Agricultural Land Protection is an Essential Tool for Fighting Climate Change

  • Extent of Farmland Conversion: Research by the American Farmland Trust reveals that significant acreage of American farmland has been converted to uses detrimental to agriculture between 2001-2016, with further projected losses by 2040, posing threats to rural economies, national food security, and our ability to address climate change.
  • Climate Implications: Conversion of agricultural land to other uses contributes to greenhouse gas emissions by displacing efficient agricultural production and encroaching upon carbon sinks like forests, grasslands, and farmland and ranchland managed using climate-smart practices, underlining the importance of farmland protection in mitigating climate change.
  • Role of Agricultural Conservation Easements: Agricultural conservation easements emerge as a crucial tool in addressing climate change by preventing agricultural land conversion, encouraging adoption of climate-smart practices, retaining land benefits for carbon sequestration, and protecting associated lands like woods and wetlands.
  • Impact of Federal Farmland Programs: Programs such as the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) have shown a causal link between land protection and adoption of climate-smart practices, providing incentives and financial support for landowners to engage in long-term conservation efforts.
  • Federal Government’s Role: The federal government plays a significant role in farmland conservation through programs like ACEP-ALE and RCPP, but additional funding and administrative streamlining is necessary to make these programs more accessible and efficient in supporting agricultural land conservation.
American Farmland Trust logo

According to research by the American Farmland Trust (AFT), from 2001-2016, 11 million acres of American farmland were converted to uses that threaten the future of agriculture. Looking ahead, AFT modelling indicates that the U.S. will lose an additional 18.4 million acres by 2040 in the absence of significant policy interventions. Continued conversion of our working lands threatens the future of agriculture, rural economies, and national food security, while pushing land prices beyond the reach of established and aspiring farmers and ranchers alike. Land use change from cropland to other uses is also a driver of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as it displaces efficient agricultural production, which often leads to agricultural development in other areas including forests and grasslands that act as carbon sinks. Therefore, agricultural land protection is an essential tool for addressing climate change.

“Agricultural conservation easements are an essential – and too often overlooked – tool in our efforts to address climate change,” said Cris Coffin, Director of AFT’s National Agricultural Land Network and Senior Policy Advisor. “These easements help reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from low-density development. And protecting America’s disappearing farm and ranch lands is foundational to securing broader climate gains from American agriculture.” 

A white paper recently released by AFT, entitled “Agricultural Land Protection: An Essential Tool for Fighting Climate Change,” presents five ways in which agricultural conservation easements help mitigate climate change, positing that they:  

  • Avoid the conversion of agricultural land to developed uses with higher GHG emissions. 
  • Encourage greater adoption of practices that sequester carbon, reduce GHG emissions, and build climate resilience. 
  • Retain the benefits of conservation practices and the potential of lands to serve as a carbon sink. 
  • Reduce the threat of converting grasslands and more marginal land into production. 
  • Protect other lands associated with farms and ranches – like woods and wetlands – that often provide valuable carbon sequestration. 

The paper builds off of survey results – published by AFT last September – of owners whose land was protected by the federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP). This program is the precursor to the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) current Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The survey showed a direct relationship between program participation and implementing “climate-smart” practices, the subset of conservation practices identified by USDA NRCS as delivering carbon sequestration and GHG reductions.  

“We found that participation in the federal farmland protection program resulted in a so-called ‘permanence syndrome,’” said AFT Director of Farmland Information Center and Senior Advisor Jen Dempsey, who led the research effort which was conducted in partnership with the Resources Social Science Lab at Purdue University. “Proceeds from the voluntary sale of conservation easements gave landowners money to help adopt new practices. But more than that, owners said the protected status of the land motivated them to make long-term investments and improvements to their land.” 

The FRPP survey shows higher adoption rates of climate-smart practices by owners of eased land than the general farming population. For instance, 65 percent of respondents used conservation tillage and 57 percent implemented cover crops or green manure crops. The National Agricultural Statistic Service’s 2017 Census of Agriculture of the general farming population shows 34 percent of farms using no-till or reduced tillage and 10 percent implementing cover crops.  

The white paper also points to how permanently protecting agricultural land can avoid GHG emissions when coupled with Smart Growth. This approach has been taken by the State of California through its Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation program, which funds agricultural conservation easements based on quantifying their potential GHG benefits. AFT is presently exploring how such an approach could be used nationally.  

“To date, over 8 million farmland acres have been protected,” said Coffin. “While this is an incredible achievement, it represents less than 1 percent of our nation’s farmland. If we are to meet our climate goals and feed a growing world, we must redouble our support for agricultural conservation easement programs at all levels of government.” 

The federal government plays a large role in where and how development occurs, and its influence should be harnessed to steer development away from our most productive, versatile and resilient agricultural land. The federal government is also a valuable partner in protecting working lands by funding several programs through the Farm Bill.

USDA’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program-Agricultural Land Easements subprogram (ACEP-ALE) compensates willing landowners who permanently protect their land from development; USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) can also be used to permanently protect working lands. ACEP-ALE and RCPP offer landowners a valuable way to extract equity from their land to implement new conservation practices, pay down debt, finance farm expansion, or enable retirement and a farm or ranch transfer to a next generation. Permanently protected land is often significantly more affordable for the increasing number of next generation farmers and ranchers who did not grow up on a family farm. Both programs experience high demand and oversubscription, yet they prove excessively burdensome for both landowners and state and local partners, highlighting the necessity for administrative streamlining.

Congress is currently working on the next Farm Bill, which will include opportunities to improve and strengthen ACEP, the sole federal program devoted to the purchase of agricultural conservation easements.

In conclusion, it is evident that agricultural land protection is crucial in our collective efforts to address climate change and ensure food security for future generations. As highlighted throughout this article, agricultural conservation easements serve as a powerful tool in this endeavor, offering landowners incentives to protect their land from development while providing opportunities for financial stability and succession planning. By harnessing the influence of the federal government and implementing necessary reforms, we can pave the way for a future where our agricultural lands remain productive, resilient, and accessible to the generations of farmers and ranchers to come.

