Promoting Southeastern Agriculture Resilience with Carbon Farm Planning

Final report for EDS20-19

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2020: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2023
Grant Recipients: NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation; Carbon Cycle Institute
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Amanda Egdorf-Sand
NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation
Pelayo Alvarez
Carbon Cycle Institute
Anne Coates
Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District
Bryan Evans
NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Cameron Farlow
Organic Growers School
Laura Lengnick
Cultivating Resilience LLC
Nathan Lowder
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Health Division
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Project Information


The Project’s goals included 1) support a collaborative training process to introduce Conservation Districts and technical partners to USDA planning tools that encourage adoption of conservation practices focused on on-farm carbon sequestration, build agriculture sustainability at the farm level, and cultivate farm resilience to more variable weather; 2) provide resources to NC Conservation Districts to establish Carbon Farm demonstrations designed to raise awareness of climate-resilient conservation practices through community engagement; and 3) foster development of producer networks to promote future information exchange on climate resilience benefits of agricultural conservation practices that promote on-farm carbon sequestration.

The Foundation partnered with the Carbon Cycle Institute, Cultivating Resilience, and the NC conservation partners to revise California’s Carbon Farm planning process for use in the Southeast, with a geographic focus targeting Southern Appalachian and NC conventional farming systems. The training introduced technical advisors to a set of NRCS-identified conservation practices that enhance soil health, increase per acre production values, and increase farm resilience to more variable weather while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing biological carbon sequestration (the capture and storage of carbon by plants and soil). Example sustainability agriculture (conservation) practices that are part of a soil health management system focused on increasing carbon sequestration include cover crops, no-tillage, riparian buffers, field borders, with conservation management practices including crop rotation and prescribed grazing. The project featured USDA climate change adaptation guidance, leveraged USDA Climate Hub resources, and taught participants how to use COMET-Planner, an online NRCS resource that assesses carbon sequestration at the farm level per conservation practice. The technical advisors targeted outreach to the conventional agricultural community, bringing an emphasis to agriculture sustainability in the Southeast.

In 2015, agriculture leaders in North Carolina formed the NC Adaptation Working Group (NC-ADAPT) to explore the potential benefits of coordinated statewide climate change adaptation planning for agriculture and forestry. This project addresses a top NC-ADAPT producer recommendation to develop planning tools with producer input that are adapted to NC physiographic provinces by piloting a conservation planning tool that is underutilized in the Southern Appalachians.  The demonstration farmers will be active participants in the Carbon Farm planning process by working with a local technical advisor and their support team, noting the process benefits on their farm and recommending how to improve the process for other producers.  Through regular evaluations, participants will help to tailor the training program. By placing a motived producer and the Conservation District in the center of the process with a demonstration farm, they serve as an information hub for future years and increase the number of producers learning about soil health and carbon sequestration. At the conclusion of the project, the western NC agricultural community will have the benefit of a knowledge sharing network made up of producers and technical advisors with experience in Carbon Farm planning and on-farm adoption of climate-resilient conservation practices. Project partners and supporters will leverage established networks to share information regarding adapting the Carbon Farm planning process throughout the Southeast.

This project faced many challenges beyond the pandemic.  During August 2021, Tropical Storm Fred dropped more than 10 inches of rain in western North Carolina (with some areas having already received upwards of six inches of rain in the three days leading up to that). This created a flash flood emergency, left catastrophic damage (including for one of the champion farms) and severely affected the outcome of the program in the participating mountain teams. Early drafts of a carbon farm plan were crafted by five of seven teams by late 2021, however, with existing workload and then Tropical Storm Fred, attention was redirected to supporting recovery efforts. Additionally, two counties lost staff that originally went through the training. The replacement staff did not wish to participate so those two teams did not finish drafts of the plans. The Halifax team created their final draft of a plan for the champion farmer in Halifax County, in partnership with Roanoke Cooperative. This plan is in final review by technical staff and will be made public should the farmer be willing to do so. The Halifax team held a field day in March 2022 with 50 people at the demonstration farm. It was very well received by both participants as well as the host farmer. The Foundation created a video of the Halifax demonstration farm, which can be viewed here: and is in the process of creating an additional video to further showcase the farmer's soil health journey. Despite only one farm having received a carbon farm plan, all seven teams were able to install best management practices on farms to increase agriculture resilience and carbon sequestration opportunities. Carbon Cycle Institute has provided data to reflect the carbon sequestration potential of the installed best management practices on the 7 farms.  Those results, along with the list and location of the best management practices, are included in the supporting documents.

Project Objectives:
  1. Foster a Carbon Farm Planning process suited to the Southeast, adapted from an NRCS prototype that the California Resource Conservation Districts utilize.

