. After the corn is harvested, Bob’s herd of 700 cattle rotationally graze the field to keep the grass in a juvenile state, ensuring the ground stays covered and maximizing the below-ground soil health benefits. The manure provides a natural fertilizer that further enhances the soil with nutrients and microbes, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The partnership provides more than just practical benefits for both farmer and rancher. Bob sees regenerative agriculture practices, including sustainable grazing, as one of the best ways to restore the health of the land—and the planet. “We’re just on the edge of what we can do—and the scary thing is what will happen if we don’t change,” says Bob.

For Bob, the learning curve of regenerative agriculture is an investment in a better future. “My hope is that 50 years from now, we will have healthy land to make a living from while feeding people locally, removing carbon from the atmosphere and restoring our land,” he says. Through his cooperative Desert Mountain Grass-Fed Beef, Bob is working to scale regenerative ranching across the West by bringing together ranching families who care about soil health and land stewardship. “These practices are good for the land, which benefits the whole of society. But for me, it all comes back to my grandkids,” says Bob. “You’ve got to leave it better, no matter how long it takes.”

Interested in learning about how regenerative agriculture could benefit your farm? Contact Brad Johnson, TNC’s agriculture strategy manager.

For Solar Energy to Succeed, it Needs to Co-Exist with Agriculture

Solar energy is a necessary tool in the fight against climate change. Experts agree that sourcing more energy from cleaner sources, such as solar panels, will help mitigate some of climate change’s future impacts. For America’s farmers and ranchers, this means limiting the regular occurrence of catastrophic weather events—such as floods, droughts, and intense heat waves—that threaten land and livelihood, as well as slowing less obvious climactic shifts that affect crops and livestock. A new study in Nature Food shows that if we don’t stem climate change and its associated effects, we’ll see significant impacts to food production, and thus food security, much sooner than previously predicted. 

Yet without a thoughtful approach to the physical deployment of solar energy, American agriculture could still suffer. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that 10.3 million acres of solar will be needed to decarbonize the nation’s electrical grid by mid-century, with 90 percent of the utility-scale solar capacity likely to be installed in rural communities. And given that solar developers often prefer flat, open, well-drained landscapes near existing electrical infrastructure for their arrays, some of America’s most productive, versatile, and climate-resilient farmland in these communities could be at risk. When combined with threats from sprawl and low-density development—which are highlighted in AFT’s Farms Under Threat report—the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses is a real concern. 

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that 10.3 million acres of solar will be needed to decarbonize the nation’s electrical grid by mid-century, with 90 percent of the utility-scale solar capacity likely to be installed in rural communities.

AFT recognizes the potential tension between deploying massive ground-mounted solar energy infrastructure and conserving our nation’s most productive farmland. To navigate this challenge, AFT is developing a “Smart Solar Siting” approach that seeks a dynamic and innovative middle ground.

With this thoughtful strategy:

  1. Solar development is directed to more marginal and less productive farmland, if sited on farmland at all
  2. Farmers are empowered and informed to make decisions that support long-term farm viability
  3. Regenerative approaches are incorporated into siting policy and industry practices, especially on the best farmland. 

Although our involvement in this space is relatively new, we’re already recognized as thought-leaders and experts in the field, both regionally and nationally. Just last week, Samantha Levy—AFT’s Climate Policy Manager—was quoted in a New York Times article about solar energy, sharing a vision for thoughtful solar development. 

Beyond our work on siting traditional solar arrays, AFT is also helping lead the way in advancing agrivoltaics, or dual-use solar. At its core, agrivoltaics enables agricultural and energy production on the same piece of land. By raising solar panels higher off the ground and spacing them further apart than in traditional arrays, agrivoltaic systems allow more sunlight to reach the ground. Farmers can then grow certain crops or raise livestock under the panels, as well as maneuver tractors and other equipment. Different from simple co-location, agrivoltaic systems are designed to enable farming activity throughout the life of the solar facility in a manner that is consistent with the productive capacity of the land. To be sure, these systems are more expensive to install than traditional arrays, but where incentives and other mechanisms are present to drive this approach, a win-win situation can emerge for clean energy, rural communities, and agriculture. 

In addition to efficiently producing clean energy, agrivoltaics can offer important economic opportunities for farmers through the combination of solar lease payments and continued agricultural production.

AFT is at the forefront of efforts to study and evaluate the efficacy of this approach—and for good reason. Recently, AFT’s Brooks Lamb co-authored a report on agrivoltaics, published by the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale. Lamb and his co-author, Bill Pedersen, explored the many benefits of this system. In addition to efficiently producing clean energy, agrivoltaics can offer important economic opportunities for farmers through the combination of solar lease payments and continued agricultural production. This consistent, reliable, diversified income could be a saving grace for many farmers, especially small and mid-sized farmers who often struggle with cash flow. Additional benefits—for communities, for wildlife, for farmland conservation, and even for increased agricultural production of certain crops, grasses, and livestock—are possible, too. Looking forward, the report also shares advice for local communities who want to encourage agrivoltaics adoption and suggests further studies that could propel this practice.