This article was adapted from the original version published by American Farmland Trust. Access original article here.

Tools for agricultural land protection can be found in USN4C's Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions.

Explore our Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions to better understand the science behind these strategies and get tools to implement them.

See AFT’s Soil Health Case Studies page to read how farmers across the US are embracing soil health practices for increased resilience, efficiency, and environmental benefits while improving their bottom line.

Growth in Support for Natural Climate Solutions

As climate change intensifies weather events like storms, droughts, and heat waves, it can feel like humans are fighting a battle against nature. However, nature is one of the most effective tools in the fight against climate change. U.S. Nature4Climate (USN4C), a coalition of over 20 environmental groups, works to advance natural climate solutions, which it defines as “strategies for addressing climate change that also help restore wildlife habitat, improve water quality, increase the productivity of our farms, create jobs, and protect our communities from storms and floods.” And as USN4C’s recent polling has shown, with support from 92% of voters, natural climate solutions would be a great fit for strong bipartisan climate action.

“Nature-based solutions” is a term U.S. Nature4Climate uses for strategies that address broader environmental challenges, while the organization reserves “natural climate solutions” for strategies that address climate mitigation in particular. However, in many cases, nature-based solutions also have carbon mitigation effects.

Natural climate solutions are land- and water-based actions that can combat and mitigate climate threats while incorporating resilience into both our ecosystems and economies. When executed successfully, they conserve and regenerate forests, wetlands, grasslands, agricultural fields, and other key landscapes. Such solutions range from practicing crop rotation and creating living shorelines to reforestation and restoring natural habitats through conservation efforts.

Blue-carbon ecosystems are an example of how natural climate solutions can pay dividends. Blue-carbon ecosystems include mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and tidal marshes. These ecosystems store carbon and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere, while also mitigating flooding and soil erosion. Mangrove forests can store up to four times as much carbon as other tropical forests, protect communities from storm surges, and provide safe habitat for marine life, thus supporting nature-based industries such as fishing.

In agriculture, the practice of no-till farming can help maintain soil health and longevity. Reducing tillage intensity can improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and potentially reduce the release of carbon dioxide from the soil. It also saves on the fuel and labor that would have otherwise been used in the tilling process. (Scientists are still working to reach a consensus on the extent of the climate-specific benefits of no-till farming.)

Natural climate solutions like these could reduce national emissions by one-fifth—especially if implemented into federal, state, and local policymaking. Such emission reductions would help the United States reach the target established by the Biden-Harris Administration of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

USN4C sought to determine how public support for natural climate solutions stacks up across the country. Results from its 2023 survey depict that an overwhelming 92% of people polled in the United States support natural climate solutions.

The survey results show that the idea of protecting natural areas for future generations has strong support across the partisan divide. Supporting wildlife habitat, water quality, and forest health also resonate highly.

Of all respondents polled, 95% of Democrats, 95% of Independents, and 86% of Republicans support natural climate solutions. And of those who responded that they do not believe in climate change, 75% still expressed support for natural climate solutions. This support demonstrates a welcome opportunity to implement these solutions around the nation.

When broken down by geographical region, the survey results offer useful takeaways for policymakers. Eighty-nine percent of respondents in rural areas support natural climate solutions, indicating the importance of researching and implementing climate solutions that benefit agriculture. Natural climate solutions that are well-suited for the agricultural sector include agroforestry, cover crops, and reduced tillage. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) already has programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program that support farmers in implementing agricultural practices that sequester carbon, but these programs are consistently oversubscribed.

The summary of the survey results discusses the importance of promoting the co-benefits of natural climate solutions—such as increased farm productivity and resilience to extreme weather events—to would-be supporters, to ensure continued support.

In September 2023, U.S. Nature4Climate hosted a New York Climate Week event titled “U.S. Government Support for Natural Climate Solutions Implementation.” The event, moderated by EESI President Daniel Bresette, aimed to thoroughly examine the federal actions being taken to scale up natural climate solutions. The event’s speakers included representatives from the Environmental Defense Fund, the White House, USDA, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Panelists provided an in-depth look at how the government can effectively mobilize funding for natural climate solutions to maximize ecological and climate benefits. They touched on key agricultural programs supporting climate solutions, the White House’s 2022 roadmap for accelerating nature-based solutions, the importance of minimizing risk for agricultural producers, and the barriers to and opportunities for Indigenous communities in their pursuit of climate-smart actions.

The White House’s roadmap includes five recommendations for advancing nature-based solutions: updating policies to improve their ease of use, ensuring funding is catalyzed effectively, expanding agency action, developing the necessary workforce, and prioritizing research and learning. The event panelists discussed how the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) (P.L. 117-169)the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) (P.L. 117-58) and the next iteration of the Farm Bill all complement these efforts and provide additional opportunities for the federal government to implement natural climate solutions and climate-smart agriculture. The IRA, for example, includes funding for natural infrastructure in underserved communities, vegetation management projects, and climate resilience in disadvantaged communities—all of which can be mobilized for nature-based solutions.

While the potential for progress on natural climate solutions is exciting, there are several important factors that policymakers must keep in mind regarding implementation, starting with financing requirements. Project funding is often dependent on meeting specific “return on investment” targets, which can be difficult without universal standards for project monitoring, and when objectives such as biodiversity are difficult to measure. Another important factor is community buy-in. By building partnerships across the project region and ensuring community engagement from the early stages, projects are more likely to reflect local needs and allow residents to have a voice.

Woodwell Climate Research Center’s guiding principles for effective natural climate solutions emphasize the importance of Indigenous and local community participation, “doing no harm” to the people involved, fully accounting for carbon stocks, and using high standards for any carbon markets that may be used to finance natural climate solutions. These solutions should lift up the leadership of Indigenous communities and support the well-being of people and ecosystems, rather than protecting profits and the “business as usual” status quo.