1.a. Establish a design team to oversee training development and delivery, with the following organizations confirmed – Carbon Cycle Institute; Cultivating Resilience LLC; Organic Growers School; NRCS East Technology Center, Soil Health Division and the state office; NC Association of Conservation Districts; and the Thomas Jefferson Conservation District in Virginia.

1.b. Offer a series of webinars and in-field trainings to introduce the USDA tools that promote weather resilient farms to a class of 40 technical advisors, including those that will continue to grow the training capacity in the Southeast. Share the webinars to a broader audience by promoting and posting the presentations online.

1.c. Solicit input from the first class to inform adaptive management for future training offerings. Share lessons learned through Carbon Farm plans specific to classic North Carolina production systems. Recommend a Southeast prototype standard to NRCS state office.


  1. Provide resources to North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation Districts to establish Carbon Farm demonstration and promote agriculture resilience through broader community engagement.

2.a. Work with a minimum five Conservation Districts to engage a producer whose operation will serve as Carbon Farm demonstrations. Selected producers will be motivated to explore weather resilience, Greenhouse Gas reductions and carbon sequestration.

2.b. Complete a Carbon Farm Plan per demonstration farm. Embed the Carbon Farm Plan into an overall Conservation Plan that meets NRCS standards. Share a summary of the plans online.

2.c. Work with participating producers to secure state, federal, or private cost-share resources to implement a soil health management system and other conservation practices as recommended in the Carbon Farm plan.


  1. Foster development of producer networks to promote future information exchange through broader community engagement.

3.a. Offer field days and classroom style discussions with each Carbon Farm demonstration at the center of the events; an estimated attendance impact is 250 overall, assuming an average of 50 attendees per outreach meeting.

3.b. Create a series of YouTube styled videos, focused on telling the story of participating producers and their local partners. Share the videos across online platforms and promote the resource at meetings across the broader conservation partnership.

3.c. Host a series of discussions with participating producers and producers solicited from the outreach events to solidify a producer network around agriculture resilience. Release a summary report on recommended best practices regarding building agriculture resilience farmer networks.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Anne Coates (Educator)
  • Bryan Evans (Educator)
  • Cameron Farlow (Educator)
  • Laura Lengnick (Educator)
  • Nathan Lowder - Producer (Educator)


Educational approach:

A field day was conducted at one host farm with approximately 50 people in attendance.  The host farm completed best management practices that included cover crops in a pasture system as well as a pasture renovation.  The field day included discussions on soil health, increasing organic matter, and the benefits of prescribed grazing and how livestock fit into an overall approach to improving soil health on the farm.  

An informational video highlighting the host farm was created and is available here:  An additional video is currently being created highlighting the champion farmer to dig deeper into his soil health journey.  The informational video has been presented to project partners and shared with the Soil & Water Conservation Districts.  This video will be released via social media channels to promote the project and highlight the work of the champion farmer.

Due to the many challenges experienced during this project, the other 6 project teams were unable to host field days. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 Online trainings
18 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days
4 Other educational activities: Outreach and information exchange through online meetings occurred with the Project's State Advisory Committee, an interview with the California Department of Food and an interview with Agriculture and New York Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers participated
96 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation (Foundation) focused much of Year 1 on building a robust support network for the Carbon Farm Planning training process at the state level and exchanging ideas with other states. Through online discussions and working with Carbon Cycle Institute to adapt the process to include social distancing restrictions, we successfully launched the training program in early 2021. COVID19 greatly changed how the training and outreach was conducted, however great gains were made in spite of the challenges.

Fostering a Southeastern Carbon Farm Planning Process

Goal 1 of the project focuses on fostering a Carbon Farm Planning training process suited to the Southeast. The process started with establishing a committed design team with Carbon Cycle Institute as the lead trainer. Other core members of the design team include Cultivating Resilience LLC, The Organic Growers School, NRCS East Technology Center, NRCS Soil Health Division, NRCS state leadership, the NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Virginia Thomas Jefferson Conservation District, and NC Farm Bureau Federation. A State Advisory Group includes an expanded list of support partners of The Roanoke Center’s Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project; NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation and the Agronomic Services Division; USDA Agriculture Research Services; NC State University’s Amazing Grazing Program and the Crop and Soil Sciences’ Soil Ecology and Management Lab.

Other groups tracking project success and providing informal feedback include the USDA Southeast Climate Hub, the Southern Cover Crop Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Association of Conservation Districts. Project partners have exchanged ideas through project updates with the NC Natural and Working Lands Action Plan’s agriculture subcommittee, the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Virginia Healthy Soils Partnership, Duke University’s Regenerative Agriculture Program, and the Croatan Institute.  

