How we jumpstart climate-smart farms and forests
Our recommendations for getting the most out of the USDA Partnership Program
by Maya Glicksman, policy advisor
US farms and forests hold immense potential to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere if managed with climate-smart practices. And as landowners become more interested in adopting these practices, the question remains — how can the federal government support them?
In past comments to USDA, we recommended leveraging the borrowing authority under the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to develop a pilot program that incentivizes widespread adoption of practices that store carbon in working lands. In late September, USDA proposed using the CCC to create a new Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry (CSAF) Partnership Program with the same goal, targeting market expansion for commodities produced via these practices (climate-smart commodities).
We’ve assembled our priorities for designing and implementing such a program in response to the agency’s latest request for public comment. Below you’ll find a bite-sized version of these comments, guided by three core recommendations: deploying high-impact financial incentives, collecting data to develop robust monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) tools, and aligning all activities with producer, landowner, and community needs. (Our full comments can be found here.)
We encourage USDA to structure the Partnership Program as a pilot in the first few years to ensure it reflects both producer needs and the latest science. At the same time, we recommend that USDA maximize the impact of existing conservation programs to accelerate land carbon removal while the Partnership Program is in its pilot phase.
Recommendation 1: Pay landowners to adopt climate-smart practices
Direct financial support to landowners is crucial to expanding markets for climate-smart commodities and increasing the carbon stored in US lands. We urge the Partnership Program to explore options outside of carbon offsets — recent studies have illuminated that existing offset protocols fail to secure reliable carbon outcomes in agriculture and systemically over-credit offsets in forests. Offset schemes can also favor large agricultural operations over small and beginning farms and allow historic polluters to continue exacerbating environmental harms to frontline communities.
In the near-term, providing financial incentives for landowners to adopt climate-smart practices — rather than for measured carbon outcomes — can support land managers of all sizes in improving the function of their lands without ties to increased emissions elsewhere. In its first few years, the Partnership Program should pilot direct payments to agricultural producers and forest landowners to adopt suites of regionally-appropriate carbon sequestration practices (e.g. cover cropping, conservation tillage managed grazing, perennialization, biochar application, tree and shrub establishment, and agroforestry practices) under 10-year contracts. In order to fill current knowledge gaps, the program should fund projects that implement well-established and emerging practices, with an emphasis on geographies and operation types that have historically been understudied. The program should also explore low-cost loans for shared climate-smart agriculture equipment and the establishment and expansion of private tree nurseries with regionally-appropriate species.
This financial assistance must always be accompanied by appropriate technical assistance to support producers in understanding their options, deploying new practices, and incorporating new equipment or technologies. Meeting this demand will require the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to hire additional staff with deep soil and forest carbon expertise specific to the geographies they serve. To utilize existing producer networks, the Partnership Program should also work with NRCS, Climate Hubs, and local on-the-ground organizations to increase outreach and support.
Recommendation 2: Invest in robust MRV development
USDA should invest in R&D for next-generation MRV pathways, including those that link on-the-ground measurements with non-invasive methods (e.g. remote sensing, simulation-based tools, and process-based models). For forests, this R&D should include cradle-to-grave life cycle assessments for mass timber products that assess carbon accounting, air quality, and other environmental impacts.
The Partnership Program and other conservation programs must pair all climate-smart projects with funding for robust, on-the-ground soil sampling to measure and track carbon accrual in farms and forests. This data can feed into core modeling tools (including the DAYCENT model, the COMET tools, and tools at the Forest Inventory and Analysis program) to improve long-term predictions of soil and forest carbon storage. Today’s investments can ensure that any future pay-for-performance incentives for climate-smart commodities are rooted in reliable, accurate, and consistent methods.
Recommendation 3: Center equity and justice in program design
Targeted assistance is needed to address historic discrimination, unequal access, and disproportionate environmental harm faced by underserved producers and communities. USDA must ensure eligibility for and outreach to minority-serving institutions, which play an integral role in delivering the latest science, education, and technical assistance to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) agricultural communities. USDA must also work to expand eligibility criteria and prioritize projects by Indigenous producers and Tribal entities, who often face disproportionate obstacles in accessing key assistance programs.
Within the Partnership Program, USDA should also establish a set-aside of at least 30% for socially disadvantaged producers to ensure they can benefit from incentives and improved environmental health in their communities. USDA could broaden this impact by increasing set-asides and dedicated funding in existing conservation programs (e.g. EQIP, CSP, and RCPP,) to 30% each for socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and forest landowners. Beyond these direct programmatic priorities, USDA has the opportunity to ensure that projects build both climate resilience and safe workforces in rural and urban communities.
Expanding markets for climate-smart commodities begins with supporting producers as they steward our farms and forests. A thoughtfully-designed CSAF Partnership Program, alongside robust investments in existing conservation programs, could pave the way for growing the US land carbon sink.