Natural climate solutions are an important piece of the puzzle in addressing the climate crisis, but they are not the only piece. These solutions must be implemented thoughtfully, equitably, and holistically, and paired with swift cuts to emissions, in order to reach their full potential.

This article was originally published on the Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s website.

4 Priorities for Managing US Lands in the Face of Climate Change

  • Challenges in Land Management: Policymakers and land managers face the challenge of managing U.S. lands to support various needs like food and timber production, community resilience, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration, amidst unpredictable weather and growing global demands.
  • Role of U.S. Lands in Climate Change Mitigation: U.S. lands can both sequester and emit greenhouse gases. Increasing the land carbon sink while decreasing land-based emissions is essential to meeting climate goals.
  • Potential of U.S. Lands: Investments like the Inflation Reduction Act aim to enhance the resilience and health of U.S. lands. Analysis suggests that ambitious climate-smart forestry and agriculture initiatives could significantly increase the land carbon sink and reduce agricultural emissions.
  • Priorities for Land Managers and Policymakers: Strategies to protect and increase the land carbon sink include limiting land conversion, building ecosystem resilience, planning for economy-wide decarbonization, and promoting green infrastructure. Community involvement, equitable distribution of benefits, and innovative financing mechanisms are crucial for successful land management projects.
© Rory Doyle for TNC

Policymakers and land managers face difficult decisions in an increasingly uncertain climate future. Lands must support food and timber production, help buffer communities from extreme weather, provide space for people to live and recreate, support biodiversity and sequester carbon. Managing land to meet all these needs while confronting unpredictable weather and a growing global demand for food and wood requires thoughtful and proactive action.

The U.S. lands sector, which includes forests, grasslands, wetlands, agricultural lands and agricultural operations, can remove carbon emissions to help curb the impacts of climate change, but it can also be a source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Activities like planting trees or conserving natural ecosystems increase what’s known as the land carbon sink, or the ability of land to sequester carbon. On the other hand, running farm equipment, fertilizing soil and plowing under native grasslands, releases greenhouse gases.

To reduce the most harmful impacts from climate change and support the U.S. target of reducing economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030, the land carbon sink needs to be increased and protected from future degradation, while lands-based emissions need to be decreased.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, together with existing state forest and agricultural policies, are making critical investments in the resilience and health of the U.S. land base. But new analysis from America Is All In — a coalition of U.S. state and local leaders and organizations, including WRI — finds that the benefits from this investment are not yet secured. Effective implementation of climate-smart federal programs combined with increased state ambition and investment is required to protect and increase the land carbon sink.

In 2021, U.S. lands sequestered approximately 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) per year, and agriculture emitted approximately 600 MtCO2e per year. Based on one set of models of the U.S. land sector, America Is All In finds that full implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and other current federal and state policies, amounting to $42 billion of planned investment, would reduce agricultural emissions by about 8% or 48 MtCO2e per year over 2021 levels in 2035 and would increase the land carbon sink by about 1.5% or approximately 10 MtCO2e per year over 2021 levels in 2035. While a 1.5% increase is modest, implementation of current policies could help to reverse a projected decline in the land carbon sink.

With increased policy ambition and investment of approximately $160 billion in climate-smart forestry and agriculture the models find that the land carbon sink would increase by approximately 3%, or 24 MtCO2e per year in 2035. This high-climate ambition scenario would see a 13% reduction in agricultural emissions, or approximately 75 MtCO2e per year by 2035.

While America Is All In finds that these levels of land sector mitigation are enough to help the U.S. realize its climate goals alongside emissions reductions in other sectors, they do not realize the full potential of the land carbon sink. Other studies find much higher potential for reforestation, agricultural emissions reductions and other nature-based climate solutions, but maximizing the land carbon sink involves land use trade-offs. For example, planting trees can effectively sequester carbon, but planting new forests on large expanses of agricultural land could displace critical food production. Careful policymaking at the federal, state and local levels is needed to balance land use for food, fiber, biodiversity, climate mitigation and more.

This map of the United States is divided by regions, showing which regions need the most funding based on the most impactful natural climate solutions for the area.

Protecting and increasing the land carbon sink will require an all-society effort. Federal funding like the Inflation Reduction Act can provide the foundation for action, but effective implementation takes place at the state and local level where the needs of ecosystems and communities are considered, while tradeoffs are weighed.

Despite historic levels of land sector funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, funding for many key projects is still limited and state and local leaders and their private sector and NGO partners need to prioritize actions that mitigate greenhouse gasses and increase resilience.

Here are four ways that policymakers, local leaders and land managers can prioritize strategies that will protect the land carbon sink and balance the many requirements for land use in the face of climate change.

While it is important to increase the land carbon sink, it is equally important to protect the carbon already stored in soils and vegetation. U.S. forests alone already contain about 60 gigatons of carbon, and they sequester an additional 700 MtCO2e each year. However, if forest ecosystems are severely damaged by logging or a natural disturbance, carbon stored in trees and soils is released to the atmosphere, and the ability of that forest to sequester carbon into the future may be diminished. This is also true of grassland and agricultural soils: Once carbon is lost, it takes intensive restoration and management to restore the carbon sink to pre-disturbance levels. This dynamic can be thought of as the “carbon cost” of clearing land for agriculture or development and not taking action to restore carbon stocks.

Map of the United States showing land use in all 50 U.S. states. This map is meant to show where natural climate solutions like climate-smart forestry and cover crops can be applied by state based on how the land is currently used.

The factors that drive land use change vary regionally across the U.S. In areas where agriculture is a dominant industry, such as the Midwest, cropland expansion can drive the conversion of natural forest and grassland. Policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard that incentivize farmers to grow corn and soy for biofuels have contributed to the expansion of cropland into areas that are less productive and pose an outsized threat to habitat and biodiversity. Croplands have expanded by approximately 1 million acres per year between 2008 and 2016, leading to carbon emissions from the ecosystems that were converted.

