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

CLICK TO READ ARTICLE'S KEY POINTS
  • 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

CLICK TO READ ARTICLE'S KEY POINTS
  • 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

CLICK TO READ ARTICLE'S KEY POINTS
  • 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.

Introduction

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.
CLICK TO READ ARTICLE'S KEY POINTS
  • 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

CLICK TO READ ARTICLE'S KEY POINTS
  • 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

USFWS Coastal Program benefits fish and fishing in Freeport, Maine 

CLICK TO READ ARTICLE'S KEY POINTS
  • IMPORTANCE OF ESTUARIES: Estuaries are crucial ecosystems, with over 40% of Americans living in estuary regions and almost 47% of the U.S. GDP coming from coastal areas. Additionally, nearly 70% of American seafood harvests rely on estuaries.
  • USFWS COASTAL PROGRAM: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program has partnered with various organizations for decades to protect and restore coasts, with a focus on estuary health and resilience, particularly in the face of climate change.
  • DAM REMOVAL PROJECT: A dam removal project in Frost Gully Brook near Freeport, Maine, supported by the USFWS Casco Bay Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited, and others, removed defunct dams to restore fish habitat and mitigate the negative effects of dams on stream ecosystems.
  • BENEFITS OF RESTORATION: Restoring native plants and riparian buffers along Frost Gully Brook provides shade, erosion control, and habitat for brook trout, while also sequestering carbon dioxide, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.
  • ECONOMIC IMPACT: Removing barriers like dams and restoring estuaries and streams not only benefit fisheries but also support the economy by attracting anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.
  • SUPPORT NEEDED: Partnerships between organizations, governments, and private entities are crucial for achieving conservation goals, and increased funding is needed to sustain these efforts and address climate and coastal resilience challenges.

Estuaries, the coastal intersection of rivers and the sea, are some of the most diverse and economically important ecosystems on planet earth. According to a 2021 Report, The Economic Value of America’s Estuaries, more than 40% of Americans live in estuary regions and roughly 47% of the U.S. GDP comes from our coasts. Additionally, almost 70% of America’s seafood harvest spend some or all their lives in estuaries – including salmon, blue crabs, and oysters. 

One of the key programs in place to protect and restore estuaries is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program, a voluntary program that has built its legacy on supporting partnerships in coastal communities for the better part of four decades – working alongside private landowners, non-profits, and various government agencies to restore and protect coasts. Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE), a national alliance of coastal restoration organizations, has been a longstanding partner of the Program, working together with the Service and our various partners to support the mission of the Service and to improve the health and resilience of estuaries, particularly in a changing climate.  

An important facet of a healthy estuary is connectivity between rivers and the sea. One such project opened miles of free-flowing river upstream from the Casco Bay estuary near Freeport, Maine.  

With support from the USFWS Casco Bay Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited (TU), Freeport Conservation Trust, and other local groups completed a project which opened miles of habitat for migratory fish on Frost Gully Brook, a tributary of the Harraseeket River and Casco Bay. The groups removed three defunct dams in the Summer of 2023, and will now embark on a comprehensive stream restoration effort, including work to replant native trees and plants along the stream’s banks.

In addition to blocking fish passage, dams like those in Frost Gully Brook also raise temperatures in streams by pooling water, block the free flow of nutrient rich sediments to flood plains and downstream estuaries, and create increased flood risks to downstream communities.  

The native plant and riparian buffer restoration on Frost Gully Brook will also provide shade to the stream during the summer months, protect from unnatural erosion of stream banks, and provide habitat for brook trout and other species. These trees and plants also help mitigate climate change by naturally removing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Indeed, according to the Reforestation Hub, reforesting streamside buffers has the potential to sequester 10 million tons of carbon dioxide a year nationwide. 

Restoring For the Future 

The source and much of Frost Gully Brook is cold water spring influenced, which keeps water temperatures at safe levels for native brook trout; typically, less than 65 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The newly accessible sections of river will allow these fish to migrate to traditional spawning areas as well as access cooler waters in the warm summer months. According to Keith Curley, Vice President of Eastern Conservation at Trout Unlimited, “the water temperatures on Frost Gully Brook in the hottest part of July were no higher than 66 degrees in the headwaters but warmed up to 74 degrees behind a dam downstream. Removing these dams will help to keep water temperatures within the tolerance range of brook trout.”   

“Given the naturally low water temperatures, Frost Gully Brook is already resilient to warming air temperatures as climate change increasingly threatens our nation’s cold-water fisheries. This made it the perfect site for dam removal and restoration”, said Mark Taylor, Eastern Communications Director at TU. 

The reconnected stream also presents anglers with new opportunities. Aside from the resident brook trout, Frost Gully Brook is also home to a subpopulation of salter brook trout. The Salters, although genetically identical to resident fish, travel freely between fresh and saltwater and tend to grow much larger than resident brookies. Sea-run brook trout are unique to New England and Canada where cold-water streams flow directly into the ocean rather than traversing through warmer coastal plains, such as those in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast United States.  

“Brook trout need clean, cold water to survive, so they can tell you a lot about the health of a watershed. If brook trout are doing well, then it’s a safe bet that other fish and wildlife are doing well too” said Mr. Curley, again. “This is especially important along the coast, where development can harm water quality and watershed health. If we can keep strong populations of brook trout in coastal streams, we will know we’re taking good care of our watersheds.” 

Fishing and the Economy 

Maine is a well-known destination fishery with a long-standing tradition and allure that attracts anglers from all over the world. In addition to salter brook trout, the state is home to some of the last remaining populations of wild landlocked and anadromous Atlantic Salmon in the United States. According to the American Sportfishing Association, more than 281,000 anglers spent upwards of $191 million fishing in Maine in 2021.  

