The benefits of cover crops have long been known to farmers, and today, they are also increasingly being studied by agricultural researchers. Despite their benefits to crop yields, soil health, and farmers’ bottom lines, however, many obstacles to cover crop adoption still remain. One significant barrier for many farmers is the cost of introducing cover crops into their operations compared to the amount of time required before improved yields, reduced soil erosion, and other benefits are seen. If more farmers are to find success with cover crops, they must have ways to make cover crops pay for themselves on a tighter turn-around.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) helped to create SARE more than 30 years ago, and we continue to advocate for robust funding for the program through the annual appropriations process. SARE is a competitive research and outreach program that advances sustainable agriculture by supporting farmer-driven research and also helps publicize the results to other farmers. SARE involves farmers and ranchers directly in research as the primary investigators or as cooperators in larger research and education projects, and it is the only USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture.
The SARE bulletin provides valuable information regarding the profitability of cover crops, including the reality that it can take a few years for cover crops to fully pay for themselves. While data on cover crops is still limited compared to other cash crops, the message from the research is clear: When viewed holistically, cover crops pay for themselves – and then some.
The SARE analysis identified three major takeaways regarding cover crop economics:
1) A holistic approach to cover crop adoption is critical. An accurate and thorough analysis of cover crops should take place over a multi-year period and be conducted through a holistic lens. A one-year cost-and-return analysis, for example, will not capture the full benefits of cover crops. Farmers who find the most success with cover crops tend to holistically implement improvements to their overall cropping system, rather than just implement and assess changes from one practice.
2) It takes time to see the benefits. Farmers tend to evaluate the return on cover crops over a multi-year timeline, similar to that of buying equipment. In some cases – such as when utilized for grazing or to control herbicide resistant weeds – cover crop benefits can be seen in the first year of use. In other situations and/or when used for other purposes, it may take three or more years to see marked results. Regardless of the practice for which they are used, the return on cover crops builds steadily year-to-year as farmer experience and soil health increase.
3) Cover crops increase overall farm resiliency. Farmers who are experienced in using cover crops note improvements in both their soil and crop performance over time. The SARE Cover Crop Survey asked farmers to compare their fields that had planted cover crops with those that did not, and the findings were encouraging. Across the board, corn and soybean yields were increased on fields where cover crops were utilized. Surveyed farmers also emphasized the ability of cover crops to increase production even following years with extreme weather, such as drought. With the impacts of our climate crisis increasingly being felt in the fields, cover crops are becoming an increasingly vital tool for increasing resilience.
Making Cover Crops Pay Faster On-Farm
Cover crop benefits have been clearly demonstrated, but farmers often wonder how to best capture and accelerate their return on a cover crop investment. The SARE bulletin outlines seven scenarios that will most likely garner a quicker return on investment. Using SARE/CTIC National Cover Crop Survey and USDA-NASS marketing data, annual cost per corn and soybean acre is projected out seven years for each of the following scenarios (also illustrated in the table below):
1) Addressing herbicide-resistant weeds – According to the 2016-17 National Cover Crop Survey, 59 percent of farmers reported herbicide resistant weeds present in their fields; a number that is expected to increase. Some farmers reported payment docking due to weed seed contamination at the elevator, or even having to abandon some of their fields entirely.
Weed pressure is expected to increase for farmers as the climate continues to shift. Even if cover crops cannot completely eliminate the need for herbicide application, they can reduce the number of total applications. In some cases, green plantings have been shown to reduce weed density by 90 percent in corn crops.
While the potential savings in herbicide costs will not necessarily pay for the full cost of cover crop seeding, when combined with possible yield advantages and avoiding dockage fees or even yield losses at harvest, cover cropping may provide a positive return in the first year or two of use. The bulletin points out that, when determining a financial impact, it is important to consider reduced weed seed contamination dockage at the elevator, labor hours, and equipment operating cost in addition to reduced input costs.
2) Grazing cover crops – Grazing cover crops is the most likely way to appreciate a first year return, depending on the stocking rate, grazing period length, and cost of livestock infrastructure like fence and waterers. The SARE report explains that with infrastructure already in place, one year of modest grazing will cover the cost of cover crop seed. The biggest return can be seen if the crop is established early in the fall and has fast-growing cover, such as a cereal or brassica cover crop.
Not only is grazing cover crops economically sound, it also makes sense for long-term soil health. Intensive rotational grazing has been shown to be one of the fastest ways to build soil organic matter due to intensive regrowth interval, and application of livestock manure, urine, and saliva. Combined with reduced cost of feed, higher rates of gain, and increased crop yields down the road, grazing cover crops can pay off economically within a year and then keep paying long into the future.
3) Addressing soil compaction – Compacted soil can reduce yields by as much as 20 percent, not to mention the adverse impacts on soil drainage. To remedy this, farmers may be pressured to invest in deeper tilling equipment. However, doing so increases fuel and labor costs and only yields temporary benefits. Cover crops, in contrast, are less expensive and also have the potential to produce long term benefits. If the cover crops used are deeper rooting than the cash crop, they create macropores that increases the ability of air and water to penetrate the soil. This spurs the formation of soil aggregates that help build soil structure.