Interest in this innovative system—which has roots in some of the same dual-use philosophies as agroforestry—is also growing outside of AFT. Across the country, clean energy associations, farm advocates, solar developers, and researchers are partnering with farmers and communities to explore applications for dual use and novel agrivoltaic systems. The Associated Press recently dedicated an entire article to agrivoltaics, and this piece was picked up by both local papers and national media. To further understand the burgeoning interest in this system, just type “agrivoltaics” into your favorite online search engine. In a second or less, you’ll see a bevy of recent results. 

AFT strongly supports and is committed to urgent actions to address climate change. This work complements AFT’s programs that increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture, support women in farming, advance equity, bolster rural economies and agricultural viability, and enhance farmland protection. 

Through smart solar siting, applied research, and policy innovation in support of agrivoltaics, American Farmland Trust is meeting the challenges—and opportunities—of clean energy production and farmland conservation head-on. Our work seeks to serve people, places, and the planet, securing a bright and productive future for farming and the world.

Ethan Winter serves as the Northeast Solar Specialist for American Farmland Trust.

This article was originally written for the American Farmland Trust website.

With No Time to Lose, We Must Keep Score

Photo Credit: Eben Dente/American Forests

I am writing this article at a pivotal moment for America. The country is emerging from a global pandemic that has magnified health inequities, especially in terms of income and race. And climate change is moving faster than expected. During one week in June, for example, there were killer heat waves in the cool Pacific Northwest and flooding in the Great Lakes region.

These elevated stakes help explain why American Forests has made a commitment to keeping score — which we hope will lead to more people taking action to advance social equity and slow climate change, in part through the power of trees.

This started with the launch of our Tree Equity Score in June. This tool, the first of its kind, gives a neighborhood-by-neighborhood and municipal-level assessment of tree cover in every urban area across America. It overlays data that shows where the lack of trees most strongly puts people at risk from extreme heat, air pollution and other climate- fueled threats.

Collectively, the scores tell several compelling stories. For instance, on average, the lowest income neighborhoods have 41% less tree cover than high-income neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with a majority of residents of color have 33% less tree cover than majority white neighborhoods. This has life or death consequences, given that neighborhoods with little to no tree cover can be 10 degrees hotter than the city average during the day, and even more at night. In these same places, there is a higher percentage of people with elevated risk factors, such as heat-related illnesses and deaths because of lack of air conditioning.

That’s where Tree Equity Score comes in. By naming and framing this dangerous inequity with data and putting it online for all to see and explore, we have brought unprecedented attention to the importance of trees in advancing social equity. This includes a major feature in the New York Times, co-authored by our own Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry.

But this tool does much more than just identify the problem. It is as easy to use as a smart phone, making it simple for anyone, from city leaders to city residents, to calculate how many trees are needed for a city to achieve Tree Equity in every neighborhood. They also can see the economic and environmental benefits that would be generated, such as the tons of air pollution removed annually and number of jobs supported.

As evidence that Tree Equity Score can catalyze meaningful change, the Phoenix City Council voted in April to achieve Tree Equity in every one of the city’s neighborhoods by 2030. Other cities are following suit. And Congressional leaders, such as U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and U.S. Representative Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), are using it to make the case for unprecedented federal investment in urban trees and forests.

This data-driven approach is not limited to our work in cities. The Reforestation Hub, which we developed in partnership with The Nature Conservancy in January, doesn’t generate scores. But it does use cutting-edge scientific analysis of all U.S. land to identify where more trees could be added, from burn scars on national forests to streamside tree buffers on farms. It identifies a total opportunity of 133 million acres, enough land to plant more than 60 billion trees.

This has huge implications for climate change. That many additional trees would increase annual carbon capture in U.S. forests by more than 40%, equivalent to removing the emissions from 72 million cars.

Like Tree Equity Score, the Reforestation Hub is a free and easy-to-use tool meant to catalyze action. It is searchable county-by-county, enabling everyone to explore how our reforestation opportunities overlap with different land ownerships and conservation purposes, such as wildlife habitat and water protection. It also provides a calculation of the additional carbon capture that would be achieved if a given area were reforested. At American Forests, we use it often to advocate for reforestation legislation and make decisions about where to do our reforestation projects.

I encourage you to jump online and check out these powerful new tools. I hope that you will be inspired by our use of data to measurably challenge America and our own organization to meet this moment.

To learn more about Tree Equity Score, visit, and to learn more about the Reforestation Hub, visit

Jad Daley is the President and Chief Executive Officer at American Forests.

This article was originally written for the American Forests website.