The Training Program

Through a series of webinars at joint meetings, the Foundation socialized the concepts of Carbon Farm Planning within the NC Conservation Partnership, a partnership structured to support the state’s conservation districts through seven federal, state, and nonprofit organizations. An orientation training was offered at the 2020 Conservation Employee Training then applications were released to fill the 40 training seats. The following organizations have committed staff to the Carbon Farm Planning Training: NC Department of Agriculture’s regional agronomists and Division of Soil and Water Conservation regional coordinators; NRCS field staff, regional office staff, state office staff and Soil Health Division staff; Brunswick, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Halifax, Haywood, Madison, Rutherford, and Warren Conservation Districts; Virginia NRCS and Conservation District representatives; NC State University; the Roanoke Center; Wisconsin Land and Water Association; National Ruffed Grouse Society; and the Western NC Cooperative.

In the fall of 2020, Carbon Cycle Institute(CCI) collaborated with Colorado State University (CSU) to create an interactive online carbon farm planning curriculum. In partnership with the North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, CCI was able to beta test, execute, and evaluate a Distance Learning Carbon Farm Planning Training using the online curriculum’s three training modules and a three-part webinar series. The training served as an introduction to Carbon Farm Planning, including: Principles of Soil Health; Role of Carbon and Carbon Farming on the Ranch/Farm; Planning through a Carbon Lens; Reading the landscape, Identifying tools for Carbon Farm Planning and Development of the Carbon Farm Plan; Tabulating data, Scheduling implementation; Soil sampling, and monitoring.  Discussion included strategies to broaden regional networks and grow the cadre of Carbon Farm Planners, and Carbon Farmers. 

Each online module and associated task was followed by a facilitated webinar tailored to the audience. The goal was to provide essential background to understand the ecological significance of Carbon Farming, provide the framework knowledge needed to facilitate the development of a Carbon Farm Plan, and provide necessary tools, materials, and ongoing technical support for writing a Carbon Farm Plan.

The training class of 40 was divided into 7 planning teams supporting the Conservation Districts that will partner with a producer to establish a demonstration farm. The following Conservation Districts are the lead demonstration coordinators: Mountains – Buncombe, Haywood, Madison, Rutherford; Foothills – Caldwell; Piedmont – Franklin; and Piedmont transitioning to Coastal Plain; Halifax in partnership with the Roanoke Center. The Virginia partners are considering forming their own planning team and partnering with a Virginia producer. The goal is to have all 7 plans completed by January 2022 with outreach activities occurring throughout the training into February 2022.

Initiative Expansion

Additional resources to support 6 of the demonstrations are provided by a grant from the NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. Through a USDA Conservation Collaboration Grant with Virginia Tech University, the Foundation expanded outreach to a two-state collaborative process. The Foundation’s focus of the expansion includes managing a pilot to communicate soil health and climate change concepts to underserved communities in partnership with the Roanoke Center’s Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project’s client network. This network focuses on offering technical resources to landowners in a 7-county area of northeast North Carolina and working to resolve land loss issues experienced by African Americans and other Farm Bill access issues experienced by underserved communities through a national partnership. Another aspect of the expansion includes collecting soil samples at the demonstration farms in partnership with USDA Agriculture Research Services and NC State University’s Soil Ecology and Management Lab. The intent of the soil analysis was to include an assessment of on-farm results as compared to COMET-Farm outputs to identify any knowledge gaps.  Soils testing was completed on three of the farms.  This information, along with supporting educational resources, were provided to the farmers as well as the technical staff at the Conservation Districts.  These reports, including a journal article published by Dr. Alan Franzluebbers and will be included as an attachment to this report.

Education and Outreach

The Halifax Team created a draft Carbon Farm Plan for the champion farmer.  This plan is still in final review and can be made available upon completion by requested.  The Team offered a field day in March 2022 to approximately 50 people.  In attendance were 28 farmers and 22 technical assistance providers, such as Cooperative Extension, NRCS, and Conservation District staff.  The field day was very well received, with two farmers in attendance requesting additional information on carbon farm planning.  

Other project teams achieved various levels of drafts on their carbon farm plans, however, were able to successfully install best management practices that promote carbon sequestration and soil health on each of the champion farms.  Due to the many challenges faced during this project, these teams were unable to conduct field days.

Through the project expansion with funding from Virginia Tech, additional outreach was conducted through Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project's (Sustainable Forestry) network of landowners and operators.  This project was presented at Sustainable Forestry's 2021 and 2022 annual meetings to introduce the concepts of soil health and how it can improve resilience and overall farm health.  Sustainable Forestry also conducted a survey of its project participants to assess the knowledge of soil health.  It was determined that the best approach is to meet the landowner where they are at and start with the basics by defining the concepts and discussing entry-level strategies for managing their land as an asset rather than as a liability.