Additionally, the utilization of cover crops may allow farmers to plant earlier in the spring and increase field access opportunities in the fall by building a more stable soil structure. Financially, using cover crops to address compaction can allow farmers to break even in two years for corn, and yield a net benefit in year two for soybeans.
4) Making the transition to no-till – Farmers that have used conservation tillage alongside cover crops have increasingly been transitioning to no-till or strip-till. Changing tillage systems may pose a threat to yield and profit, but the use of cover crops while making the transition can provide a buffer to the expected yield dip. No-till alone provides reduced cost in labor and machinery, but pairing no-till with cover crops substantially buffers the transition. For corn, cover crops start paying off in the second year of no-till, and will break even in the first year on soybeans.
5) Cover crops to address soil moisture deficits – In areas that lack moisture, cover crops increase resiliency. After the drought year of 2012, corn that followed cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase over non-cover crop corn, and soybeans saw an 11.6 percent increase. Even more impressive, the states most impacted by drought had increases of 11 percent for corn, and 14.3 percent for soybeans.
Cover crops also increase the efficiency of rain infiltration and existing irrigation systems by creating macropores. The increased system of macropores encourages rainwater to enter the root zone, stay there longer due to decreased evaporation, keep the soil cooler, and reduce crop heat stress. In these scenarios, cover crops are likely to more than pay for themselves during drought years. When only considering irrigation challenges, cover crops may or may not yield a return during year one; however, the resiliency they allow for acts as a significant preventative investment.
6) Addressing nutrient imbalances – Cover crop adoption can play an important role in managing costs when fertilizer costs are high or manure nutrients need to be sequestered. Modest fertilizer cost savings may be possible in the first year of using cover crops, and these savings are likely to compound over time. As soil health begins to improve, nutrients are sequestered and stored in the soil while mycorrhiza (the biomicrobial, plant feeding web) is kept intact. The largest savings are possible when nitrogen-fixing legumes such as Hairy Vetch or Austrian Winter Peas are used.
SARE’s economic analysis of cover crops used when fertilizer costs are high or manure nutrients need to be sequestered show that they will break even in two years for corn, and pay off in three years for soybeans.
7) Incentive payments help support adoption – For many farmers, the initial investment required for cover crop adoption remains a major barrier. To address this challenge, several cost share or incentive options are available to farmers to help cover those initial costs. The two major working lands conservation programs administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – both provide financial and technical assistance to support cover crop adoption. EQIP provides cost share assistance for individual practices, whereas CSP supports comprehensive conservation assistance, including cover crop adoption. The 2018 Farm Bill improved the payment rate for cover crop activities in CSP, further incentivizing the economic benefits for participants.
In addition to incentives available through federal programs, farmers and ranchers are also often able to receive additional incentives through state agriculture departments or state natural resource or conservation agencies.
Aside from the on-farm benefits summarized above, utilization of cover crops may have some not-so-obvious enterprise benefits as investors and markets shift to supply chains with ecosystem service markets. Farmers dedicated to utilizing cover crops may also have a leg-up when bidding for land to rent, as landowners may be attracted to their increased stewardship and value preservation. Wide adoption of cover crops also increases water quality, carbon capture, biodiversity, and reduces infrastructure costs – which ultimately reduces taxpayer costs.
Cover Crops and Tough Decisions
Difficult planting, market, and political situations have made on-farm decisions especially challenging this year. The good news is, however, that opportunities for farmers to maximize their current cover crop systems are still available. Those with prevented plant acres are able to plant cover crops on those acres before, during, or after their late plant date. USDA has also moved up the emergency haying and grazing date to September 1 from November 1, allowing farmers to hay, graze, or cut cover crops without losing their 2019 prevented planting indemnity. In addition, USDA’s Risk Management Agency announced a special sign-up through EQIP in 8 targeted states to support cover crop adoption on prevent plant acres.
For farmers still struggling with the decision to cover crop, or for those who just want to learn more about cover cropping, check out this cover crop resource page from the Practical Farmers of Iowa (an NSAC member organization), USDA’s Cover Crop page, and stay tuned to NSAC’s blog for future updates and resources.
The following is written by CalCAN Policy Director Jeanne Merrill and re-posted with permission from Civil Eats. Read the article where it was originally posted on Civil Eats.
Farm country is abuzz about the latest in carbon market opportunities. Boston-based agtech company Indigo Ag announced in June that its Terraton initiative will pay farmers $15 per metric ton for the carbon that they store in their soils and in trees on their farms.
The company, which has raised over $600 million in investors since it was founded in 2016, says it intends to remove one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in part by using a patented microbial seed coating and digital technology that allow the company to monitor and track soil carbon and on-farm emission levels.
A spokesperson from Indigo Ag says that the response has been overwhelming, with farmers signing up millions of acres in the United States and abroad. He added that carbon credit buyers—large retailers, food companies, and more—are also knocking on their door, wanting to purchase the carbon credits generated by farmers committing to the company’s carbon program.
This move toward reviving a new form of voluntary carbon market prompts a number of big questions. What does it mean for those who want to advance sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change? How does it fit into the larger landscape of efforts to transform farming and address our climate crisis? And will it ultimately pay off for farmers?
Early Carbon Markets
The Chicago Climate Exchange was the first national effort to put a carbon market in place. The Exchange set up a market for offset credits generated by farmers and ranchers whose practices reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased carbon sinks on agricultural lands—practices such as rotational grazing, conservation tillage, and prairie plantings. Companies and local governments would buy those credits as a way of offsetting their own greenhouse gas emissions.
I was working in Wisconsin in 2006 when the state’s Farmers Union began reaching out to dairy producers and other farmers offering to pay them for their climate-beneficial practices. The response was considerable: Within two years, the Farmers Union had 2.6 million agricultural acres under contract with the Chicago Climate Exchange in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, and the Dakotas. The Iowa Farm Bureau had another 600,000 acres under contract.
But by 2010, the exchange had collapsed. The carbon market was swamped with offset credits from willing farmers, but it didn’t have enough buyers. As a result, the price of the carbon credits went from a high of roughly $7 to just 5 cents per metric ton of carbon. In December 2010, the Chicago Climate Exchange closed its doors, leaving farmers and ranchers without support for their carbon farming efforts.
The next effort to create a carbon market came from California. In 2012, as part of its climate change law, the state launched a cap-and-trade program, requiring large greenhouse gas emitters to participate. Now, seven years later, there are still very few ways for farmers to earn carbon credits, and they include installing dairy digesters and taking up certain rice management practices, both aimed at reducing methane emissions. But with a low carbon price and high transaction costs for farmers, only the dairy digester projects have sold carbon credits, largely because of other state financial support for the projects. Meanwhile, the state’s rice producers have stayed out of the California carbon market.
Climate-Smart Agriculture Experiment
That isn’t the end of the story for climate-friendly agriculture efforts in California. Instead of relying on the carbon market, starting in 2014, the state launched its first grants-based programs, using revenue generated by the cap-and-trade program to pay farmers and ranchers who take up practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sinks. California became a pioneer for what are now called “Climate Smart Agriculture” programs. The programs bypass the complexities of the carbon market, including the price volatility, but face a different funding challenge.
The first Climate Smart Agriculture programs focused on three areas: drought and farm resiliency, farmland protection from urban sprawl, and the development of dairy digesters. Grant funds were made available to farmers to improve their irrigation management systems to save water and energy and reduce related greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing that protected farmland on the urban edge could reduce sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions from cars, the state also invested in conservation easements to permanently protect agricultural lands at risk of development. Finally, looking at potent methane emissions from dairy manure, the state launched its dairy digester program to reduce emissions from large dairy farms.
The second wave of state investment in new Climate Smart Agriculture programs came in 2017 with the creation of the Healthy Soils and the Alternative Manure Management (AMMP) programs. Under the former, farmers and ranchers are paid to practice soil management and farmscaping practices that sequester carbon. The latter focuses on dry manure management for dairies and other livestock operations to reduce methane emissions, such as composting manure.
Farmer response to the state Climate Smart Agriculture programs is strong, with twice as many farmers applying that some program funding can support.
The Healthy Soils program has seen farmer interest grow despite concerns from some that payment rates—what farmers will receive for new practices—are too low and the application too complex. The average Healthy Soils grant is a little over $56,000 for three years. Total greenhouse emissions reductions associated with the program are nearly 40,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is the equivalent of taking 8,400 cars off the road.
New this year will be roughly $2 million in state investment in technical assistance, in hopes of helping those who typically do not have the resources to participate in state programs, such as small and mid-scale farmers and farmers of color.
The total climate benefits of the Climate Smart Agriculture program are considerable. Greenhouse gas emissions reductions across the programs is more than 39 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road.
The biggest challenge for the Climate Smart Agriculture Programs has been consistent state funding for them. In the latest state budget, the legislature and Governor Newsom cut funding overall for Climate Smart Agriculture with transportation and other urban climate programs out competing the agriculture programs. Total cap-and-trade revenue investments in Healthy Soils, The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), and AMMP—three program priorities for my coalition of sustainable agriculture groups—in the 2019-2020 budget will be $35 million, down from over $60 million in the current fiscal year.
The Indigo Proposition
Will the return of robust investment in the voluntary carbon market, as proposed by Indigo Ag, speed up the adoption of climate friendly agricultural practices in the U. S. and internationally?
Maybe. It will depend, in part, on consistent funding as well as farmer interest in the program. Indigo Ag is offering a stable price for carbon—$15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2e)—a number that they say is not subject to the vagaries of the carbon market. And the strong farmer sign-up for the program demonstrates that the new initiative has financial appeal.
But the Indigo Ag carbon program is not a repeat of past voluntary carbon markets. It has its own twist. Their proposition is in part dependent on farmers buying their proprietary seed coatings, which use microbes that Indigo Ag says will help farmers improve soil fertility and increase carbon sequestration. Farmers do not have to commit to buying the coated seeds to get into the market, but they will see better returns, says Indigo, if they do.
