“If you’re interested in conservation, then it’s easy to see why it’s such an exciting time right now. We’re seeing all parts of the supply chain, from the farmer to the retailer and everything in between, coming together to try and help advance conservation practices on U.S. farmland,” said Ben West in an Agri-Pulse webinar.

West is the executive director of Farmers for Soil Health (FSH), a collaboration between the National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Board and the United Soybean Board aimed at advancing the use of soil health practices to help improve farm profitability.

In 2022, FSH was awarded a $95 million USDA Climate-Smart Ag Grant to advance cover cropping on corn and soy acreage in 20 states, including Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. All 20 states produce over 85% of the nation’s corn and soybeans.

According to West, only 7% – 8% of U.S. corn and soybean acreage is planted to cover crops following harvest. The grant will provide technical assistance to farmers who want to adopt cover crop practices and direct financial payment on a per-acre basis. Seventy million dollars of the grant are slated for these direct payments.

Farms can enroll through a simple online process and must commit to cover cropping for three years. In exchange, they are issued a payment of $50/acre spread out over three years on a declining basis. The first year, the payment will be $25/acre; the second year, $15/acre; and the final year, $10/acre.

“We structured payments this way because research shows that it takes two or three years of farmers trying out this new cover crop practice for it to really break even because there’s a learning curve. We hope through our financial assistance and local research-based technical support to mitigate the risk of trying something new,” West said.

He acknowledged that the per-acre payments are significantly less that EQIP, for example, but he countered that this program is very simple to enroll in and less time-consuming compared to EQIP.

The monitoring and verification of the cover cropping will be done remotely with satellite imagery by DTN using their proprietary EcoField data. EcoField aims to quantify the impact of farming practices by monitoring, calculating and reporting on the sustainability metrics of farms. Once the cover planting is verified, checks will be issued to each farm by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the fiscal agent of the grant project.

New initiative supports cover crops and sustainability platform

Only 7% to 8% of U.S. corn and soybean acreage is planted to cover crops following harvest. Photo courtesy of Farmers for Soil Health

If a farm is unable to meet their cover cropping commitment, the contract can be amended to include the following three years. And if the cover crop suffers from poor germination, the payment will still be issued as long as the farm can document the planting.

Another component of the $95 million grant is the development of a sustainability marketplace in collaboration with DTN. This is a unique time for farmers in the U.S. Consumers are demanding carbon neutral and more sustainable products. Simultaneously, in 2023 California became the first state to impose requirements on greenhouse gas emissions disclosure. Many companies will be seeking to offset these emissions by purchasing carbon credits.

This digital marketplace aims to be a place of transparency where farmers and end users can come together. West said, “Farmers growing commodities with certain sustainability practices that lead to benefits like carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water quality and lower soil erosion can list those commodities on the platform. End users, whether those are food companies, biofuel companies, companies looking to acquire commodities grown under certain practices and yielding certain environmental benefits, can talk to each other and make bids and deals in a direct transparent way.”

Another advantage to the cover cropping program is that farmers can also enroll the same acreage in state or privately funded programs paying for conservation practices or carbon offsets. As long as these additional programs are not funded by USDA dollars, the rules do not prohibit “stacking.”

Webinar participant Bruce Knight, founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions, cautioned that these opportunities are not for every farmer. “If you’re concerned about transparency, this may not be the program for you. But if you’re willing to try to seek value from what you’re doing and you can trust satellite data, we’ve got a lot of opportunities on the horizon,” Knight said.

Farms interested in the FSH cover cropping program can find more information at farmersforsoilhealth.com. Enrollment is currently open.

“We’re hoping over the next five years to get about 1.3 million acres enrolled and really set the stage for the farmers to be in the drivers’ seat – to be leaders in the sustainability space in even bigger ways than they have been in the past,” said West.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin