Leon LaSalle and the Chippewa Cree Tribe: Making USDA Programs Work For Tribal Producers

  • Leon LaSalle and the Chippewa Cree Tribe are leading a groundbreaking grant project to enhance conservation grazing practices and overcome barriers faced by tribal producers in accessing USDA programs.
  • The project provides a wide range of environmental benefits, including improved water quality and soil health, along with potential carbon sequestration. Economically, it enhances stability and reduces financial burdens during droughts for the Tribe.
  • Motivated by the struggles of tribal producers with USDA programs, Leon seeks to catalyze change through innovation, exemplifying tribal sovereignty in negotiating alternative funding arrangements under the 2018 Farm Bill.
  • Moving forward, several policy changes are needed for equitable access to Farm Bill Programs, including adjustments to livestock assistance programs and affordable crop insurance options for tribal producers.
  • The upcoming Farm Bill is an important opportunity for addressing these challenges, and the article advocates for the expansion of networks and involvement of private organizations to enhance access for tribal producers to Farm Bill programs.

From the sweeping landscapes of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, a third-generation rancher named Leon LaSalle is tenaciously advocating to reshape the narrative for tribal producers. In an exclusive conversation with the Native American Agriculture Fund, a private funding organization dedicated to increasing access to capital for Native American producers, Leon delves into the triumphs and trials of their groundbreaking grant project aimed at enhancing conservation grazing practices and overcoming the barriers faced by tribal producers in accessing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.

Confronting The Drought Dilemma

As our climate changes and weather has become increasingly unpredictable, dealing with the impact of drought has become an increasingly pressing challenge for the Chippewa Cree and other tribes. Leon drove this point home in the interview, noting, “Droughts are a big deal, it’s an ongoing deal, and we know we have to plan for it, so that’s part of everything we are doing.” To mitigate the impacts of drought on tribal producers, Leon emphasized that proper infrastructure and management practices like the availability of forage and livestock water are important. However, tribal producers have historically faced difficulties accessing funding through USDA programs to enhance their conservation and climate mitigation practices.

Leon’s project focuses on climate-smart conservation practices and advocacy, aiming to enhance conservation grazing on tribal lands and improve tribal producers’ access to USDA programs. Additionally, the project assesses the potential for carbon sequestration through grazing systems. In the interview, Leon underscored the significance of data sharing across reservations in Montana and neighboring regions. “Hopefully, this project will come up with data and positive results that can be shared within my reservation, with neighboring reservations, and across the whole country.”

The project also provides a wide range of environmental benefits, including improved water quality and quantity, enhanced soil health, and the potential for carbon sequestration. Economically, improved stability and less reliance on emergency measures during droughts reduce the financial burdens faced by the Tribe.

Sovereignty Into Action: Catalyzing Change Through Innovation

Leon’s motivation for supporting the project was to address the longstanding struggles of tribal producers with USDA programs. “As an ex-employee of NRCS, I had witnessed first-hand tribal producers and tribal entities struggle with USDA programs and their implementation. One of my big drivers was to see if we could do something more than what the USDA was doing for tribal producers.” The Chippewa Cree Tribe fully supports this initiative, aiming to improve opportunities not only locally but also for tribes across the country.

During the interview, Leon also discussed the challenges tribal producers face due to USDA program constraints, highlighting the project’s success in negotiating alternative funding arrangements (AFAs) under the 2018 Farm Bill. This achievement allows tribal producers to receive a full 90% cost share, addressing previous disparities where perceived cost shares were often 50% or less. “We have helped the Chippewa Cree Tribe and the Fort Belknap Indian Community successfully negotiate the two first alternative funding arrangements in the entire United States under the 2018 Farm Bill. Those are important because now in those arrangements, tribal producers are able to get a full 90% cost share. Under the old system, producers were led to believe they were getting 90% cost share, but because those were based on region-wide costs NRCS provided, most of the time those cost shares were 50% or less. This was leading to many producers canceling contracts and not moving forward. I think we’ve really opened up an avenue and set up a template that other tribes can follow and negotiate their own arrangements.” 

The negotiated funding arrangements with the federal government exemplify tribal sovereignty in action. The AFAs can enable tribes to address the distinctive priorities of their communities. Considering the diverse cultures and environmental factors inherent to each sovereign tribal nation, it is imperative that tribes are at the forefront of decision-making in these processes, ensuring the implementation of programs align with the cultural values and needs of their tribal producers and community members.

Increasing Equitable Access to Farm Bill Programs

Leon also pointed out the need for several policy changes, including adjustments to livestock assistance programs, improved funding for tribal historic preservation offices, and affordable crop insurance options for tribal producers. He stressed that the upcoming Farm Bill provides an important opportunity for addressing these challenges. To scale up efforts in conservation and access to Farm Bill programs, Leon emphasized the importance of expanding the network of technical experts who can assist tribal producers. He also urged the involvement of private organizations to complement federal agency efforts. “To build upon success, we need to expand the network of technical people who can carry this work forward. It’s through private work that this will happen, and the federal agencies will not be our savior, we need to empower more organizations like the Intertribal Agriculture Council into the field that can assist tribal producers. It is time to break the stereotypical mold and come up with a different model. We need more people to help producers get it done on the ground.”

Leon’s favorite memory from the grant project was successfully negotiating historical agreements with USDA, particularly AFAs, and changes to grazing management standards. “When we started that negotiation, it started from “this is our standard and this is what you have to do,” to “we can’t do that and we need a different avenue and maybe we need to involve other people in the negotiation,” to finalizing a process that opens the door for a lot more tribal participation through EQIP, CSP, and CRP. We were miles apart initially, but what is important is that it was achieved in support of tribal producers. These changes we are making now are forever, they are historic changes that will go on for future generations of tribal producers.”

Leon LaSalle’s dedication to advancing conservation practices and advocating for tribal producers is truly inspiring. His insights and experiences shed light on the challenges and opportunities in achieving a more equitable and sustainable agricultural landscape for Native communities, illuminating a path forward.

Additional Resources

The Benefits of Investing in Natural Climate Solutions

Conservation, restoration, and improved stewardship of forests, wetlands, oceans, and farmlands around the world can provide up to a third of the emissions reductions we need to prevent the worst effects of climate change. These actions are frequently also some of the most cost-effective solutions available – and they’re ready for countries to implement today.

Picture of a herd of buffalo in a grassy area surrounded by a lush forest because forest and grassland conservation is an important natural climate solution.
A herd of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy: CAJC/Flickr

Improving ecosystem management and restoring degraded habitats both hold huge promise to help us pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if increasing carbon storage is the primary goal, making ecosystems healthier and more functional can also increase other essential ecosystem services. For example, improved forest management practices can reduce erosion and support water cycling processes, which can in turn reduce costs for communities who rely on forested watersheds for their drinking water. 

Still, the expert body on climate change – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC – identifies protecting and conserving existing ecosystems as one of the best options we have. In its latest reports, the world’s scientists concluded that only photovoltaic solar and wind energy have more potential for affordable climate mitigation than reducing ecosystem conversion. Many of the world’s ecosystems hold “irrecoverable carbon”, carbon they have captured and stored over decades or even centuries. If it is released because of human activity, these ecosystems could not re-capture that carbon in the next few decades, a critical period to reduce climate change. 