The loss of cropland to commercial and residential development on some of the U.S.’s most productive soils is another driver of forest and grassland conversion. Urban expansion in many areas of the country displaces efficient agricultural production, requiring conversion to agriculture in other, less productive areas to compensate. The U.S. lost approximately 2,000 acres of prime farmland or ranchland every day between 2001 and 2016, and much of this land was converted to low-density urban development.

Forest loss due to land use change is an equally significant threat to natural carbon stores and ecosystem resilience. WRI’s Global Forest Watch finds that forest loss is most significant in the Northwest and Southeast regions of the U.S., and permanent deforestation is primarily driven by urbanization and commercial deforestation to accommodate demand for forest products. The U.S. lost 1.6 million hectares, or approximately 6,000 square miles of forest in 2022.

Policy approaches to curb land use change include:

  • Implementing urban zoning practices that create more dense and livable cities and protect prime farmland. For example, the state of New York has created a Farmland Protection Program that helps farmers maintain agricultural activity.
  • Making sure that biofuels and biomass policies include the true ‘carbon cost’ of biofuels to avoid incentivizing land use change and associated carbon emissions in the U.S. and abroad.

Even though climate change affects all parts of the U.S., the key to managing ecosystems and lands for climate change is to identify the greatest health risks and then help them become resilient to change. Restoring an ecosystem often increases its carbon sink and resilient ecosystems and agricultural systems will reliably sequester carbon into the future.

Forests in Western and Southwestern U.S. states face an increased risk of extreme wildfire due, in part, to climate change, which can damage forests and reduce carbon sequestration capacity in the future. While wildfire mitigation treatments may decrease forest carbon stocks in the short- to medium-term, these treatments can safeguard forests in the long-term. Forests in the Rocky Mountain region are predicted to be a net source of carbon dioxide through 2070 without significant policy intervention, which underscores the urgent need to manage forests for wildfire resilience. Across the U.S., forests also face destruction by pests and pathogens, exacerbated by climate change, which one report has estimated will cost the U.S. 50 MtCO2e every year.

This photo of an airplane dropping fire retardant to battle flames in California is making the point that we need natural climate solutions like wildfire mitigation treatments (i.e. thinning and prescribed burns) to safeguard forests from catastrophic mega fires in the future.
A plane drops a fire retardant to battle flames in Southern California. U.S. Wildfires like those in California threaten ecosystems and impact their ability to sequester carbon. Photo by Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock.

In agricultural areas, climate-related extreme weather like drought, heat and flooding threatens crop production. Practices that build soil health like cover cropping or reduced tillage can increase crop resilience to flooding and drought. Agroforestry, or the practice of incorporating trees and shrubs into agricultural and ranching systems, can protect fields from erosion, improve water quality, provide wildlife habitat and sequester carbon. It is important that policymakers continue to support farmers in adopting these resilience practices as well as in reducing agricultural emissions by using targeted fertilizer application, improving livestock feed and reducing food loss and waste.

Carbon sinks in coastal areas are also under threat due to climate change. Sea level rise can flood wetlands and prevent them from providing water quality benefits and habitat for young fish. In many places, development in coastal areas prevents wetlands from migrating in response to sea level rise, so wetland ecosystems are permanently lost. Coastal development can also lead to draining or fragmenting wetlands which causes them to release carbon and methane.

Policy approaches to increase ecosystem resilience include:

  • Investing in risk mitigation treatments in areas with high risk of wildfires that improve forest health and resilience and reduce the risk of severe fire. For example, Colorado’s HB HB22-1011 created a grant program for local governments to undertake wildfire mitigation projects and education.
  • Providing forest owners in areas where diseases and pests threaten forest health with financial support to increase the health and carbon sequestration potential. For example, New York created a Forestry Cost Share Grant Program.
  • Establishing grant or cost-share programs to support farmers and ranchers in adopting resilience and emissions-reduction practices as the New Mexico Healthy Soils program has done.
  • Planning to protect wetlands in the face of climate change as Oregon has done in its new Climate Resilience Package (HB 3409).

In addition to sequestering carbon in soils and vegetation, lands will physically support economy-wide decarbonization. Building enough renewable power to meet U.S. climate goals will require 115,000 to 250,000 square miles of land to build wind and solar generation as well as new transmission lines to transport energy. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the land devoted to renewable energy can’t continue providing food and habitat.

Agrivoltaics, or the practice of using land for both solar generation and agriculture can provide shade for livestock and crops and provide farmers with an additional source of revenue. Livestock can also graze between wind turbines on rangelands in windy regions.

Local policymakers and land managers need to balance the protection of key wildlife habitat and farmland with the need for infrastructure build-out to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Without immediate and ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue to threaten the ability of lands to sequester carbon and provide services to communities.

Policy approaches to support responsible clean infrastructure buildout include:

  • Adopting zoning ordinances or other planning methods to facilitate renewable energy buildout that protects and enhances the most productive agricultural areas and protects key habitats. New Hampshire’s Model Solar Zoning Ordinance offers a framework for leaders to consider community goals and impacts of solar siting to support better decision-making.
  • Bringing together diverse interests to address barriers to large-scale solar projects and to balance the needs of nature, communities, and climate, as a group in California has done.

As U.S. cities and towns experience increasing impacts from extreme weather, wildfire and sea level rise, the role of nature as a buffer has never been more important. Investing in nature as infrastructure to protect communities can mitigate the effects of extreme weather and provide water and air quality benefits. Many green infrastructure projects are also restoration and carbon sequestration projects. For example, restoring wetlands in and around cities can increase their ability to sequester carbon, filter water and protect coastal areas from erosion and storm surges.