One of Indigo Ag’s technical experts described it to me as “a layered approach.” Farmers can opt to use the seed coatings and they’ll also have an additional layer of help from a team of agronomists and the latest in Big Data analysis to support their participation in the Indigo Ag carbon initiative.
This potential layering sets the Indigo Ag approach apart. It views its entry into the soil microbe/seed treatment business and the carbon market as a disrupter. But who will benefit? Will the company scale up with the intention of being bought out by a larger ag or tech industry player—much like Climate Corp sold to Monsanto and Blue River sold to John Deere?
Furthermore, will farmers be left holding the bag if the initiative collapses like the Chicago Carbon Market did? We will likely have to wait to learn the answer to these questions.
State efforts, on the other hand, like those in California, can avoid the complexities of carbon market dynamics that can create market winners that are often the large industrial producers and sellers, and reach a diversity of farmers, including small and mid-scale farmers and farmers of color, who are often left behind in these market initiatives because of a lack of capital and technical assistance.
State initiatives can also offer a better value for farmers to meet their basic costs in transitioning to new farming methods. For example, one Healthy Soils grant recipient, a farm in Butte County, will sequester 110 metric tons of carbon and will receive a grant worth $64,000 from the state. Under Indigo Ag’s carbon program, the same farm would receive $1,650 for those same 110 metric tons of carbon sequestered. That’s a stark difference.
Of course that comparison only holds water if we can maintain and grow state-level efforts. And the good news is that several other states, including New York, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Vermont, appear ready to create new healthy soils programs. But to truly ensure that these efforts invest adequately in sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change, broader urban and rural coalitions will have to be built to demonstrate to urban legislatures the benefits of climate friendly agriculture beyond the farmgate and their rural communities. Our food security will likely depend on it.
(Top photo: Oregon farmer Noah Williams works with the USDA NRCS to build healthier soil on his farm. (Photo CC-licensed by NRCS Oregon.)
The Policy Action Agenda calls for a rapid transition away from the use of coal, oil and natural gas to clean, safe, and renewable energy and energy efficiency. It also calls for action on active transportation, sustainable agriculture, and for climate solutions to be incorporated into all health care and public health systems.
CalCAN had the opportunity to inform one of the agenda’s 10 priority actions to “promote healthy, sustainable and resilient farms and food systems, forests, and natural lands,” excerpted in part here:
By changing what we eat, and how we grow, harvest and transport our food, we can protect our health, reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Properly managed and protected forests, farms, rangelands, and wetlands can serve as resilient carbon sinks and protect the communities that depend on them from climate impacts.
Practices that reduce food waste, conserve and regenerate our soil, conserve and protect our water, sustain our fisheries, conserve productive agricultural land from urban sprawl, and protect those who grow our food are essential to safeguard our food supply and our safety in the face of climate impacts. Building resilient, ecologically sustainable, local food systems can support the livelihoods of agricultural communities and the people that grow and produce our food, expand access to healthy food, improve air and water quality and biodiversity, and reduce carbon emissions.
Key policies include:
Invest in programs and encourage practices that protect, manage, conserve, and expand natural and working lands to increase carbon sequestration and reduce catastrophic wildfires, floods, and mudslides.
Expand tree canopy, parks, green spaces, and green infrastructure to sequester carbon, increase cooling in urban areas and reduce the impacts of flooding.
Use agricultural funding and programs to prioritize and enable a rapid shift to diversified and sustainable agroecological and regenerative practices that reduce reliance on chemical- and energy intensive industrial monoculture and animal-based agriculture and environmentally damaging agricultural and fisheries practices.
Support urban and peri-urban agriculture.
Integrate urban and agricultural land use planning to maximize transit-oriented infill development while conserving productive agricultural lands on urban edges.
Establish incentives and supports for reduction of food waste.
Incentivize livestock manure management practices that reduce potent methane emissions and produce valuable compost for soil fertility.
Health and medical professionals can sign on to endorse the Policy Action Agenda here.
SACRAMENTO – Assembly Bill 409, the CalCAN-sponsored Agriculture Climate Adaptation Tools bill, received back-to-back unanimous, bipartisan votes over the past week in the Senate Natural Resources and Agriculture committees. The bill, authored by Assemblymember Monique Limón, will establish a competitive grant program to fund the collaborative development of farmer-centered climate adaptation decision-support tools, the piloting of those tools in three regions of the state, and trainings on climate risk management. The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Dr. Leslie Roche, an Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist in Rangeland Science and Management in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, provided expert testimony in one of the hearings. Dr. Roche works with ranchers across California and has done insightful research on rancher decision-making and drought resiliency. She started her testimony by describing the impact a changing climate has had on the ranching community:
“Rangeland livestock producers were among the first in the agricultural community impacted by our recent, historic statewide drought. During this unprecedented time, ranchers in the hardest hit regions had to make substantial herd reductions—with some completely liquidating. Extreme events, like extended drought, pose significant and cumulative challenges to sustaining California’s ranches and rangelands. And with a more variable climate future, these challenges will continue—particularly for the next generation of ranchers.”
Screenshot of the Rangeland Drought Hub
After describing “a clear, immediate need to centralize and highlight the most relevant and timely knowledge and translate this into accessible formats,” Dr. Roche pointed to the California Rangeland Drought Hub as one successful example of a climate adaptation tool. The Drought Hub serves as a center for research, resources, and science-based communication on drought management, including audio stories from ranching families sharing their on-the-ground experience.
Other agricultural adaptation tools have been created and deployed successfully in other regions of the US. For example, Agroclimate is a set of tools that has been created for the Southeast. Agroclimate’s Strawberry Advisory System – a real-time disease risk alert and recommendation system – has been shown to reduce fungicide applications by half and save producers up to $400 per acre.
Dr. Roche concluded her remarks by noting that California’s uniquely diverse agriculture will require multiple partners and tools:
“California ranching – like California agriculture in general — is diverse, complex, and uniquely vulnerable to climate risks. To reduce vulnerability across all types of operations, scientists and the agricultural community must work together to co-develop decision tools that are locally relevant and usable.”
Check out our AB 409 bill fact sheet to read more about the bill and see the full list of nearly 30 supporting organizations.
Climate Impacts Stories One-pager
Have a story of climate impacts and resilience on your farm? We’d like to hear it!
We have been documenting farmers’ and ranchers’ stories of climate impacts and resilience – like those in this Climate Impact Stories one-pager – to help us educate legislators about the need to invest in resources to keep farmers on the land and food on our nation’s table. If you have a story you are willing to share, please send a note to brian[at]calclimateag.org.
As the buzz continues to grow about soil’s dynamic relationship with climate resilience, more and more organic growers are curious about how their farming practices can fit into the widespread push for climate solutions.
Bonterra Organic Vineyards, based in Mendocino County, is one of them. In 2017-18, the acclaimed California vintner teamed up with Pacific Agroecology of Davis, California to study how their vineyard management practices affect organic carbon storage in soil and plants. Ultimately, the study measured carbon storage in Bonterra’s regeneratively farmed, organic and Biodynamic® vineyards, benchmarking results against a nearby conventionally farmed vineyard. The team collected and analyzed hundreds of soil samples and biomass measurements from 13 vineyards in Mendocino County, taking samples over the course of a year and measuring the amount of soil organic carbon (SOC) in each.
Through the study, Bonterra found that vineyards farmed with organic and Biodynamic methods held 9.4%-12.8% more soil organic carbon per acre, respectively, than the conventionally farmed vineyard. They also found that total carbon storage in vineyards is substantial, averaging 51,481 lbs. per acre—with 89% of the total stored as soil organic carbon and the remainder stored in vines, conserved forest and hedgerows. Further, they discovered that total carbon storage in the uncultivated forests and grasslands of their properties—which comprise nearly half of the land they own—was highest among all sites studied, findings that affirmed Bonterra’s commitment to wildlands conservation.
“Uncultivated wildlands are an important part of a regenerative approach to enhancing farm and climate health, and are a natural complement to practices like organic and Biodynamic farming. We not only love the oak trees, ferns, and grasses that surround our vineyards—we believe that conserving them is critical to a beneficial overall carbon budget.” – Joseph Brinkley, Director of Organic and Biodynamic Vineyards at Bonterra
Bonterra’s findings add to a growing body of research about a positive relationship between regenerative farming practices and the capacity of soil to sequester carbon.
“With a warming planet, it’s clear that Earth’s carbon cycle is out of balance, so the impact of these findings couldn’t be more relevant today. Regenerative agriculture builds healthy soils through beneficial practices such as applying compost, planting cover crops, planned sheep grazing and reduced tillage.”
– Joseph Brinkley, Director of Organic and Biodynamic Vineyards at Bonterra
Bonterra’s work clearly and powerfully demonstrates yet another example of why the State of California’s efforts to invest in farmland’s climate solutions is important and effective. Over the last ten years, CalCAN has partnered with innovative growers like Bonterra throughout California to advance state policies supporting agricultural climate solutions. For example, in May, Bonterra and almost 200 farmers, ranchers and organizations signed a letter calling for increased funding for California’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs. They also recently submitted a letter to the editor in Sonoma County’s The Press Democrat with the same message.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently announced the latest round of grant awards for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP). Demand for the program remains high with more than 340 farmers applying to the program. CDFA selected 120 agricultural operations to receive a total of $10.3 million to make improvements to their irrigation systems that save water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
SWEEP projects may include such practices as conversion to micro or drip irrigation systems, variable frequency drives, solar energy, and soil moisture sensors or weather stations to provide farmers with data that can help them with irrigation scheduling.
CDFA appears to be holding back approximately half of the $20 million the department was allocated by Proposition 68 for a second solicitation. This may be CDFA’s way of ensuring program continuity, given the legislature’s and Governor’s regretful decision two weeks ago not to fund SWEEP in this year’s budget.