Picture of a coral reef, which host a plethora of biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation, an important component of natural climate solutions, is a benefit of avoiding the conversion of ecosystems to other land uses like farming.
Coral reefs, like this one at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, host a plethora of biodiversity and support thousands of species. Photo credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Biodiversity conservation is another huge benefit of avoiding the conversion of ecosystems to other land uses such as farming or urban development. Keeping ecosystem carbon in plants and soils also preserves valuable habitat for wildlife to forage and raise their young. For example, boreal forests and wetlands in North America, which hold enormous amounts of carbon in their soils, are home to mammals such as the woodland caribou and the snowshoe hare and offer essential breeding habitat to birds such as the whooping crane and the Cape May warbler.

World leaders and decision makers shouldn’t overlook our coasts at COP28, either. Actions to sequester and store “blue carbon” in oceans and coastal areas remain badly underfunded. Today, only 9% of all funding for nature-based solutions targets actions in marine areas. But conservation of carbon-rich coastal ecosystems would be a win for the climate and wildlife alike. 

Take seagrass meadows: these lush underwater ecosystems pull carbon from the atmosphere at an astonishing rate and trap carbon-rich sediments among roots and stems. Although they only cover a fraction of a percentage of the ocean, researchers estimate that seagrass meadows are responsible for about 10% of carbon burial in the ocean. Yet seagrass meadows disappear at alarming rates. Key opportunities include addressing threats to seagrass meadows, such as nutrient pollution from rivers and disturbance of the seafloor related to fishing or mining, and restoring degraded meadows.

Our pathways for success are clear. What we need is to ensure sufficient funding is invested into natural climate solutions such as these for years to come. In part three of this series, we’ll explore how we can use natural climate solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change and increase community resilience. 

This article was originally published in the National Wildlife Federation blog on December 12th, 2023.

A Climate-Smart Farm Bill Provides a Bipartisan Path Forward to Ensuring We Meet Our Climate Goals

In recent years, the United States government has significantly increased its support for the implementation of Natural Climate Solutions on American natural and working lands. This surge in funding has paved the way for a diverse array of programs aimed at expanding the adoption of these innovative strategies across the nation. Natural Climate Solutions encompass land management approaches designed to harness the power of forests, farms, grasslands, coastal ecosystems, and urban environments to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These solutions not only address climate change, but they also help restore wildlife habitat, improve water quality, increase the productivity of our farms, create jobs, and protect our communities from storms and floods.

The Farm Bill in particular is a vital opportunity to put out our farmers, ranchers, and foresters at the center of the solution and forge a sustainable and productive future by:

  • Providing financial and technical assistance for farmers to adopt climate smart practices that also improve soil health and water quality.
  • Helping communities plant and maintain urban trees.
  • Preserving America’s forests and grasslands for future generations.
  • Preventing catastrophic wildfires and restoring forests impacted by fire.

Additionally, a climate-smart Farm Bill provides a bipartisan path forward to ensuring we meet our climate goals.

Below is a selection of programs successfully implementing Natural Climate Solutions with the assistance of federal funding:

Impactful Programs Supported by Farm Bill Funding:

Other projects funded by federal programs or potential candidates for funding:

Soil Health Success: Mulligan Farm shows that soil health practices can help improve economic performance 

Adapted from American Farmland Trusts’ Mulligan Farms Soil Health Case Study

  • Farmers across the US are embracing soil health practices, offering benefits like improved resilience, operational efficiency, and environmental advantages, such as reduced carbon emissions and enhanced water quality.
  • Forrest Watson’s successful adoption of soil health practices, including cover cropping and reduced tillage, has positively impacted his farm’s soil health, efficiency, and cost savings.
  • Federal funding from programs like EQIP and CSP is instrumental in expanding soil health practices nationwide, empowering farmers to transition to climate-smart methods and fostering their understanding of soil health benefits.
  • An economic analysis by American Farmland Trust reveals that an increase in farm net income can coincide with implementing soil health practices, despite increased costs in areas like seeds and crop inputs, while also contributing to improved soil health, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and enhanced water quality for addressing climate challenges.

Across the US, farmers have been adopting new farming practices that provide benefits not only to the farmer, but also to the environment. There are countless names for these adaptive practices including soil health, climate-smart, conservation, and regenerative practices. Although there are a variety of terms to describe these practices, they often refer to methods that improve soil health. With improved soil health comes a multitude of benefits including enhanced resilience of land to flooding and drought, improved field operation efficiency, and environmental benefits. These environmental benefits may include increased carbon storage in the soil, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced nutrient and sediment runoff into our waterways. Below we feature one farmer that participates in the Genesee River Demonstration Farm Network and has successfully adopted soil health practices, highlighting the economic and environmental benefits they have experienced.


Forrest Watson has farmed with his aunt Lesa and uncle Jeff on their 1,500-head dairy in western New York since 2008. Currently they farm 2,618 acres and practice an eight-year crop rotation with winter wheat, alfalfa/grass, corn, and occasionally other forage crops. 

The farm constantly seeks to improve efficiencies and provide the best care for their animals, lands, and employees. In this effort, Forrest learned about soil health through participation in conferences and readings. As a result, Forrest has adopted cover crops, reduced till farming, and a comprehensive nutrient management plan.

With the goals to improve soil health and productivity with fewer nutrient inputs, Forrest began experimenting with no-till and cover crops in 2015. He started experimenting with no-till on 75 acres of wheat. Since then, he now no-tills across his farm except for 150 acres of corn that he strip-tills. However, Forrest transitions strip-tilled fields to no-till as soil health improves. Both strip-till and no-till are methods of reduced-till farming, which can be defined as limiting soil-disturbing activities such as less frequent tillage, shallower, less intensive passes, and less area disturbed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), reduced tillage can improve soil health, reduce soil erosion, reduce energy use, and have positive impacts on air quality.

After an initial year of experimenting, Forrest went “all-in” with cover crops. This was possible, in part, due to the farm receiving financial assistance from the USDA-NRCS. When a primary cash crop is not present, cover crops can be sown in as an alternative to bare soil over the winter and early spring when precipitation is high. Cover crops have been shown to improve soil health, repress weeds, control pests, slow soil erosion, and enhance the availability of water. Cover crops also have climate benefits by increasing the total amount of photosynthesis that takes carbon from the atmosphere, which then can increase the total amount of carbon added to the soil each year. Forrest observes that the cover crops are improving the soil, enabling easier no-till drilling which in turn saves them time. “The feeling of needing to till due to compaction is virtually gone,” says Forrest. “We’re breaking up compaction with roots instead of iron.” 

In 2018, Forrest began ‘planting green’, which refers to no-till planting a cash crop into actively growing cover crops. The cover crops are then terminated, usually with herbicides, to enable the growth of the cash crop. The delayed termination of the cover crop enhances its benefits. 

Mulligan Farm works with consultants to implement a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan. Since 2008, Forrest has increased the frequency and intensity of their soil testing by introducing grid sampling, begun split applications of chemical fertilizers, and switched to injecting their manure. Manure injection is a relatively new technology to apply manure with minimal soil disturbance. These improvements have optimized fertilizer application rates, timing, volume, and location while reducing odor and nutrient loss.

