Federal Support for States and Tribes Building Climate Resilience Through Soil Health

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2020 by Guest Blogger
Farmer showing off healthy soil from cover-cropped acres. Photo credit: USDA.

This blog is reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. See the original post here. Editor’s Note: This is the sixth blog in a series focusing on specific provisions included in the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) in February 2020. The ARA represents the first comprehensive piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives addressing climate change and agriculture. Read blogs onetwothreefour, and five here.

This sixth blog focuses on a new soil health block grant program that the bill would create, and it was co-authored by Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director for the Izaak Walton League of America, and Cristel Zoebisch, Climate Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in partnership with the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Farmers and ranchers are already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis, as they deal with more erratic and severe weather events that affect their bottom lines. Farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to address these threats to their viability by improving the health of their soils by implementing climate stewardship practices, helping enhance their operations’ resilience to the impacts of a changing climate.

Collectively, farmers and ranchers working to restore and maintain soil health can also significantly contribute to our nation’s climate mitigation efforts by using soil health practices to reduce carbon emissions and store large amounts of atmospheric carbon in the soil. Soil health management practices and systems can create carbon sinks, increase water holding capacity, and improve recycling of nitrogen by crops, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our ability to feed a growing population.

The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) recognizes the importance of soil health and encourages farmers and ranchers to pull carbon out of the air and into their soils. The ARA acknowledges soil health as a foundational building block for agriculture to reach its climate-mitigating potential. As such, the bill includes specific soil health goals and an entire title outlining legislative changes and proposals to support widespread adoption of climate stewardship practices that also build soil health.

The ARA sets three soil health goals for the U.S.:

  1. Become a member of the 4 per 1000 Initiative’s forum and consortium with the aim of increasing total soil carbon stocks by 0.4 percent annually
  2. Expand adoption of soil health practices to restore at least half of lost soil carbon by 2040
  3. Maintain year-round cover on at least 75 percent of cropland acres by 2040

Research has already identified the tools to build soil health through diverse crop rotations, cover crops, conservation tillage, perennialization of highly erodible land, agroforestry, composting, Integrated Pest Management, biologically-based nutrient management, organic agriculture, and advanced grazing management. The ARA provides financial and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement these soil health practices, increasing profitability and making farming operations more resilient to climate stresses.

In addition to the increased investment and expansion of working lands conservation programs, the ARA includes a provision to support state-level soil health efforts through a new block grant program. This provision was one of many ARA provisions recommended in the report published by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis at the end of June. See our summary on the agriculture chapter of the report, which highlights all of the ARA provisions included in the report.

Grants to States and Tribes to Promote Soil Health

The bill would provide funds to help state and Tribal governments build on their existing soil health programs. A state or Tribe with a funded soil health program could seek an annual grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be used for:

  • Technical assistance
  • Financial assistance
  • On-farm research and demonstration
  • Education, outreach, and training
  • Monitoring and evaluation

USDA would then review applications and award grants to state and Tribal governments. Grants are not to exceed 50 percent of the cost of a state soil health program, or 75 percent of a Tribal program, and are not to exceed $5 million per year in total funding. To be funded, a program would need to focus on improving soil health on agricultural lands and be consistent with USDA soil health principles. The bill would provide $60 million a year for the program in fiscal years 2021 through 2023, $80 million for 2024 through 2026, and $100 million starting in 2027 and thereafter.

State Action on Soil Health

State, Tribal, and local policymakers are increasingly looking at soil health strategies to address water quality, soil erosion, climate change, and farm income problems. They recognize the multiple benefits provided by soil health solutions and are taking action.

White Buffalo Land Trust (Santa Barbara County) received a Healthy Soils Demonstration grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Click the photo to read more stories of grant recipients.

California’s Healthy Soils Program is part of the state’s climate change strategy. An incentives program provides financial assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement soil health practices, and a demonstration program highlights climate-friendly soil health systems.

Maryland’s Healthy Soils Program is designed to improve the health, yield, and profitability of soils; increase biological activity and carbon sequestration of agricultural soils; and promote education and adoption of soil health practices.

The Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes established a demonstration farm on Tribal land in Oklahoma in 2017 to showcase how soil health practices like no till and cover crops can increase productivity, reduce environmental impacts, and build resilience to drought and flooding.

Programs in New Mexico and New York  award grants to farmers to improve soil health on farms and ranches. Other state, Tribal, and local governments are establishing similar programs, designed to address the unique soils, climate, farms, needs, and agricultural systems of their area.

A federal grant program would encourage more leadership by states and Tribes and support the soil health work already being done. These efforts complement federal working lands conservation financial and technical assistance, with state and local agencies and grassroots farm groups providing an important close to home support system for innovative farmers making the transition to a more regenerative and sustainable agriculture. Especially during tight fiscal times for state budgets, federal block grant type assistance to qualified state programs could make a crucial difference helping to build strong state and local soil health initiatives.

What Comes Next?

The ARA proposes to make big investments in soil health to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 2018 Farm Bill made significant advances to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of our soils, and the ARA builds on these advances, strengthens language, and increases funding to promote widespread adoption of soil health as a climate-mitigating strategy.

Agricultural resilience depends on healthy soils. NSAC encourages Congress to continue including key policy provisions to strengthen conservation programs and increase benefits for soil health practices in future legislation. Soil health must be a core component of any comprehensive climate change bill, and legislators should emphasize giving farmers and ranchers the tools, resources, and incentives they need to implement climate stewardship practices that build soil health and enhance our ability to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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