Green infrastructure can save cities and utilities money by lowering water treatment costs and preventing weather-related damage, so innovative financing mechanisms are often available for these projects. WRI and Blue Forest’s Forest Resilience Bond helps the U.S. Forest Service, local water utilities and other partners secure private finance for forest resilience projects that could save utilities millions of dollars in the long term.

While green infrastructure can provide important services to communities, these services are not equitably distributed. Urban trees and parks can cool city streets, sequester carbon and improve air quality, but many low-income neighborhoods have far fewer trees than wealthier neighborhoods. Improving tree equity in these neighborhoods is critical to creating livable cities for all residents and support local livelihoods. 

This graphic shows how maintaining healthy forests, a natural climate solution, have many benefits including improving water quality, regulating water supply, and lowering water treatment costs.

Policy approaches to support green infrastructure include:

  • Adopting legislation that leverages private capital to fund restoration and environmental benefits like Maryland has done through its Conservation Finance Act.
  • Creating grant programs to support urban tree planting as Wisconsin has done through its Regular Urban Forestry Grants.
  • Accessing funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which delivered $43.3 billion for state water quality projects, and is distributed through the State Clean Water Revolving Loan Funds. Some states, such as Ohio, have had success leveraging these funds for stream restoration projects that improve water quality.

Land management strategies that support local livelihoods and well-being while delivering climate benefits are more likely to have sustained success in the long term. However, securing positive local outcomes for a project can be challenging because opinions about land management can be deeply tied to cultural, spiritual and economic values. Project funders and policymakers may also have expectations about the outcomes of a project that do not align with local desires or expectations. Research suggests that the following strategies can create successful projects and policies:

  • Policy and project design should go beyond consulting local stakeholders — stakeholders should have continuous input starting from the initial stages of project development, as well as participate in project governance with clear dispute-resolution mechanisms in place. Initiatives should also involve all affected groups in designing and executing a project or policy, especially marginalized groups, to create durable and equitable outcomes.
  • Government agencies should create collaborative resource management approaches to managing state and federal protected lands. This allows tribes or local stakeholders to co-manage land with agencies.
  • Establishing Community Benefit Agreements can help guarantee local employment and other benefits to a community in exchange for their participation in a project.
  • Projects that remove carbon can be incorporated into climate resilience and adaptation planning to ensure that projects are beneficial to communities. Resilience, adaptation and climate mitigation projects should include funding for measuring and monitoring carbon and other benefits to make sure projects have impact over time.

This article was originally published by the World Resources Institute. Access the original article here.

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

Harnessing Nature’s Potential: The Government’s Role in Advancing Natural Climate Solutions in the United States

  • The U.S. government is significantly increasing support for Natural Climate Solutions (NCS), recognizing their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon.
  • During NY Climate Week 2023, an expert panel emphasized the urgency of addressing climate change in agriculture, the importance of carbon dioxide removal, and the crucial role of nature in achieving climate goals.
  • The government, through initiatives like the National Nature-based Solutions Roadmap, is taking comprehensive steps to unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions (including Natural Climate Solutions), involving policy updates, funding expansion, and collaboration across federal agencies.
  • The article highlights oversubscribed financial mechanisms, such as the Farm Bill, indicating strong interest in climate-smart agriculture, while also showcasing how federal programs are empowering underserved communities and indigenous tribes in implementing NCS.

In recent years, the United States government has significantly increased its support for the implementation of Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) 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. NCS encompasses land management approaches designed to harness the power of forests, farms, grasslands, coastal and marine ecosystems, and urban environments to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

During New York Climate Week 2023, the U.S. Nature4Climate coalition organized an expert panel to delve into the U.S. government’s role in promoting NCS implementation. The panel featured prominent figures in the field, including:

  • Britt Groosman, Vice President of Climate Smart Agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund
  • Heather Tallis, Assistant Director for Biodiversity and Conservation Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Sean Babington, Senior Advisor at the United States Department of Agriculture
  • Freddie Davis, Director of the Rural Training and Research Center at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives
  • Emily Luscombe, Natural Resources Director at the Intertribal Agriculture Council. 

The discussion was expertly moderated by Daniel Bresette, President of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), and introduced by Sacha Spector, the Environment Program Director at Doris Duke Foundation, who emphasized the unprecedented opportunity in the U.S. with various federal funding sources for Natural Climate Solutions and expressed excitement about the potential of these solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation.

The Big Picture

Britt Groosman, Vice President of Climate Smart Agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund, initiated the discussion by highlighting the pressing issue of climate change in relation to agriculture. She emphasized that globally, agriculture contributes one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, especially when considering deforestation driven by agricultural activities. She added that climate-induced challenges like droughts and heatwaves are making farming increasingly risky and costly.

Groosman underscored the urgency of addressing this issue by stressing the importance of carbon dioxide removal, not just emission reduction. She pointed out that nature, with its intrinsic carbon-capturing capabilities, plays a crucial role in this endeavor.

“If you look at the dashed line (where we need to be to reach our 1.5°C target) compared to the impact of our current pledges and NDCs, you can see it is not enough. This is why we need carbon dioxide removal, not just the reduction of emissions. We can do this with technology, but guess what’s really good at doing this already? Nature.” –Britt Groosman

Groosman cited a study conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund that outlined the pathways to a stable climate for agriculture in the U.S., which included the need to cut methane emissions in agriculture by 25%, reduce nitrous oxide emissions by 9%, curtail carbon emissions resulting from land use changes by 72%, and increase carbon storage in forests by 32%. It was emphasized that preventing the conversion of land for agricultural use is crucial since future emissions from the agricultural sector will primarily arise from land conversion.

Groosman identified the Farm Bill as a significant opportunity for funding NCS implementation, featuring key programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Agriculture Conservation Partnership Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), all of which lack resources to meet high demand, despite a significant infusion of funding for many of these programs from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which dedicated $20 billion for conservation agriculture programs and added climate change mitigation criteria to qualify for funding.

