By Rachel Cohen
The University of Idaho has finalized an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the largest grant in the school’s history.
The $55 million award will go toward expanding “climate-smart agriculture” in Idaho.
More than half of the grant dollars over the five-year pilot period will go directly to farmers to incentivize them to implement growing techniques generally understood to improve soil health and store carbon. The other part will go toward data collection and reporting.
The grant, announced by U of I last fall, is part of the USDA’s $3.1 billion “Climate-Smart Commodities” initiative, one of the Biden Administration’s central strategies to address the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, which make up about 11% of the country’s total.
The federal initiative is funding 141 pilot projects, including the one in Idaho, that help farmers adopt environmentally-friendly practices and also expand market opportunities, like carbon markets, to reward producers who make these changes.
The University of Idaho project will offer financial incentives and technical assistance to 144 farms around the state growing beef, wheat, barley, potatoes, chickpeas, sugar and hops. That support will help the farms adopt practices such as special crop rotations, cover crops, rotational grazing and no-till planting.
Cover crops, for example, are plants grown primarily to cover the soil, not to be harvested. In Idaho, some farmers grow triticale or rye in between cycles of row crops like corn. Fields left with soil uncovered are more susceptible to erosion and water run-off. But only about 5% of farms in Idaho had planted cover crops in 2017, slightly below the national average.
Farmers see barriers to trying out practices like this, said Sanford Eigenbrode, a professor of entomology at U of I and a principal investigator on the USDA grant.
“That is, the technological barrier, the knowledge barrier, the aversion to taking a risk,” he said.
Sometimes, it can take time for farmers to see the environmental and financial benefits.
Partner organizations will help sign farmers up for the pilot program and will be in charge of distributing the incentives to them. They include the Idaho Association of Soil Conservation Districts, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Nature Conservancy and Desert Mountain Grassfed Beef.
The team is hoping to get 70 farms on board in the first year, with research starting as soon as this fall, and to reach the total of 144 by the second year. All together, that could mean the grant dollars reach more than 1% of Idaho’s agricultural acreage.
The grant proposal also set a goal that at least a third of the producers would be from underserved communities, including female, Hispanic and Native American farmers.
For participating, farmers will get an average payment of $60 per acre, per year.
"I think this project would help motivate them," said Erin Brooks, a soil and water systems professor at U of I and the other principal investigator on the project. "'Let's see if it works on my soils and see if I can incorporate it into my cropping system.'"
Measuring the emissions
Though research and anecdotes from farmers indicate planting cover crops and no-till farming can be good for soil, it’s less well understood how these practices actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional farming.
Critics of the USDA’s Climate-Smart Commodities grants say it may be difficult to know the extent to which the money spent certifiably helps the climate.
“It is very difficult to validate that we are storing the fluxes of carbon and greenhouse gasses – it’s difficult to measure,” said Brooks.
That’s why, he said, a big part of the University of Idaho pilot project involves monitoring and data collection.
Three main University of Idaho extension offices, plus one site on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation, will do the most frequent and intensive soil testing. Then, about 24 farms with a variety of soil types and located in different parts of the state will also host frequent monitoring. Finally, the rest of the farms will be studied occasionally and will collect their own soil samples.
Based on previous research studies on the different practices being incentivized, the university researchers believe the pilot could reduce about 60,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
The findings could help producers and educators better understand the techniques that might work better in certain parts of the state or for specific crops.
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