Soil Health, Economic, Water Quality, and Climate Benefits 

American Farmland Trust (AFT) conducted a marginal analysis using the Mulligan Farm’s Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary (DFBS) dataset from 1998–2019 to answer the question, “Can soil health practices be adopted while improving economic performance?”

This analysis looked at the benefits and costs before and after implementation of soil health practices. The study was limited to comparing crop production income and cost variables that differed between the conventional “before” period (1998–2014) and the soil health “after” period (2015–2019). Variables taken from the Cornell DFBS survey include acres, yield, production by crop, fertilizer, seeds, spray and other crop expenses, and various machinery expenses. More details on the approach of the analysis can be found here.

The DFBS data showcases that Forrest was able to adopt soil health practices while improving economic performance as the farm’s net income increased by $75 per acre per year, or $196,350 annually, for the 2,618-acre study area, achieving a 129% return on investment. 

One way the farm decreased costs was reducing the cost to hire, rent, and lease machinery by $27 per acre. This decrease was driven, in part, by the switch to no-till which reduces labor time and improves efficiency. The farm also decreased fertilizer costs by $11 per acre. According to Forrest, he has reduced fertilizer applications due to better nutrient capture with cover crops and injecting instead of spreading manure. Additionally, costs related to fuel, oils and greases decreased by $19 per acre.

Can soil health practices be adopted while improving economic performance?

There were also increased costs due to adoption of soil health practices. Although machinery costs decreased in the hire, rent, and lease cost category, they experienced an increase in repair, depreciation, and interest costs by $12 per acre. The cost of seeds across all crops increased by $8 per acre. Additionally, spray, such as herbicide spray for cover crop termination, and other crop input expenses increased by $38 per acre.

Overall, Forrest has increased net income. This is due largely to the increased value of crop production by $76 per acre and to the reduction of tillage passes. Additionally, yield resiliency also improved as the data showed more consistent annual yields, but this benefit is not included in the marginal analysis as difficult to value.

In order to estimate water quality benefits and greenhouse gas emission changes, researchers used  USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool to analyze one of Forrest’s 35-acre fields as a representative field. The results estimate that the farm’s use of no-till, cover crops, and nutrient management reduced nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment losses by 4%, 33%, and 60%, respectively, and resulted in a 252% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions, which corresponds to taking two cars off the road. With over 396 million acres of cropland across the US, emission decreases of this amount on one farm showcases the extensive potential for scaling up these benefits nationwide.

Like Forrest Watson, farmers can also adopt Soil Health Practices with financial support

To help Mulligan Farm adopt these soil health practices, the farm received assistance from two federal programs, which are supported by the federal Farm Bill. The Mulligan Farm received financial support from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial assistance to farmers to support them in integrating climate-smart farming practices on their lands. They also received financial support from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for planting cover crops. The CSP works one-on-one with farmers to enhance existing efforts and develop a conservation plan integrating new conservation practices. Note that the financial assistance the Mulligan Farm received was not factored into the economic analysis conducted by AFT, indicating the benefits of soil health practices outweigh the costs even without federal assistance.

Farm Bill agriculture programs, such as EQIP and the CSP, offer routes to scale up adoption of soil health practices nationwide. These programs can assist through not only financial assistance, but also by supporting the data collection, research, reporting, and verification that is needed to further improve understanding of the benefits of soil health management. These programs are supplemented by the recently enacted New York state law, the Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act, which will provide additional support to the state’s farmers to adopt climate-smart practices.

Closing Thoughts

Mulligan Farm is committed to using the most environmentally friendly practices to guide crop production. “You can’t give up after the first little failure,” says Forrest. Adoption of these soil health practices supports improved operational efficiencies. For example, less labor going to tillage allows labor to go to activities that provide additional value like cover crop establishment, double cropping, and nutrient management. Forrest has observed improvements in soil health such as reduced soil compaction and more consistent and higher crop yields. Overall, Mulligan Farm has managed to improve economic performance while investing in soil health practices.

Additional Resources

Advancing Agroforestry in the Midwest: Hudson Demonstration Farm

  • Agroforestry, which involves integrating trees into agriculture, is a vital solution to climate change. Trees’ deep roots help manage water, sequester carbon, and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather, making them powerful allies in adapting to and mitigating climate change.
  • Demonstration farms play a crucial role in educating farmers and the public about agroforestry. They serve as practical examples, helping people understand how agroforestry works and learn all the benefits of regenerative farming.
  • The are several barriers to agroforestry adoption, including land access, upfront investments, and a lack of experienced practitioners. Addressing these obstacles is essential to encourage more farmers to embrace agroforestry practices.
  • Policy support, particularly through USDA programs and the Farm Bill, is essential for scaling up agroforestry adoption. We need policy changes that recognize agroforestry’s role in addressing climate change and offer financial incentives for its implementation.
  • Despite the challenges posed by climate change, agroforestry is a transformative practice that can positively impact biodiversity, habitat restoration, and rural communities, offering a brighter and more stable future for agriculture and the environment.

Most people have no idea what agroforestry is. And they especially don’t know what it looks like. Displaying agroforestry on demonstration farms allows people to understand how trees fit into farm landscapes.

As the Director of Demonstration Farms at the Savanna Institute, a nonprofit organization working to lay the groundwork for widespread agroforestry in the Midwest, I help people better understand what agroforestry is, as well as the multiple benefits it can provide to farmers. Demonstration farms can serve as a blueprint for how the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s programs and policy initiatives, like the 2023 Farm Bill, could support the expansion of agroforestry plantings.

Agroforestry 101

Agroforestry has a lot of definitions, but simply put, it’s the integration of trees into agriculture. By this definition, agroforestry has been practiced for thousands of years, and in thousands of different ways, across the world. A few key practices are especially promising for the Midwestern United States, such as alley cropping (rows of trees growing within rows of crops) and windbreaks (rows of trees planted along the edges of fields to reduce wind, pesticide drift and soil erosion).

So much of our country’s landscape now is foreign to what it looked like 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and 300 years ago. All the amazing soil that we have here in the heartland is because of the prairies and savannas that were here. This history is extremely important, because while ‘agroforestry’ can be seen as a set of USDA practices, it’s way more than that. It’s generations of people that have been working with trees up to the present day. So, agroforestry is not only directly related to what happened in the past, but it directly informs what will happen in the future.

Agroforestry’s Role in Preparing for Climate Change

As we’re entering this time of uncertain weather patterns, farmers sometimes have no rain at all. Other times, an incredible amount of water comes onto farm landscapes all at once. Trees can play an important role in navigating this challenge. The amazing thing about trees is they have deep root systems that allow water to spread out and sink in. The perennial roots of tree crops allow them to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather while also sequestering greenhouse gases and reducing climate change directly.

Because of the powerful role that trees can play on farm landscapes, agroforestry has everything to do with climate change. Trees are some of our most powerful allies we have when it comes to adapting and mitigating a changing climate. There’s nothing more efficient than a tree when it comes to storing carbon at deep levels of soil where we need to hold it in place. And what makes trees even more exciting is they can be productive. We can put trees on landscapes in a way that is doing something for climate change, but also adding value to farmlands, either through conservation or through the production of new crops.