The Latest on CalCAN’s Effort to Improve SWEEP
To protect and improve the SWEEP program, CalCAN sponsored AB 1086 this year, which passed out of the Assembly in late May. After multiple discussions and rounds of proposed amendments failed to remove some powerful agricultural lobbying groups’ opposition, the bill stalled in the Senate Agriculture Committee for this year, but will be taken up again next year. In the meantime, CalCAN will continue advocating for restoring the SWEEP budget in the legislature and making improvements to the program’s implementation through CDFA.
On our website, CalCAN tells the stories of a number of growers who have received SWEEP grants in the past, one of which is Jacobs Farm in Santa Cruz County. In 2015, Jacobs Farm won a $25,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to make irrigation improvements to their 55-acre farm at Swanton Pacific Ranch in Davenport. According to Greg Rawlings, farm manager at Jacobs Farm and a CalCAN Farmer Advisor, these improvements dramatically reduced watering time and volume, as well as the energy required to pump the water. He estimates that Jacobs Farm “waters two thirds as much time as we used to, and are probably using half of the water.” Read more farmer climate leader stories.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced its latest round of grants for the Healthy Soils Program last week, distributing $12.48 million throughout the state. Read our first blogpost about the awards. In this blogpost, we share a breakdown of information about the selected projects, including
geographic distribution and counties with most awards
project type (incentives versus demonstration)
a preliminary analysis of land use type and the practices to be adopted
This preliminary analysis is based on our interpretations[i] of the one-paragraph project descriptions provided by applicants, which you can read from CDFA’s website for both the Incentives Projects and Demonstration Projects.
CDFA has selected projects that directly incentivize farmers across 45 counties (Incentives Program), and on-farm demonstration projects in 16 counties (Demonstration Program). Projects selected for funding span the state with a broad distribution of coastal counties, valley counties, desert counties and foothill counties. CalCAN aggregated data from both incentive and demonstration projects to compile the top 20 counties by number of awards. See below chart.
CDFA awarded a total of $8.7 million through 194 incentives project grants, averaging about $44,678.
As seen in the pie chart below, incentives projects are fairly well distributed across the major agricultural land use categories in California, with one-fifth of the awards going to orchards, a one-fifth to grazing/rangelands, about one-fifth to annual cropland, and about 13 percent each to vineyards and mixed land use operations. The remaining 14 percent of projects could not be characterized based on their published project descriptions.
We were excited to learn two out of three projects will be implementing more than one practice. Furthermore, more than one in four projects will implement three or more practices. Numerous studies have demonstrated that combining Healthy Soils practices has a synergistic effect on soil health and GHG emissions. 11 project descriptions were too vague to characterize practice data.
Adding compost is by far the most popular practice with more than half (119) of the projects planning to adopt or expand their use of it (47 on perennials, 41 on annual cropland, 19 on grazing or range, and 12 unspecified). Cover cropping is a close second, with more than two in five projects planning to implement the practice (90 total). More than one in five projects will plant hedgerows (47). Mulching, reducing tillage or adopting no-till practices, and planting riparian forest buffers will each be implemented in one in eight projects (28, 25, and 26 respectively). See below for a chart illustrating the distribution of the top ten most popular practices to be adopted with support from Healthy Soils Incentives grants.
With $3.8 million, CDFA awarded 23 demonstration projects awards, averaging about $163,918.
All Healthy Soils demonstration projects require the on-farm adoption of an eligible practice plus outreach and education for 120 fellow farmers and ranchers over the course of the 3-year project period. The 23 demonstration projects are also fairly well distributed across the major agricultural land use categories in California; however, compared to the incentives awards, a higher percentage of demonstration awards are going to orchards (34.8%).
Unlike the incentives projects, less than half of the demonstration projects (10 of 23) are using more than one practice. More than 20 different eligible practices will be demonstrated in total. The most common will be cover cropping (8), composting (10, with 4 on annual cropland, 4 on perennials, and 2 on grazing/rangeland) and mulching (4).
To get a more personalized look at operations who have received Healthy Soils Program grants, CalCAN has collected a number of stories of farmer and rancher climate leaders focusing on turning their lands into carbon sinks.
Want to tell us your story of receiving a Healthy Soils grant? Or help us advocate for this exciting program to be sure it receives adequate funding to scale up these necessary climate solutions beneath our feet? Send a note to email@example.com.
[i] Given the brevity and variability of the project descriptions – some were significantly more descriptive than others – we were forced to make educated guesses about how to categorize some of the projects. In the limited cases where there was too little information to make an interpretation, we categorized the project as not available (N/A), which you will see reflected in the charts above. In sum, we think this analysis is useful as a starting point for discussion and reflection, but should be considered approximate.
Technical assistance for farmers and ranchers is a critical tool for scaling up the widespread adoption of climate-beneficial agricultural practices. In the fall of 2018, University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) launched a collaboration with the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) to provide technical assistance for CDFA’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs.