Outdoor recreation accounted for just under 4% of Maine’s total gross domestic product (GDP), putting it in the top five states in the U.S. in value of outdoor recreation added to state GDP, according to the Maine Office of Outdoor Recreation. The state is also home to one of the largest outdoor retailers in the world, L.L. Bean, whose Freeport headquarters sit just a few miles from the Frost Gully Brook dam removal sites. 

Improvements such as dam removal and stream restoration help support this robust economic driver by offering more and more diverse opportunities for anglers, hikers, and other recreation enthusiasts to enjoy. When they come to town, fishermen and women pay for guides, equipment, lodging, food, and fuel, as well as secondary and tertiary tourism related businesses (think housecleaning, insurance, construction). In rural communities, fishing and other outdoor activities can often stand up the entire local economy. Protecting and restoring streams and estuaries, and the fish they support, has much larger ramifications for the broader region.  

Building Conservation Partnerships 

Partnerships like this between the Coastal Program, non-profits, state and municipal governments, and private partners are quintessential for achieving climate goals and protecting climate susceptible species, like brook trout.  

Since its founding in 1985, the Program has engaged more than 8,200 conservation partners to complete roughly 5,000 conservation projects, improved 600,000+ acres, and protected another 2.3 million acres of priority habitat, while supporting the down-listing of at least 15 endangered and threatened species. In 2022 alone, the program leveraged its investment to secure an astounding 9:1 match from partner funding sources.  

“Building partnerships also builds consistency which can translate to more funding, less disruption, and creates stronger long-term relationships” said Samaya Rubio, Community Engagement Associate with RAE. “The Coastal Program is more than just a funding source, they’re a convener, bringing together diverse partners to achieve common goals.”  

Despite its long track record of success and increased demand, the Coastal Program has been consistently underfunded and understaffed since its inception. Annual appropriations for this critical program have hardly increased since at least 2014.  

Beyond supporting fish passage improvements in Maine, the Coastal Program works diligently in 24 priority estuaries across the country to secure shorelines using nature-based processes, restore marsh and wetland habitats to sequester carbon and protect communities from storms and flooding, and engages private landowners, such as farmers and developers, in best practices to maintain healthy coastal ecosystems while also improving economic opportunities.  

Program staff also provide expertise, resources, equipment, historical knowledge, and create an invaluable network of local restoration and conservation professionals. These partner building efforts also help reduce redundancy and streamline restoration.  

Increased funding for the Coastal Program, along with the already established $175 million in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law through NOAA to remove fish passage barriers (part of a larger allocation $2 billion in funding for ecosystem restoration that supports fish passage), can go a long way in securing the health and viability of our favorite game fish – creating opportunities for more people to enjoy outdoor pursuits as well as providing for local economies.  

Without adequate funding, though, the Program is unable to maintain these relationships and thus critical projects are left in limbo due to either lack of resources or expertise, and oftentimes both. Legislation is currently moving through both Chambers of Congress (H.R. 2950 and S.1381) that would strengthen the coastal program’s financial footing and, for the first time since its founding, provide Congressional authorization.  

If passed, the strength and success of the Program can grow exponentially, providing another tool to reach our climate and coastal resilience goals, and providing countless recreational opportunities for anglers not just in Maine but throughout the United States.  


Rob Shane is the Senior Manager of Communications for Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) based in Washington, DC. He is an avid angler who can often be found searching for native brook trout in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

Additional Resources

A Strong Message Can Turn Natural Climate Solutions Supporters Into Natural Climate Solutions Champions

Natural Climate Solutions are strategies for addressing climate change that tap into the power of America’s farms, forests, grasslands, coastal wetlands, and urban areas to address climate change. A national survey recently conducted by U.S. Nature4Climate reveals that 92% of American voters support expanding these practices through laws and public funding. Support is strong across political affiliations and other major demographic groups. 

While few issues garner the degree of broad, bi-partisan support, there is still significant room to strengthen the intensity of support, as our survey found that only 47% of voters strongly support expanding implementation of these strategies. In an age with increasing demands on public attention, it is vital to convert the large pool of passive supporters of Natural Climate Solutions into champions who are willing to take action to ensure widespread implementation. Fortunately, USN4C’s survey provides guidance on how to turn Natural Climate Solutions supporters into Natural Climate Solutions champions. Three arguments resonated strongly among voters: 

Natural Climate Solutions Provide Additional Benefits for People and the Environment

Natural Climate Solutions are win-win solutions that don’t just help tackle climate change, they also help restore wildlife habitat, improve our drinking water, protect communities from storms and floods, and improve soil health, making our farms more productive. 

Natural Climate Solutions Improve Resilience to Fire and Extreme Weather, Saving Lives and Money

Natural Climate Solutions help us get a handle on carbon pollution while also making our communities, forests, and farms more resistant to wildfire, drought and flooding. In fact, for every $1 invested in reducing our risk from disasters before they occur, we save roughly $6 in disaster response – saving lives and preventing billions of dollars in damage.

Natural Climate Solutions preserve the places that make America special for future generations

When addressing climate change, one of our most important Natural Climate Solutions is preserving the forests, coastal wetlands, and grasslands that make America beautiful. In addition to storing carbon, these places also provide habitat for wildlife and opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and simply enjoying nature. We owe it to future generations to protect these lands. 

In summary, when it comes to making the case for Natural Climate Solutions, the American public is largely supportive. These three messages can help deepen support for tapping into the full potential of our natural and working lands to address climate change.


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

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

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

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

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

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

BENEFITS OF NO-TILL FARMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soil Health Management Benefits Farmers, Climate, and the Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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


Additional Resources

Notes:

All values are in 2020 dollars.

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

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

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

For information about:

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

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