Drought and Planning

I have seen first-hand the impacts a changing climate is already having on farmers. Through my work at the Savanna Institute, I manage the Hudson Demonstration Farm, a privately owned, 120-acre farm in central Illinois that serves as an agroforestry demonstration site through an innovative 50-year lease agreement with the landowner. Agroforestry is being established on all of the 120 acres, in combination with corn, soybeans, and other common Midwestern crops. In 2023, a severe drought created challenges for our agroforestry work, as well as for the alley crop farmer’s soybean production. 

Even though farms in Central Illinois are seeing the driest soil we’ve had since the eighties, the trees we planted here are doing just fine, and even trees that were planted as recently as last year seem to be doing reasonably well thanks to deeper roots that can access moisture farther down in the soil. The crops that are struggling most with the drought are annual crops, like the corn and soybeans that are grown across much of Illinois and the Midwest. However, growing trees close to these annual crops can actually help them access water too, by drawing up moisture higher in the soil profile where shorter crop roots can access it. 

While this drought has led to challenges, it has also provided an opportunity to demonstrate how to farm in an increasingly chaotic climate. The future of agriculture is happening right now on these demonstration farms. As the weather gets more extreme, farmers will be forced to do things differently. 

On-Farm Education

For agroforestry to gain broader acceptance, it is important for it to be highly visible. Demonstration farms can play a powerful role in bringing people out to learn more about agroforestry. 

The Savanna Institute utilizes Hudson Farm, along with its broader network of demonstration farms throughout the Midwest, to conduct education and outreach for greater agroforestry adoption. This includes field days, private tours, research, an agroforestry apprenticeship program, and a new video series about the farms.

This education is very important, because agroforestry requires the thoughtful management of multiple systems at once, such as tree crops in combination with grains, vegetables, or livestock. This offers the potential for “overyielding” – achieving productivity above 100% due to multiple crops in the same space – but it also increases the number of things that can go wrong. Our demonstration farms help us find ways to co-exist, while also providing opportunities to document and learn from our mistakes, so others don’t make the same mistakes again. 

One of the reasons why I’m drawn to this work is because we are showing that the corn and soybean production with large tractors guided by GPS and increasingly advanced technology can exist alongside the use of trees. The future of agriculture is to do both. Both of these things CAN happen at the same time. 

Costs and Barriers

Why isn’t agroforestry more common in the Midwest? A number of significant barriers stand in the way. Land access for aspiring agroforesters, either through land ownership or a favorable long-term lease, remains out of reach for many. Because tree crops usually require significant up-front capital and labor investment with no immediate payback, providing financial mechanisms to fund agroforestry establishment is a primary need. A shortage of nursery stock for preferred agroforestry crops, as well as a lack of farmers with sufficient agroforestry management experience, also represent limiting factors. 

For example, if a farmer is planting a chestnut tree, that tree is not going to produce its first chestnuts for around five years, and they’re not going to come into full production until around their twelfth year. This means that farmers are required to make a significant investment of time, labor, and money before those trees start to produce, which can be really hard when operating farms on tight margins. In Midwest agriculture, we’re usually focused on short-term economics instead of long-term economics, and that can be a barrier for some farmers.

Another barrier is that there simply are not a lot of people doing agroforestry. A person might be the only one in their community that’s planting tree crops or doing agroforestry on their farm, and that can get really lonely after a while. Hopefully as we spread the word about agroforestry, this will become less of a barrier for agroforestry adopters. 

USDA Support for Agroforestry

While some of these barriers can be addressed by organizations like the Savanna Institute, others require innovation by policymakers or financial institutions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can be a powerful change agent in scaling up widespread implementation of agroforestry, and a number of USDA programs are already supporting its adoption. Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), landowners can access cost share funding for the cost of planting trees, as well as the loss of income from taking land out of annual production. 

Indeed, at the Hudson Demonstration Farm, the USDA helped pay for every tree that was planted. At Hudson, the NRCS’ Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) supports the establishment and maintenance of the windbreak and pollinator plantings while the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) supports three different types of alley cropping. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can also help pay for costs associated with Agroforestry establishment. EQIP is a particularly powerful program for people that may not have commodity crop land, including specialty crop growers or livestock producers who want to establish agroforestry.

SUPPORTING FARMERS The USDA can be a powerful change agent in scaling up widespread implementation of agroforestry, with programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program helping farmers with the establishment and maintenance of practices like alley cropping and windbreaks. Photos by Alita Films.

Another USDA effort, the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities program, is pulling together people working in agroforestry into regional hubs that allow us to scale agroforestry where they are located and deploy it throughout the United States. Led by The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with multiple partners, this five-year grant establishes six regional hubs in the eastern US and Hawaii. Agroforestry currently represents less than 2% of U.S. agriculture. This project aims to create 30,000 acres of new agroforestry plantings over the next five years.

In 2023, Congress has the opportunity to expand the USDA’s support for agroforestry through the Farm Bill, legislation that touches the life of every single person in the US, whether we know it or not. When it comes to agroforestry, there is a major opportunity to put in place a transformative Farm Bill, providing opportunities to tweak some existing programs to make them more friendly to agroforestry, while also providing additional funding for agroforestry research, technical assistance, and adoption. It is vital that we let policy makers know that agroforestry is important to us, that it is a climate change solution, that it is an economic opportunity, and that historic investment will help accelerate that adoption even faster.

Returning to Agroforestry

Despite dealing with the consequences of climate collapse on a daily basis, I am still hopeful about the future. As a parent, I sometimes feel that having children and planting trees is part of the same work: fostering a better, brighter, more stable future. A few years back, I was out working on an agroforestry farm and heard a bobwhite quail call from the windbreak. I started weeping, right there in the field, because I hadn’t heard that sound since I was a child. Through planting trees, that farm had built a habitat for a bird that no longer existed in the area and they came back.  Being able to watch the land change, regenerate, and diversify thanks to agroforestry fills me with the same emotions as watching my children grow. 

I think that trees have the opportunity to bring people back to the land, to farms, to their communities and rural areas, and to places where they feel like they can be hopeful and that they can build their lives around that. And while planting a tree is simple, it’s the first step in that transformation.

Additional Resources

Download project fact sheet
(includes pathways for scaling)

Learn more about the Savanna Institute

Soil Health Success: Herriman Farm Highlights Economic & Environmental Benefits of Soil Health Management

Adapted from American Farmland Trusts’ Herriman Farms Soil Health Case Study.

  • After facing setbacks from a flood and poor crop yields, Scotty Herriman who farms 2,000 acres in Oklahoma, learned about the benefits of soil health practices and received support through USDA’s NRCS to transition away from conventional methods.
  • The soil health methods he implemented, including no-till, cover crops, and enhanced nutrient management, led to increased yields, reduced erosion, and lowered greenhouse gas emissions:
  • A partial budget analysis showed that soil health practices increased Scotty’s net income by $4 per acre annually, with a 7% ROI. He also experienced yield increases, boosting soybean yield by 5 bushels per acre and corn yield by 40 bushels per acre.
  • Various programs, like EQIP and CIG, support farmers in adopting soil health practices, improving financial and environmental outcomes. Federal Farm Bill programs and initiatives like the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities can further promote these practices.
  • Scotty’s experience emphasizes the learning curve and importance of sharing success stories to encourage informed conservation decisions in agriculture.

Scotty Herriman farms 2,000 acres near South Coffeyville, Oklahoma, with his wife, Jo. They grow corn and soybeans, and occasionally grain sorghum (milo) and wheat. After a historic flood in 2007 resulted in only 13 profitable acres, followed by a poor crop yield in 2008, it became clear to Scotty that he needed to change the way he farms his land.

Scotty heard about other farmers who had had success with practices like no-till farming  – which is planting agricultural crops without any plowing or tillage. A visit to his local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office in 2010 finally changed Scotty’s mind. He learned he could use assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to switch to no-till. Just like that, decades of conventional farming went out the window. “We switched overnight,” Scotty said.

In recent years, more and more farmers in the U.S. have been adopting farming practices that provide multiple benefits for the farmer, the environment, and our climate. These strategies go by many names – regenerative agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, conservation agriculture – but they all refer to a suite of farming practices that improve soil health. This, in turn, sustainably improves farm productivity, enhances the resilience of land to drought and flooding, and provides a number of environmental benefits, including cleaner drinking water, increased carbon storage in the soil, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.


“No-till farming protects the soil from excessive erosion, reduces soil aeration from tillage, allows organic matter to accumulate and improves the overall health of the soil. Switching can also help you reduce input costs and, thus, boost your bottom-line profits. It is part of an integrated effort to conserve the nation’s natural resources.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS)

From Adversity to Achievement: Scotty’s Experience with No-till, Cover Crops, and Enhanced Nutrient Management

In 2010 Scotty adopted no-till soybeans and reduced-tillage corn. While this has led to some increased use of herbicide, adopting no-till has saved Scotty time, reduced equipment maintenance costs, and has led to significant positive changes in his soil. For example, Scotty sees that root channels from prior year plantings run deeper into the ground, which improve soil infiltration and create a more stable and resilient soil structure. Scotty has also seen higher quality crop stands that are less stressed by drought and pests due to increased crop vigor.

With the goal of reducing herbicide use, Scotty adopted cover crops, primarily cereal rye in 2016. Cover crops are sown when a primary cash crop is not present, as an alternative to fallow, or bare soil. Cover crops have been shown to slow soil erosion, improve soil health, enhance the availability of water, smother weeds, and help control pests. They also increase the total amount of photosynthesis that takes carbon from the atmosphere, which can increase the amount of carbon added to the soil every year. While planting cover crops has led to only a slight reduction in Scotty’s herbicide use, he has observed that they leave a mulch layer an inch thick on top of his soil, which he believes has increased soil moisture retention – making his land more resilient to drought. “A couple of years ago I noticed things started to come on stronger,” Scotty says. “I won’t say we were penalized those first 2 years, but it was after that 2-year period the yields were coming on strong. Weather patterns were the same, water intake was good, so after just a little period of questions and small doubts, that 3-year window everyone talked about opened up and crops have been improving ever since.”

In 2016, Scotty also modified his nutrient management practices. He now ensures that the amount of nitrogen applied to agricultural fields by synthetic fertilizers does not exceed the amount the plants can absorb and minimizes unwanted losses by switching from dry to a split application of a liquid fertilizer blend. This reduces excess nitrogen from being released to the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It also prevents nutrient pollution in rivers and lakes, which can reduce the quality of drinking water and cause algal blooms and dead zones. While his nutrient costs increased, the modeled estimates for losses of nitrogen and phosphorus on his land dropped substantially as a result of the no-till, cover crops, and nutrient management practices Scotty employed. 

Soil Health Management Benefits Farmers, Climate, and the Environment

To better understand the financial impact implementation of these practices had on Scotty’s operation, American Farmland Trust and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission worked together to conduct partial budget analysis to analyze the marginal benefits and costs of adopting cover crops, strip-till corn, no-till soybeans, and nutrient management changes on the 350 acres of Scotty Herriman’s 2,000-acre farm where all of the practices were adopted. The analysis used a combination of published machinery and material cost estimates and farmer-provided data to estimate the cost of operations, on average, before and after soil health practice adoption. The analysis was limited to only those income and cost variables affected by the adoption of these practices. 

The results of the study highlighted the win-win nature of these solutions – they can be good for farmers, and are certainly beneficial for our climate and the environment as a whole. The analysis found that Scotty’s net income increased by $4 per acre per year after he adopted the soil health practices described earlier, for a net increase of $1,402 a year – a 7% return on investment. Scotty attributes 25% of his corn and soybean yield increases since 2010 to his adoption of soil health practices, thus accounting for a benefit of $28 per acre each year. Scotty’s average annual soybean yield has increased overall by 5 bushels an acre, and his corn yield has increased by 40 bushels an acre. Scotty says he also knows he’ll realize tangible assets of no-till during his farming career. In 2014 he saw 260-bushel dryland corn and he’s hit several years of 200+ bushel corn since switching to no-till. He entered a yield contest and won it four times in 6 years with his dryland no-till corn. This is what he shares with critics, that he implemented no-till and it works.

While Scotty’s herbicide costs have increased by $7 per acre per year, his machinery costs have decreased by $32 per acre per year since his adoption of no-till and strip-till thanks to fewer mechanical issues, less overall machinery maintenance costs, less fuel needed, and increased time savings. 

As a result of the combined soil health practices, erosion has decreased by 1 ton per acre per year, as estimated by USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT), worth $713 per year across the study area based on the $1.18/ton value of soil nutrients no longer running off, and Scotty’s estimated $300 a year in reduced mechanical erosion repair costs. In addition to the economic benefits Scotty has experienced, he has noticed benefits to his soil structure and biota. Scotty has observed less soil compaction, an increase in earthworm activity, and higher levels of soil organic matter. 

To estimate the water quality and climate benefits of these soil health practices, researchers used NTT and COMET-Farm tools on a 60-acre, representative field. Scotty’s use of cover crops, strip-till, no-till, and nutrient management reduced nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment losses by 73%, 22%, and 86%, respectively, as estimated by NTT. Further, his combined soil health practices resulted in a 54% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions as estimated by the COMET-Farm Tool, corresponding to taking 3.9 cars off the road.  While this may seem like a small number, there is enormous potential for scaling these benefits – especially considering the 396 million acres of cropland in the U.S.

USDA Cropland (USDA & Esri 2022). Feature layer by SEGS_GPO, licensed under the US EPA Data Licensing Agreement for public use.

Support is Available to Help Farmers Like Scotty Herriman Adopt Soil Health Management Practices

A number of federal and state programs are available to help farmers like Scotty Herriman adopt soil health practices – many of which are supported by the federal Farm Bill. To aid his transition to no-till, Scotty received support through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to farmers to help them integrate conservation farming practices into their lands. When Scotty planted cover crops on his land, he partnered with Oklahoma State University, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants Program (CIG), which worked with him to study the influence cover crops had on soybean and corn productivity. Scotty also receives $5 per acre/year from the USDA Risk Management Agency Cover Crop Program to support continued implementation of cover crops. The financial assistance Scotty received from these programs was not factored into the cost-benefit analysis conducted by American Farmland Trust, indicating the benefits of soil health practices outweigh the costs even without federal assistance. 