It’s essential to note that the IRA was a one-time increase in Farm Bill funding, not a permanent baseline increase.

Groosman concluded by stating that the next step is for the environmental community to collaborate with the agriculture sector to build a better foundation for climate action, including expanding technical assistance and climate services capacity, technology deployment to track changes in emissions, research into how climate-focused farming can increase resilience and yield, and more farmer-focused education.

[Explore EESI’s 2023 Farm Bill Briefings to learn more.]

Driving Action: Mechanisms for Supporting Implementation

The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy‘s Heather Tallis then reiterated the untapped potential of NCS in addressing climate change and detailed how the federal government has responded. She stressed that we are currently utilizing just a fraction of what nature offers to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Tallis referenced a recent study (Beck et. al, 2022) that demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of restoring coral reefs and mangroves for coastal risk reduction, highlighting the potential of NCS for adaptation.

Every dot on the map is a cost-effective restoration opportunity where every dollar spent in restoration will return at least $1 of avoided flood damages. In particular, the yellow dots are encouraging as they show a 15 to 1 return estimate for avoided damages.

In response to these opportunities, the federal government published a National Nature-based Solutions Roadmap, co-chaired by Tallis and colleagues at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and Domestic Climate Policy Office, aimed at unlocking the full potential of nature-based solutions. This comprehensive effort involved multiple federal agencies, including non-natural resource agencies, signifying a holistic strategy for driving action across the government. The roadmap offers top-line recommendations that span policy updates, funding expansion, altered federal asset management, workforce development, and advancements in science and innovation. These recommendations aim to address the barriers hindering federal agencies from rapidly accelerating the adoption of nature-based solutions.

Notable progress one year after publishing the National Nature-based Solutions Roadmap

Tallis noted that there has been significant progress over the year since publishing the National Nature-based Solutions Roadmap. For example, funding notices have been adjusted to explicitly encourage the proposal of nature-based solutions, underlining the growing recognition that investments in nature are a vital element in climate action.

Sean Babington, Senior Advisor at the Department of Agriculture, then reiterated the importance of the agriculture sector in achieving climate goals by 2030. The USDA has several tools at their disposal to assist in implementing the Natural Climate Solutions needed to make this transformation, including Farm Bill conservation programs, IRA funding, Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, and private investment opportunities.

It’s important to note that almost all of these financial mechanisms to advance implementation of climate-smart agriculture and forestry in the U.S. are significantly oversubscribed. For example, Babington elaborated on the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative, which received substantial interest from producers, NGOs, universities, and the private sector. The program aims to increase the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices and climate-smart forestry practices, with robust measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification procedures in place to track progress.

“Basically, the USDA asked producers, NGOs, land grants, universities, the private sector, and corporations to come together and tell the USDA how they would plan to use some of this funding to increase the adoption of climate-smart agriculture production practices and climate-smart forestry practices. It was a very open-ended request. They received over $20 billion in applications for the $3 billion opportunity,” explained Babington.

Similarly, the discussion also touched on USDA’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, which also received significant interest and demonstrated the enthusiasm for such initiatives. This program aims to plant and maintain trees in urban areas across the country that have tremendous potential to improve the lives of people in communities affected by a lack of tree cover. For the $1.5 billion available in grants, they received over $7 billion in applications. “If you hear that producers don’t want this money or we should rescind this and put it towards something else, remember these subscription numbers,” said Babington.

On-the-Ground Implementation

Freddie Davis, the Director of the Rural Training and Research Center at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, followed the discussion by shedding light on how their organization is utilizing federal programs to promote NCS among underserved landowners. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives focuses on cooperative development, advocacy, and land retention, with a primary mission of preserving land among underserved landowners. Davis emphasized the importance of climate-smart commodities in promoting regenerative agriculture practices and leveraging partnerships to market NCS products. Key programs, such EQIP and CSP, play a pivotal role in introducing NCS practices to producers.

Davis highlighted how these programs are instrumental in building capacity within their communities. Historically, many producers lacked the capacity to shift away from practices that were detrimental to their land in the long term. However, the inclusion of underserved components in these programs has provided opportunities for producers to implement NCS practices and gain access to markets that recognize the value of their products.

The panel concluded with a presentation from the Intertribal Agriculture Council‘s Natural Resources Director, Emily Luscombe, focusing on how tribes and the council are utilizing federal funding to implement NCS while ensuring equity and advancing environmental justice. She discussed the unique challenges faced by tribal communities in the context of regenerative agriculture and climate change, underscoring the importance of incorporating indigenous perspectives in agriculture. The Natural Resources program at the Intertribal Agriculture Council concentrates on promoting regenerative agriculture by working on practice changes and advocating for broader systems thinking.

Luscombe elaborated on the deep-rooted Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) held by tribes, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging and valuing this knowledge, which has been tested and refined over thousands of years. This knowledge forms the basis for regenerative agriculture and nature-based solutions for climate change (or natural climate solutions). Luscombe also pointed out the historic barriers that tribal communities have faced, from jurisdictional complexities and land ownership issues to discrimination and marginalized lands. However, she highlighted that recent improvements are occurring, including provisions in the Farm Bill that better cater to tribal needs, recognizing the value of TEK and supporting climate-smart agriculture.

She also mentioned various federal programs and funding sources that tribes leverage for climate-smart agricultural projects, noting how tribes combine different programs to create holistic ecosystem restoration initiatives. Finally, she discussed a proposed provision in the 2023 Farm Bill that aims to establish tribal seed networks for better adaptation to microclimates and climate change, reflecting the ongoing efforts to improve conditions for tribal agriculture and climate resilience.

In conclusion, the increased support from the U.S. government for NCS implementation reflects a growing recognition of the pivotal role nature can play in mitigating climate change. This collaborative effort involves government agencies, environmental organizations, farmers, and indigenous communities, each contributing to the greater goal of achieving climate equity and environmental justice. The momentum gained in recent years, fueled by a commitment to natural climate solutions, demonstrates a path forward that holds significant promise. These efforts promise a more regenerative and climate-resilient future, unlocking the full potential of our natural landscapes in service of a healthier planet for all.

Explore programs implementing Natural Climate Solutions with support from federal funding, including the Farm Bill

Our farmers, ranchers, and foresters want to be part of the solution to climate change, but they need financial support to do so. Our latest page showcases programs implementing Natural Climate Solutions with support from federal funding, including the Farm Bill.

Discover how these solutions are addressing climate change and helping restore wildlife habitat, improve water quality, increase the productivity of our farms, create jobs, and protect our communities from storms and floods. Explore the impact.

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

Treesilience: Urban Forestry for Communities and Climate

Woman planting a tree in a suburban area with a caption that says "Urban-led Urban Forestry: The Treesilience initiative aims to reduce tree cover disparities by planting, maintaining, and replacing trees in urban neighborhoods, benefiting people, wildlife, and the climate.
  • Urban trees offer numerous benefits, including filtering air and water, conserving energy, providing animal habitat, and reducing energy costs. They can also mitigate carbon dioxide emissions significantly.
  • Disparities in tree cover exist between low- and high-income neighborhoods, as well as between communities of color and white communities. This inequity leads to various negative impacts on health and well-being.
  • The Treesilience initiative, a collaboration involving The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, and community-based organizations, aims to reduce tree cover disparities by planting, maintaining, and replacing trees in urban neighborhoods. It prioritizes communities with the greatest need.
  • In Chicago, the Imani Green Health Advocates program trains advocates in urban forestry and community health, with a focus on planting trees in high-need areas. The program provides career opportunities and improves community well-being.
  • The St. Louis Treesilience program removes hazardous trees and replants two trees for every one removed, focusing on areas with threatened or lost canopy. It aims to improve respiratory health in communities with high air pollution rates and receives federal funding support for urban reforestation efforts.
  • Federal funding is essential for supporting urban tree canopy projects like Treesilience, utilizing grants from agencies like the USDA Forest Service to address tree cover disparities and promote reforestation, with efforts underway to amend legislation to ensure urban initiatives are integrated into broader reforestation goals.

The benefits of urban trees are well documented. According to the USDA Forest Service, “urban forests help to filter air and water, control storm water, conserve energy, and provide animal habitat and shade.” They also provide tangible financial benefits to communities, with one study finding that urban trees can reduce energy use in residential areas by an average of 7.2%, saving billions of dollars. 

Urban trees also provide benefits for climate. Indeed, research from American Forests and The Nature Conservancy reveals that planting 522 million to 1.2 billion trees in urban areas could mitigate between 8.7 million and 25.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year respectively – equivalent to removing between 1.94 million and 5.74 million cars from the road. To realize these benefits, it isn’t enough to just plant trees – it is also necessary to maintain the trees after they are planted to ensure that they survive and thrive. Failure to plan for trees’ long-term survival can lead to the rapid death of newly planted trees. It’s also incredibly important to maintain large, long-lived mature trees currently providing optimal benefits while new trees grow large enough to do the same. 

Unfortunately, the benefits of urban trees are not spread equitably across American communities. A national tree survey conducted by The Nature Conservancy, mapping urban tree canopy in 5,723 U.S. cities and towns reveals widespread inequity in tree cover between low- and high-income neighborhoods in U.S. cities, finding that, on average, there is 15.2% higher-tree cover in higher-income neighborhoods compared to lower-income areas. Furthermore, research by American Forests shows that the majority of communities of color have, on average, 33% less tree cover than the majority of white communities. This leads to higher temperatures, increased energy costs, fewer opportunities for outdoor recreation, and less resilience to storms and flooding in these communities. All these factors contribute to diminished health and well-being, particularly for communities of color, compared to white and/or affluent communities. 

TREE EQUITY Disparities in tree cover exist between low- and high-income neighborhoods, as well as between communities of color and white communities. This inequity leads to various negative impacts on health and well-being. The orange areas in the images above show areas with poor tree equity scores (including low tree canopy). Source: American Forests’ Tree Equity Score tool for south Chicago (left) and St. Louis (right).

Treesilience: Community-Led Efforts To Increase & Maintain Urban Tree Cover

Treesilience, a national initiative administered through a partnership among The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, Davey Tree Expert Company, and myriad community-based organizations, agencies, and industry partners, began in Chicago in 2020, and then spread to Orlando and St. Louis. The initiative is aimed at reducing disparities in tree cover and eliminating barriers to healthy tree canopy by removing and replacing dead or dying trees, maintaining and pruning existing trees, and planting new trees in urban neighborhoods where tree canopy has been threatened or lost. Importantly, the Treesilience program does not just focus on planting trees – it also helps maintain existing mature trees to ensure they remain healthy and strong. Efforts are targeted toward communities with the most need using the best available science. The program is administered jointly with community organizations – like Imani Village, Missouri ReLeaf, Beyond Housing, and Pine Hills Community Council – and when possible, young emerging professionals from within the community are engaged in the work, providing new pathways for careers in arboriculture. 

Treesilience is currently active in Chicago, St. Louis, and Orlando, with plans to expand into additional U.S. cities and states. Read on to learn more about two of these programs.

Chicago: Urban Forestry with Imani Green Health Advocates & Treesilience

Rachel Patterson, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, initially believed that her Environmental Studies degree would not offer many career opportunities in her local area. However, her perspective changed when she discovered the Imani Green Health Advocates internship, the program through which Treesilience is implemented in Chicago.

This initiative, a collaboration between Imani Village, Trinity United Church of Christ, Advocate Health Care, Chicago Region Trees Initiative, The Morton Arboretum, The Nature Conservancy, and the USDA Forest Service, focuses on professional development and career training in three areas: environmental health, community health, and spiritual health. The advocates engage in outreach efforts within various neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides, including Pullman, West Pullman, Cottage Grove Heights, Washington Heights, Roseland, and Chatham, addressing aspects of physical and mental health, landscape health, and spiritual well-being.