This year, with $1.1 million from the Strategic Growth Council, UCANR and CDFA deployed 10 UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Community Education Specialists to 10 counties across the state to partner with farmers to scale up climate smart agricultural practices on farms and ranches throughout California. See the contact list of Community Education Specialists. This is a helpful complement to the CalCAN-sponsored bill AB 2377 to scale up technical assistance for farmers and ranchers wanting to develop Climate Smart Agriculture projects.
UC Climate Smart Agriculture Team
To better understand the role of the CDFA-UCANR Climate Smart Agriculture team, CalCAN recently interviewed two of the UCCE Community Education Specialists, Britta Baskerville based in Mendocino County and Alli Rowe of Ventura County. We spoke to them about their work so far after several months in their positions, as well as the potential they see in these roles in the future.
In collaboration with Cooperative Extension and local Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), the Community Education Specialists work to improve delivery of technical assistance to farmers and ranchers interested in Climate Smart agriculture. The new UC team will also assist with extension and outreach efforts, including farmer-to-farmer field days and train-the-trainer events.
“While we’re still just building relationships in our first year in these roles, we also get the benefit of leaning on the long history of Cooperative Extension’s relationships with growers in our community, which provides a depth of experience that helps us tailor our assistance in ways that are most meaningful and effective for our local community. These roles put us in a unique position to meet the needs of our local clients and the state goals at the same time,” Alli said.
Both Britta and Alli explained that they have been able to support other technical assistance providers in their communities, like RCDs and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and add capacity to understaffed offices. Rather than a sense of competition between the different TA providers, there is one of collaboration. Ultimately, they have seen this result in the ability for the technical assistants to reach more growers in the community. Additionally, the ten Community Education Specialists can keep in constant communication throughout the CDFA Climate Smart Agriculture grant solicitation, acting as a team and relying on one another for support with questions.
Making the climate connection
Additionally, the positions’ specific nexus with climate change issues is helping to resource other providers to bring the climate lens into their work with growers.
Alli said, “For example, a Cooperative Extension advisor working with a farmer on a nutrient management plan to meet water regulation requirements can then come to me to discuss opportunities to adopt climate smart agriculture practices and use Healthy Soils funding to meet those goals.”
She added that she and her fellow Community Education Specialists have been able to demystify the state grant programs for growers, breaking down information and making it more accessible by doing things like tailoring lists of eligible practices specific to certain crops that growers in the community specialize in.
Alli explained that she is able to compile climate-related information and resources for other technical assistance providers while also rapidly scaling up farmer-to-farmer learning.
“Serving as a central hub of information and stories helps me share producers’ stories with other producers, speeding up the learning curve for producers and exposing growers in our community to feasible practices for their operations that may fall outside of the mainstream or current common understanding of what can work for their operations,” she said.
Technical assistance making a difference
In the recent Healthy Soils Program award announcements, almost every project that Britta and Alli assisted with were funded, amounting to ten total projects that include a demonstration project in Ventura County. However, they both know that the impact of their work extends beyond the promising initial success rate, and even beyond direct ties to CDFA funding. While many growers do need incentive funding to make their projects work on the ground, Alli is working with a grower interested in implementing cover cropping systems without formally applying for funding through the Healthy Soils Program to do so.
Similarly, Britta is working with a grower who is enthused about implementing several climate smart practices in his vineyard even though the scope of his project is currently incompatible with CDFA guidelines. Britta is committed to working with him to figure out how to best resource him to make it happen.
Moving forward, both Specialists see a lot of potential for their roles. Britta is currently working with the Mendocino RCD to develop a protocol for demonstration projects through the Healthy Soils Program, which she knows the community is interested in, but wasn’t prepared to apply for in the last round of funding.
“There’s so much potential for climate smart agriculture here. There is a high level of interest from farmers. It’s more a matter of helping them find pathways to success to implement these practices,” Britta said. “I’m looking forward to my role in assisting with implementation of these projects, as well as continuing to build relationships with growers, many of whom were interested in applying for CDFA grants but not yet ready to do so this year.”
SACRAMENTO, CA – Today, the California legislature approved the state’s budget, including $1.4 billion in climate change investments. The results were mixed for the state’s suite of Climate Smart Agriculture programs. Under the programs, farmers and ranchers receive financial and technical assistance to adopt management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sinks and provide multiple benefits to farms and the environment.
The California Climate and Agriculture Network, a coalition of the state’s leading sustainable agriculture organizations, advocates for the investment in multiple-benefit Climate Smart Agriculture. The silver lining in the budget was the boost to the Healthy Soils Program, which went from $15 million to $28 million in FY 2019-20.
The Healthy Soils Program funds farmers to adopt new soil management practices like cover crops, compost, mulch, conservation tillage and more to increase carbon sinks and lower greenhouse gas emissions overall. However, while the boost in the program’s funding comes as welcome news, an annual investment of $50 million is needed to reach the state’s goal of a million acres under Healthy Soils management by 2030.
Other Climate Smart Agriculture programs did not fare as well. The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) was zeroed out, despite being the most popular of the Climate Smart Agriculture Programs and the only state incentive for on-farm water conservation. Since its inception, the program has funded over 600 farm-based projects to improve irrigation management systems to save water and energy and reduce related greenhouse gas emissions.