Farm Bill agriculture programs, coupled with new efforts like the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities, can play a key role in scaling up adoption of these practices nationwide – not only by providing financial and technical assistance to farmers, but also supporting the research, data collection, reporting and verification necessary to continue improving our understanding of the benefits of soil health management.

Closing Thoughts

Herriman Farms has benefited from soil health practices, but Scotty recognizes the challenges that come with getting started. “It’s a learning curve. Learning how to work in harmony with the weather, resisting the urge to break out the plow when things didn’t go exactly how I envisioned, and timing the planting windows to get the most benefit of moisture while staying ahead of weeds,” he said to emphasize the effort required to forge the right soil health management system. Scotty believes in the importance of sharing his story to help others make informed decisions about conservation practices. He celebrates his healthy soil and looks forward to the lasting benefits of his hard work.

Additional Resources


All values are in 2020 dollars.

• Prices used: Corn: $4.30/bu, Soybeans: $11.15/bu (USDA NASS, Feb 2021, Crop Values: 2020 Summary); Nitrogen: $0.34/lb, Phosphate: $0.39/lb (ISU Extension and Outreach, Jan 2021, Ag Decision Maker: Estimated Costs of Crop Production in Iowa).

• Value of decreased erosion ($1.18/ton) is based on estimated N & P content of the soil (2.32 lbs N/ton, 1 lb P/ton) and fertilizer prices (USDA NRCS, May 2010, Final Benefit-Cost Analysis for the EQIP) and Scotty’s estimate of reduced mechanical erosion repair costs.

• Return on Investment is the ratio of Annual Total Change in Net Income to Annual Total Decreased Net Income, as a percent. 

For information about:

(1) study methodology, see farmland.org/soilhealthcasestudies
(2) USDA’s NTT, see ntt.tiaer.tarleton.edu/; and 
(3) USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool, see comet-farm.com

This material is based on work supported by a USDA NRCS CIG grant (NR183A750008G008) and a grant from the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. Scotty received $5/ac/yr through the USDA Risk Management Agency Cover Crop Program (2016–present). This is not included in the analysis because cost-share is temporary and not received by all.

Mad Island: Fire Restores Prairie on the Texas Gulf Coast

To restore the prairie, you have to burn it.

A juvenile alligator peeking out from the water in the marsh.
The truck slows as we approach another pool of water. We scan the water’s surface carefully and it doesn’t take long to find what we’re seeking. A pair of beady eyes pokes out. And another. Baby alligators.

Soon we realize the small reptiles are scattered throughout the pond, including one sunning itself on a log. And while I’ve always found adult crocodilians to be somewhat unnerving, these little ones are cute. We watch as they bob around the water, disappearing for a few seconds, only to pop up for a curious glance our way.

“Every trip here becomes a gator safari,” says Steven Goertz, prescribed fire coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Texas, and manager of the site we’re visiting.

A juvenile alligator peeks out from the marsh. © Kenny Braun / TNC

Goertz is giving me and colleague Claire Everett a tour of the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh, a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Texas Gulf Coast. And indeed, we’ve seen a lot of alligators. Big ones, small ones, ones that “cannonball” into the water at our approach and ones that sit along the bank and watch us with indifference.

But the alligators are a side attraction; we’re here to look at the influence of fire. Fire shapes nearly every aspect of the grassland and marsh ahead of us. But unlike the gators, the signs of fire are difficult for me to see.

I live on the edge of the Rockies, where you can see traces of fire on the forest for years afterwards. The charred trees of the famous 1988 fire in Yellowstone National Park are visible to any visitor.

Here, the grasses wave in the breeze, as if it has always been this way. As if this is a pristine, untouched landscape. Goertz is here to show us a different story.

This is a picture of Clive Runnells Mad Islands Marsh Preserve at sunrise.
Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve. © Kenny Braun / TNC

A Brief History of Mad Island

My eyes kept looking up; as a naturalist, I had a lot to watch. Various species of herons, waders, ibis – singly and in flocks – lifted from the waters as we drove past. White-tailed deer trotted along the meadows and gar gulped air in the freshwater channels. In the bay, bottlenose dolphins offered quick glimpses as they surfaced.

Traveling along one wetland, we see a swimming flock of fulvous whistling ducks, a flushing flock of mottled ducks and a white-tailed hawk. Three lifer birds in a quarter mile.

This is a heading that says "It’s a wildlife paradise but it’s not untouched nature. It’s taken decades of research, hard work and direct management to restore Mad Island."

The Texas Gulf Coast prairies and marsh once consisted of 9 million acres. By the 20th century, much of that landscape had been developed, with just 2 percent of native habitat remaining.

Just 2 percent of native Texas Gulf Coast prairies remained by the 20th century. © Kenny Braun / TNC

The establishment of the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve began in 1989, when Clive Runnells II donated more than 3,000 acres of coastal wetlands and upland prairies to TNC. The land is directly adjacent to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Mad Island Wildlife Management Area, which TNC helped establish with a 5,700-acre donation.

In 1993, TNC added 3,900 acres to the preserve with critical support from the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Dow Chemical, US Environmental Protection Agency, Trull Foundation and Communities Foundation of Texas.

For the first couple of decades of the preserve’s existence, much of the conservation effort focused on restoring wetlands for waterfowl and other wildlife. The area was well-known for its importance to migratory birds, sitting at the confluence of two principal North American migration routes. For years, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had operated a bird banding station on the preserve to study the patterns and behavior of migratory birds. These efforts are now carried on by collaborations between Texas A&M University and University of Maryland.  

But there was also a recognition that, for this landscape to naturally function as marsh and prairie, other restoration was needed.

And Goertz realized early on that to achieve that resilience would require the use of fire.

A prescribed burn at Mad Island Marsh. © Ernest Love / Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

From Raggedy to Awesome

Another flock of ducks circles overhead and I strain my eyes to identify them. My eyes continue to look up. Goertz is urging me to look down.

He’s scrunched over, brushing his hands through the plants at our feet. From the road, this looks like a sea of grass. Up close, a rich diversity of native plant species is revealed.

With the global threats impacting lands and waters, conservationists often speak of the need of rapid, large-scale solutions. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, has ambitious goals that will lead to global change. But ultimately, those goals have to touch down on the ground, in places like this. Goertz has to think about the management of thousands of acres. And sometimes, he’s looking at plants right beneath his feet.

TNC’s Steven Goertz shows author Matt Miller native prairie plants at Mad Island. © Claire Everett / TNC

When TNC acquired this property, many parts were, as Goertz puts it, “raggedy.” The ranch had been heavily grazed by cattle for decades. Brush had encroached on the prairie, reducing its diversity and its importance to wildlife.

This is a heading that says "Even on this scale, restoration can seem an overwhelming task. Removing this stand of brush, that patch of invasive species, the work could stretch out for years. Decades. But harnessing a natural process – one that has shaped grasslands for millennia – could offer faster results.”

“I’ve put all my eggs in the fire basket, and it’s made all the difference,” says Goertz.

TNC has been using prescribed fire on its lands for decades. Staff know how to coordinate a safe, controlled burn that achieves the desired ecological results. Working with partners, Goertz continues conducting fires at Mad Island.

Still, this land had not seen fire to this extent for a long time. So it needs some additional help.

The Spaces Between

After Mad Island was burned, some of the changes were quickly apparent. Other changes would escape the notice of a casual visitor; that’s why Goertz is often bent down, examining plants at the square-foot level.