The Imani Green Health Advocates program is part of a larger, 23-acre, sustainable mixed-use development known as Imani Village, spearheaded by leaders and parishioners from Trinity United Church of Christ. Imani Village includes an urban farm, organic garden, NCAA sports complex, retail center, health clinic, youth development center, and community housing.

Sustainability and meaningful employment are central to Imani Village’s approach to community health, and this philosophy is reflected in the Imani Green Health Advocates program. The Advocates receive comprehensive training in urban forestry, tree health, and urban landscapes, with guidance from The Nature Conservancy and partners. 

COMMUNITY ACTION The Imani Green Health Advocates program trains advocates in urban forestry and community health, with a focus on planting trees in high-need areas. The program provides career opportunities and improves community well-being. Photos by Joel Zavala/TNC.

Now in its fifth year, more than 20 advocates have been a part of the program, helping survey tree health and canopy in Chicago’s neighborhoods, identifying ideal locations for tree planting, and setting a goal of responsibly planting 50 trees per year in high-need communities. The tree-health findings are incorporated into Advocate Hospital’s community health needs assessment, and today Chicago residents can also request a tree or tree removal through the City’s CHI311 mobile app. 

According to Patricia Eggleston, the Executive Director of Imani Village, the goal is to create a holistic and healthy lifestyle for the community, providing opportunities for meaningful careers and well-paid employment. As the program progresses, more permanent job placements are envisioned for the Advocates. For Rachel, the program expanded her resume through work with organizations like Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Audubon Great Lakes. She has also returned to the program as a guest presenter, sharing her story and conducting workshops with new cohorts of Advocates.

The collaborative efforts of Imani Village and its partners not only aim to create career opportunities for local residents but also to empower the community and improve overall health and well-being. With the continued growth of the Imani Green Health Advocates program and the amenities provided by Imani Village, the South Side of Chicago looks forward to becoming a vibrant and sustainable community for its residents.

Treesilience St. Louis: Growing a Resilient Tree Canopy

A healthy urban tree canopy provides a multitude of ecological, economic and social benefits that can enhance the overall quality of life. But threats to these trees – like life-threatening tree insects or pathogens – can weaken and even kill trees over time. These threats are worsening over time, largely due to climate change. In brief, these life-saving organisms go from benefit to burden, sometimes in a matter of a few years as can be the case for ash trees impacted by emerald ash borer. Frustratingly, costs associated with tree removal or mature tree pruning can be prohibitive for many. And, the longer dead or dying trees remain on one’s property, the greater the risk they pose, which can leave residents feeling less favorable toward trees, understandably. Hazardous tree removals or pruning can bring peace of mind to homeowners and communities, and perhaps even begin to restore relationships with trees over time.

That was the case for Dorothy Collins, who lives in the Pine Lawn neighborhood in north St. Louis County. In December 2021, the St. Louis Treesilience program officially kicked off in her front yard with the removal of a large sweetgum tree that had a huge stress fracture and was posing a threat to her house and more importantly, her safety.

For every tree removed in St. Louis, the team replants two trees in its place through a partnership with Forest ReLeaf of Missouri’s tree nursery. 

The initiative focuses on areas where canopy is either threatened or already lost, and prioritizes communities where neighbors stand to gain the most from increased canopy, which is also the case for Collins. Communities in and around north St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis have high rates of air pollution and asthma-related hospitalizations.

“Community trees provide us significant benefits, and we believe that everyone deserves access not only to trees and greenspaces but to healthy trees and greenspaces,” Rachel Holmes, The Nature Conservancy’s urban forestry strategist, says. “Studies have shown that respiratory health can be improved by the expansion of healthy tree cover in areas with higher air pollution.”

The effects of Treesilience are lasting, but they start paying off immediately. At the program kick off, Collins shared her gratitude with the program partners for the removal and also her two new trees

“I’m thankful for everyone here and I’m relieved to get rid of that tree…I really am,” Collins said, adding that she is excited to watch her new trees grow.

Federal Support for Scaling Urban Forestry Program

Treesilience offers an important example of how combined federal funding sources that support both rural and urban forests can help advance the national climate agenda, overall, particularly through comprehensive reforestation. According to research shared by both American Forests and The Nature Conservancy through the Reforestation Hub, approximately 19% of the reforestation potential in the United States is in urban landscapes. Additionally, major tree insects and diseases are often discovered in urban trees and forests first. 

Federal funding sources that support Treesilience – which is, at its core, a reforestation program – include a grant from the USDA Forest Service’s Landscape Scale Restoration (LSR) competitive grants program, which leverages both public and private resources to support collaborative, science-based restoration of forested landscapes, particularly in rural communities. These funds support Treesilience in North St. Louis County, where the population size of the 24 individual municipalities that make up the region qualify as ‘rural.’ Accordingly, Treesilience is an example of how LSR funding can not only support this urban forestry program, but also help meet broader U.S. reforestation goals. 

Efforts are currently underway to revise the 2023 Farm Bill, the Congressional authority for the LSR grant program, to ensure that LSR applications for projects on urban landscapes may be fully considered alongside projects in rural communities, reflecting the need for a more comprehensive reforestation approach.

Programs like Imani Green Health Advocates (and/or organizations like Missouri ReLeaf) are also funded through generous support from the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) Program, which recently received a $1.5 billion boost in funding under the Inflation Reduction Act. The UCF Program provides technical, financial, and educational assistance to help urban communities increase and maintain healthy tree cover, with an emphasis on providing assistance to nature-deprived communities. This program is also authorized through the Farm Bill, making that particular legislation indispensable to nationwide efforts to expand tree cover and ensure the benefits of trees are enjoyed in all communities, while also tapping into the full potential of urban trees to address climate change. 

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