Healthy Soils Programs Catching On Across Nation

With the passage of SB 859 in August 2016, California established the country’s first state-level program to incentivize farmers to transition to healthy soils practices that reduce GHGs and/or sequester carbon. Four other states—Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Hawaii—are in the process of debating or implementing programs with similar goals.

Maryland — In May 2017, Governor Hogan of Maryland signed House Bill 1063 and established the Maryland Healthy Soils Program. HB 1063 uses the same definition of healthy soils as California’s SB 859: the continuing capacity of soil to function as a biological system, increase organic matter, improve soil structure and water- and nutrient-holding capacity, and sequester carbon and reduce GHG emissions.

In creating this program, Maryland seeks to partner with farmers to support their contribution towards meeting goals set by the state’s Climate Change Commission. Maryland’s GHG emissions reductions goal is to cut emissions 40 percent below 2006 levels by 2030.

USDA NRCS

The bill requires the Maryland Department of Agriculture to promote healthy soil practices and to provide research, education, technical assistance. Dependent on funding that is not yet available, the Department is also directed to provide financial assistance to farmers to implement farm management practices that contribute to healthy soils. The state has more work ahead of them to identify sources of funding to support farmers in unleashing the potential of agriculture to deliver climate benefits.

For more information on HB 1063 and its implementation, contact Tod Wickersham, Maryland Healthy Soils Consortium member (tod.wickersham@beneficialresults.com).

Massachusetts — The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill (H.3713) similar to that of Maryland and California’s that would create a Massachusetts Healthy Soils Program Fund. To be administered by the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, the program’s goals would be to “enhance the education, training, employment, income, productivity and retention of those working or aspiring to work in the field of regenerative agriculture” and pave the way for future incentives.

Regenerative agriculture is defined in the bill as agriculture that “improves the health of soils, including but not limited to consideration of depth of topsoil horizons, water infiltration rate, organic carbon content, bulk density, biological activity, biological diversity, and bare ground.” Practices that are recognized as regenerative are much the same as those laid out in California’s Healthy Soils Program, including conservation tillage and no-till, cover cropping, and other methodologies. In contrast to California’s program, the Massachusetts program will include support for prescribed grazing, integrated crop-livestock systems and explicit mention of reduced synthetic chemical use.

The bill has the support of 34 legislators, and is making its way through committee hearings. As in Maryland, there is currently no specified source of funding to implement the program.

For more information, contact Dan Bensonoff at Northeast Organic Farming Association, Massachusetts Chapter (NOFA/Mass) (dan@nofamass.org).

New York — The Carbon Farming Act (A3281), introduced in the New York legislature earlier this year, would establish the country’s first tax credit for farmers who use land management strategies that reduce GHG emissions or sequester carbon on farms (termed “carbon farming”). It directs the commissioners of environmental conservation and agriculture to determine the value of the tax credits and the appropriate quantification methods. It also requires the NY Department of Agriculture & Markets to encourage carbon farming through education and outreach.

The bill will not move forward this year, but the legislature did approve a budget allocation of $50,000 for a study exploring models for incentivizing climate-smart farming practices, including tax credits, grants, and other programs.

For more information, contact Peter Lehner with the Sustainable Food and Farming program of Earthjustice (plehner@earthjustice.org).

Hawaii — In June, the Governor of Hawaii signed a bill (HB 1578) that creates the Carbon Farming Task Force within the state’s Office of Planning. The task force states that their role is to “identify agricultural, aquacultural, and agroforestry practices to improve soil health and promote carbon sequestration” as one component of Hawaii’s statewide commitment to achieving integrated sustainability goals by 2030, as well as ways to increase climate resiliency. The Carbon Farming Task Force bill was signed the same day as the Governor signed SB 559, which “expands strategies and mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide in alignment with the principles and goals adopted in the Paris Agreement.”

Task force members include stage agency staff, representatives from the state’s four counties, university researchers and an extension agent, representatives from a farming and/or ranching association and an environmental organization. The task force is not required to produce its final report until 2025.

For more information about the Carbon Farming Task Force, contact Ashley Lukens with the Center for Food Safety (ALukens@centerforfoodsafety.org).

Healthy Soils Looking Forward 

In California, though the Healthy Soils program received one year of cap-and-trade funding in 2017 ($7.5 million), the legislature and Governor did not renew its funding for the coming year. CalCAN and our partners will redouble our efforts to re-establish the funds so necessary to achieve the goals of the program.

While none of the other four states have identified potential funding sources, they do lay the groundwork for future financing opportunities and provide a suite of creative approaches that can serve as models to other states. Also, in the absence of federal leadership on climate policies, states such as Oregon and Washington are debating carbon pricing mechanisms that could provide revenue streams that could be applied to leverage agriculture’s unique and powerful climate solutions.

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