“Prescribed fire isn’t just about clearing brush,” he says. “It certainly does that. But what’s really interesting is what happens in the interspaces, the ground left open by the burning. The fire increases solar contact with the soil. So much comes up in the spaces between. You get quality and quantity of native plants in ways I wasn’t expecting.”

This heading says "To give natural processes a boost, Goertz and other staff began collecting seeds from the prairie plants that grew after the burn. They then reseeded by hand in other parts of the project."

“First, you’d see circles of plants coming up around where we broadcast the seed,” says Goertz. “By year two or three, you see seed dispersion. That’s when it gets really exciting.”

© Kenny Braun / TNC

Lately, the seed collection has intensified. Staff use a street sweeper-style harvester to pull seeds off native plants and dump them in a bin. Last season, 900 pounds were harvested off 16 acres.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to increase that harvest,” says Goertz. “We can then use them on our own restoration sites or share them with other conservation projects.”

The prescribed burning is an annual effort, and one that seemingly occupies Goertz’s thoughts most hours of the day. As we walk through the grass, he’s constantly pointing. He’s showing me those little changes in topography, clumps of plants, how those plants have responded to fire.

“This place looks flat, but there’s a lot of landscape diversity here,” he says. “You see that when you’re out here, the little depressions and rises in the landscape.”

The marsh at Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve. © Kenny Braun / TNC

The result of that attention to detail, that passion for the land, is everywhere around me. I can’t see signs of the fire. I can see swaying prairie grass, the birds lifting off out of the marshes, the deer trotting ahead of us. To my eyes, it looks perfect, but I know it’s not pristine.

“I can’t do a perfect replication of the native prairie,” says Goertz. “That’s not the goal. I want it to function in a resilient state. What we are finding is that when we burn at this scale, diversity is embedded in the whole system. There’s a ‘Field of Dreams’ aspect to this. Burn it, and the diversity comes.”

This article was originally published in Cool Green Science, a blog by The Nature Conservancy, on June 18, 2023 and updated on June 26, 2023.

Learn about this coastal restoration model for elected officials and decision-makers to see how Natural Climate Solutions can sequester carbon while helping protect communities from hurricanes and boost the local economy.

Read about how San Francisco Bay’s tidal wetlands serve as a vital carbon sink, mitigating climate change and offering numerous benefits to the region.

Browse the Blue Carbon section in our Science for Decision-Makers page.

Growing Solutions and Resilience to Climate Change with Biochar: A Natural Climate Solution in the Soil Health Toolbox

This image is a summary of the article, stating that biochar has a lot of potential as a natural climate solution.
Logo for American Farmland Trust

There is no silver bullet to improving soil health and mitigating climate change, but biochar has potential to be a widespread and powerful tool in the soil health and climate-smart toolbox. Managing soils with charred biomass has been practiced for centuries, originating with indigenous people who created the Terra Preta soils of the Amazon Basin. The creation of biochar from organic materials and its application to sandy, acidic, weathered tropical soils improved soil water holding capacity, pH, nutrient retention, structure, and crop yields, while also adding stable carbon.

Today, biochars are created from pyrolysis of organic waste feedstocks (like woody or crop residues) and can be co-composted with other organic materials, combined with fertilizers, or treated post-production to produce specific physical and chemical properties in the final biochar amendment. 

Scientific consensus on the benefits of biochar soil amendments

Building on the traditional practice, research in the last 20 years has produced over 20,000 peer-reviewed publications investigating the benefits of diverse biochars on agricultural soils around the world. There are complex interactions among soil type, biochar type, crop, management, and weather as well as on-going efforts to expand decision support to match the right biochar with the right soil. From a convening of stakeholders and experts in March 2022 (Biochar Convening Summary), there was broad consensus on the benefits of biochar soil amendments, including:

Scroll through the eight data cards below:

Showing the potential of biochar as a natural climate solution.
Wheat growth increased on soils amended with 8 tons of biochar per acre (right) compared to unamended soil (left) near Spokane, Washington.
By Kristin Trippe, USDA ARS

Quantifying climate mitigation potential of biochar

Biochars have been proposed as a natural climate solution. Pyrogenic Carbon Capture and Storage (PyCCS; Schmidt et al. 2019) is the thermochemical conversion of feedstocks into pyrolyzed materials that are 100s to 1000s of times more stable. Without pyrolysis, the feedstocks would be burned or decomposed faster, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere. 

One commonly cited estimate of the global maximum potential of biochar to sequester carbon is 1.8 Gt CO2e per year (Woolf et al. 2010), potentially mitigating around 10% of global GHG emissions from agrifood systems. Complete life cycle analysis evaluates the impact of biochar amendments on GHG emissions and should include a comparison of emissions from non-pyrolyzed feedstocks and the impact of biochar production, transportation, and application in agricultural systems, which could define when  the carbon drawdown period begins (Amonette et al. 2021 ). Biochars can also be by-products of a sustainable bioenergy industry, reducing net GHG emissions from the energy sector. Adaptation and resilience co-benefits of biochar should be included in any climate impact assessment. 

Barriers to biochar adoption

Centuries of practice and decades of research have not translated into widespread adoption of biochar in today’s agricultural production systems. A recent paper from American Farmland Trust, National Center for Appropriate Technology, and US Biochar Initiative outlined recommendations for stakeholders and policymakers to scale up a biochar industry through coordinated research and outreach. Some barriers to implementation of biochar as an agricultural soil amendment have included:

  • Lack of education and awareness of the potential for biochars to provide climate adaptation, resilience, and mitigation benefits 
  • Decision support tools for management of appropriate biochars on specific soils and production systems 
  • Availability of local, sustainable, affordable biochar products.

Breaking down barriers

American Farmland Trust (AFT) and our partners are working to reduce barriers to biochar adoption. AFT, in collaboration with policy and industry leaders, researchers, and innovative farmers, is addressing barriers to adoption of biochar as a natural climate solution through the following efforts:

Learn more about Biochar production in the United States:

Innovative Biocrust Restoration Technique Offers Hope in Warming Climate

When you mention biological soil crusts (also known as biocrusts) to Dr. Sasha Reed, her eyes light up and a smile widens across her face. For the last 15 years, this U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biogeochemist has been on the ground and in the lab studying these soil communities that, while small, have big potential to sustain ecosystems as our planet warms. Now, thanks to increasing focus on dryland restoration and climate change science, there are new opportunities to scale up nature-based solutions with federal funding from programs like America the Beautiful.

If you close your eyes and picture a desert landscape, you might see sparse trees or shrubs and then lots of open areas of sand among the plants. While these areas look barren, they are actually filled with life in the form of soil surface communities called biocrusts. Biocrusts are the desert’s skin—a community of lichens, mosses and cyanobacteria that live on the soil surface in places where soils are exposed to the sun. Although the organisms are small, biocrusts are estimated to cover 12 percent of Earth’s land surface and can be found on all seven continents.

These complex communities play an astonishingly important role in sustaining desert ecosystems and in protecting human health. However, until recently, they have been sorely underappreciated. A growing climate crisis for Earth’s drylands and exciting research revelations are intersecting to shine a new light on the importance of biocrusts.