SWEEP is credited with saving annually over 100,000 acre-feet of water, the equivalent of 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Climate science predicts California will experience longer and more severe droughts in the years and decades to come. Now is the time to invest, not divest, in water-smart farming.
Finally, the state’s most popular dairy methane program saw its budget cut by two-thirds. The Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) funds dairies and livestock operations to turn wet manure into dry manure to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Most of the AMMP projects are turning manure into compost, an important resource for the Healthy Soils Initiative. This year 91 dairies and livestock operators applied for the program, seeking $55 million in funding. Today, the legislature cut AMMP funding to just $7 million. That will not only hurt methane reduction efforts in the state, but it will also hurt industry efforts to address water quality issues at a time of steep declines in dairy prices.
“Today’s budget vote is a mix of wins and losses for advancing agricultural solutions to climate change,” said Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director with the California Climate and Agriculture Network. “We must continue to invest in our farmers and ranchers to support Climate Smart Agriculture that keeps producers on the land, our communities healthy and our food security thriving. Governor Newsom and legislative leaders embraced one important strategy – Healthy Soils – to support our farms and ranches to become carbon sinks. But the stripping of funding for water smart farming and the bare bones funding for the most popular dairy methane program in the state are steps backward in California’s leadership on climate change and agriculture issues. We cannot address the climate crisis or the health and economic crises in our rural and agricultural communities without resources. California was a global leader on these issues. Will it remain one?”
CalCAN depends on two Advisory Councils to inform and advance our policy work. The Councils are comprised of growers, agriculture professionals, researchers, agricultural and environmental experts. Cynthia serves on CalCAN’s Science & Technical Advisory Council, made up of some of the state’s leading researchers and agricultural professionals working on climate change and agriculture.
More about Cynthia Daley
Cynthia Daley was raised on a farm in Illinois and has been involved in the livestock industry in California for the last thirty years. She is now the Director for the Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems at California State University, Chico.
Cynthia is also the founder/supervisor for the Organic Dairy Program at the University Farm. She teaches sustainable agriculture within the College of Agriculture, working on initiatives that promote agricultural practices that sequester carbon, build soil, and improve on-farm economic viability.
CSU Chico’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems
CSU recently moved to formally establish the Center on campus, signifying more robust institutional support for what was previously the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative on campus. The Center is an interdisciplinary partnership supported by the College of Agriculture, College of Natural Sciences, and College of Communication and Education. Through it, the University will invest in research at the University Farm, offer degree programs in the field of regenerative science and agriculture, and create engaging curriculum across disciplines.
“Agriculture is uniquely poised to provide an economically feasible, ready-to-roll solution to atmospheric CO2 levels and the devastating impacts of global warming,” Cynthia Daley said. “It’s a new age. We all need to become very conscious of our soil, our soil resources, and how we build soil biology. And that’s what the Center is all about.”
The Center’s focus is on research and education to support farming practices that sequester carbon by feeding the soil food web, keeping the soil covered and minimizing disturbance and erosion.include minimizing soil disturbance (like no-till/low-till), managed grazing, compost and manure application, green manure crops, cover cropping, and crop rotation.
Interview with Cynthia
CalCAN is grateful for Cynthia’s collaboration. We recently asked her a few questions. See her responses below.
What brings you to your work/motivates you to do what you do?
Cynthia: The knowledge that those of us in production agriculture hold the key to a feasible and ready-to-roll solution to the climate crisis. It requires a change in the way we farm. But more specifically, it requires a change in the way we “think” about how we farm and ranch.
When did you become interested in the nexus of agriculture and climate change?
Cynthia: Fifteen years ago when I was given the University’s conventional dairy to manage, it was plagued by red ink, poor health, waste management challenges and questionable animal welfare practices. I went on a fact-finding mission for a more ecologically-friendly solution. In 2006, we transitioned the dairy to pasture-based, organic production system.
Did you have an “aha!” moment that led to work on these issues?
Cynthia: It was a gradual process. We received bizarre backlash from some people in our community when we transitioned the dairy to organic, whereas we were expecting all our friends, family and alumni to be supportive and excited about the innovation, growth and economic viability of the program. I also recognize that we have little time, and that conventional farmers respond negatively to the word “organic.” So, we are meeting farmers where they are and just focusing on the practices that will improve their farm’s equity and profitability.
How is working with CalCAN meaningful to you?
Cynthia: CalCAN focuses on the policy work that needs to happen to make regenerative farming practices part of our “new normal.” Several measures have been game changers in this regard, the latest of which is the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), the State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program (SWEEP) and the Healthy Soils Initiative.
What is your hope for the future? What is your vision for our collective success?
Cynthia: I envision a world where farmers receive adequate return on their investments—or parity—while building their soils and sequestering carbon. Where family farms are economically, socially, and ecologically viable at any scale. A world where farmers are valued and recognized as the solution to our climate crisis and get paid for the carbon they sequester from the atmosphere.