Dr. Reed – along with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Northern Arizona University and Rim to Rim Restoration – leads one of the world’s largest-scale cultivations of whole biocrust communities. With funding from a Wildlife Conservation Society grant, through their Climate Adaptation Fund, and with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the team is working toward a scientific breakthrough that will benefit dryland communities around the globe.

Homebase for the project is the Canyonlands Research Center (CRC) headquartered at TNC’s Dugout Ranch near Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. The CRC is a collaboration of academic institutions, land managers, and state and federal research agencies working together on climate science and sustainable land management solutions. With powerful partnerships, the cutting-edge CRC research facility attracts some of the world’s leading scientists in climate change, biological soil crusts, rangeland management, dryland vegetation ecology and soil erosion.

Thirty-four percent of people on Earth live in dryland regions. These areas support 44 percent of the world’s cultivated systems and 50 percent of the world’s livestock. Yet drylands are home to the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. Experts estimate that 25 to 35 percent of Earth’s drylands are already degraded, with over 250 million people directly affected and about one billion people in over 100 countries at risk. With climate change impacts intensifying rapidly, restoration solutions for key dryland components—like biocrusts—can’t come soon enough.

“These organisms pack so much punch!” exclaims Dr. Reed with two pumping fists. Just as coral reefs are critical to marine habitats, biocrusts are the ecosystem engineer of Earth’s drylands. Biocrusts provide important services to people and nature by:

  • Stabilizing Soils – Biocrusts act as a “glue” to stabilize desert soil and prevent it from blowing away. In this way, biocrusts are nature’s safeguard against dust storms that threaten human health and wildlife.
  • Boosting Fertility – Biocrusts take in nitrogen and concentrates other nutrients, playing a valuable role in the diversity and productiveness of desert soils that sustain plants, wildlife and agriculture. 
  • Retaining Moisture – Biocrusts increase the ability of soils to retain water from precipitation, a critical process for the entire desert ecosystem. 
  • Storing carbon – Like all photosynthetic organisms, biocrusts take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, sequestering carbon in soils.

Sue Bellagamba, TNC’s Canyonlands Regional Director, who is partnering with Dr. Reed, sums it up this way: “Biocrusts are the keystone element of the landscape in the western United States. If we lose our biocrusts, we could see major impacts on soil stability, vegetation and wildlife. Restoring biocrusts is a nature-based solution for mitigating the impacts of climate change and creating resilient drylands in the face of a warmer and dryer world.”

When healthy biocrusts are doing their job, they prevent the soil loss caused by wind and rainstorms. Massive dust storms, which are increasing in frequency across the southwest United States and in other drylands around the globe, are becoming more hazardous for people. Dust from one region can travel thousands of miles. These storms can limit visibility, threatening the safety of people on our highways and wreaking havoc on the human respiratory system. The reality is that if we lose biocrusts, people could also be impacted.

A bonus benefit is carbon storage. “There’s a lot of interest in carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change and we know biocrusts can take carbon out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis. However, we need to better quantify this carbon control. Our understanding of how much carbon restored biocrusts could sequester and how climate change will affect this uptake remains exceedingly poor,” says Dr. Reed.

Emerging evidence suggests drylands play a dominant role in key aspects of Earth’s carbon cycle, helping to regulate our planet’s terrestrial carbon sink. Dr. Reed and her team are working to quantify this role and to add this quantitative understanding in the context of climate change.

For years, scientists have known biocrusts were vulnerable to long-lasting damage from tires, boots and hooves. Now, a new threat looms: climate change. As heat and drought intensify for Earth’s dryland regions, the impacts on biocrusts are raising red flags. A recent study conducted by the USGS in Utah revealed that long-term experimental climate warming resulted in the dramatic loss of biocrust mosses, as well as slowed recovery of biocrusts following disturbance. Scientists warn that in the face of a warming climate, these biocrust losses could occur around the globe.

In short: Scientists like Dr. Reed and her team have a small window of time to figure out how to protect the very fabric of dryland ecosystems.

As scientists seek ways to restore damaged biocrusts in the face of climate change, they have had both advances and setbacks. Initially encouraged to discover they could grow biocrusts in a nursery, scientists were disappointed when the nursery-grown biocrusts died after being relocated to restoration sites in the desert. What they decided was that the nursery may have made life too easy for the biocrusts.

“They withered and blew away shortly after we sprinkled them on restoration sites in drought-stricken areas, such as the western U.S.,” says Dr. Reed, with a sigh. “We asked a lot of questions and came up with an idea to grow the crusts outside so they could acclimate with the harsh climate where they face relentless sun, heat and very little water.”

Biocrust farm. Video by Sara Reardon.

Researchers grew intact crust communities on biodegradable cloth on the first biocrust farm near Moab. After 8 months, volunteers unrolled the crusts on two restoration sites. The team is now monitoring these sites to determine how well the biocrusts grow. So far, they are seeing phenomenal response and future potential to advance our ability to sustain biocrusts in the face of climate change.

This forward-thinking restoration technique holds promise for scaling up the work. The size and pace of growth at the Moab biocrust farm marked an important success for restoration science. 

“If the biocrust communities continue to succeed, it would be a significant advance in our ability to help resource managers bring back biocrust communities,” Dr. Reed notes. “People would be able to grow biocrusts without disturbing much land, a lot of new technology could take off, you could automate biocrust harvesting, increase the scale of the process, and open a really exciting new pathway for restoring much larger areas.”

Dr. Reed is animated…make that joyful. “I often study worrisome climate change impacts and threats, the pollution and damage,” she enthuses. “But this project, this is about hope. We are finding new ways to bring biocrusts back on the landscape, and it just feels so useful and so… good!”

More research and communication are imperative to building on the success in Utah. Restoring biocrusts across dryland ecosystems will look different in different places. While we still have many questions, biocrust climate science is happening in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and California, stretching all the way to Africa and Antarctica! To harness the power of biocrust knowledge and global research, a soil crust Community of Practice – called CrustNet – has been created by Dr. Reed and her collaborators. They aim to bring together biocrust researchers around to world to improve the understanding of where biocrusts are, the roles they play in diverse ecosystems and how they are responding to change. This network approach will enable learning, sharing and replicating projects.

Federal conservation programs could offer another avenue for scaling up biocrust restoration projects in the United States, providing incentives to landowners to protect and restore biocrusts, and providing support for efforts to reestablish biocrusts on degraded public lands. The America the Beautiful program offers one potential avenue of support.

In addition to scaling up biocrust restoration, increased awareness about what it is and why it’s so important is imperative. The average person has no idea what biocrusts are, which means they can’t care about it. With funds dedicated to education, partners produced a short biocrust video to educate people about these amazing and important communities.

If you want to support this effort, share a link on your organization’s social sites and with your friends and family. Though they are small, biocrusts are mighty and restoring these communities across our planet’s drylands offers a great deal of hope for Earth’s dryland ecosystems and people. 

For more information, please see our  Climate-Adapted Biocrust Restoration Fact Sheet. You can also access the current Biocrust Restoration Manual at: canyonlandsresearchcenter.org.

Tracey Stone is an Associate Director of Communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Dr. Sasha Reed is a Biogeochemist at the United States Geological Survey.

Sue Bellagamba is the Canyonlands Regional Director at The Nature Conservancy in Utah.