Learning Outcomes

7 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • 7 farmers received technical assistance and best management practice guidance that directly support on-farm carbon sequestration and improved soil health. They were made aware that common practices that improve water quality also improve soil health, thereby improving overall on-farm resilience and increased carbon sequestration capacity.

Project Outcomes

7 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
8 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Building a More Resilient Agriculture Sector

As evidenced by the unprecedented funding at the state and federal levels to promote climate-smart agriculture, the knowledge that the agriculture sector is being looked to as part of the potential suite of solutions for climate change is encouraging.  The farmers and the technical experts have all shown a willingness to learn more about how carbon farm planning can support the overall health of the farm, improving resilience as well as the bottom line.  All 7 champion farmers had best management practices installed that supported the farms bottom line, improved water quality, and boosted soil health and on-farm resilience.  Because of the team structure of this project, the champion farmers were supported by technical expertise knowledgeable about a variety of farm aspects.  This collaborative approach to conservation planning will be key to solving some of the challenges that humanity is facing with climate change.  The project team took the collaborative approach one step further through the addition of the multi-state, multi-agency project in partnership with Virginia Tech to establish a knowledge-sharing pipeline, which allowed both states to share learnings and accelerate project objectives and explore new, innovative approaches to education and outreach.  The Conservation District staff that went through carbon farm planning training were made aware that commonly prescribed practices that improve water quality (which is the primary focus of North Carolina's current cost share programs) also promote soil health, thereby improving on-farm resilience to climate change and also potentially improving the farmer's economic bottom line.  This increased knowledge of the technical experts allows them to assess on-farm challenges at a deeper level to not only address immediate concerns, but also including long-term visioning that promotes overall resilience into the future.  

A broad range of technical advisors (pulling from the existing conservation partnership relationships) were brought on to serve as Carbon Farm Plan reviewers, including NRCS, Cooperative Extension, Farm Bureau, and NRCS-ARS.  Because no plans were finalized, this review team did not complete any plans, however, their review of the Carbon Farm training and planning process is included as a supplemental document.  Leveraging technical knowledge gained and lessons learned through the project, the Foundation expanded its network via the creation of two Climate Smart Commodities proposals (not awarded), thereby opening the door for future collaboration.  In addition, the Foundation was recently awarded over $780,000 in grants to further the soil health initiative in partnership with Conservation Districts through support of District-hosted low-cost equipment rental programs along with innovative conservation outreach through the utilization of District-owned drones to support farmers' on-farm goals.


Lessons Learned

As with many organizations, this pilot project required a drastic shift in implementation due to the pandemic.  The shift created challenges by affecting the District’s ability to continue to work while also being remote.  This added strain reduced the level of commitment from the program participants out of necessity.  In addition, western North Carolina was devastated by Tropical Storm Fred in August 2021, causing major destruction and loss of life.  This affected two of the training teams in particular, along with the champion farms chosen for this carbon farm pilot, however, it was a statewide effort to come together, assess the damage, and work towards recovery, with staff from Districts across the state traveling westward to do damage assessments.  The District staff who went through the training ultimately needed to focus on their main job responsibilities, while supporting recovery efforts.  Many Districts across North Carolina only have one or two staff: an administrative person and a technical person.  Within this pilot, there were several District participants that were within these limited-capacity Districts.  Additionally, some of the pilot teams consisted of two or three members at most.  This lack of capacity within the District and within the team, along with staff turnover at the District level, were major limiting factors affecting this pilot project, which ultimately led to only one successful completion of a draft Carbon Farm Plan.  This did not mean that the Districts were not interested in the project, but rather, they were (and still are) seeing levels of day-to-day work responsibilities that exceeded their capacity.  The opportunity exists to pilot Carbon Farm Planning as the sole job responsibility for individual(s) placed regionally throughout the state within District offices to work in tandem.  The Districts, along with NRCS, possess the knowledge and the history of the farm, which is critical for creating these Carbon Farm Plans.  Writing the plans is a collaborative effort, as was evidenced by the Halifax Team, which was the largest team and also the most diverse team in terms of organizations represented and expertise (water quality, farming, forestry, NRCS).  The knowledge to write a well-rounded plan is, most likely, not possessed by one single individual, therefore, a team of conservationists may likely be needed to support the creation of the plan that ultimately meets the farmer’s goals.

Included as an attachment is a summary of the program participant evaluations, along with recommendations for future consideration.  In addition, supporting documentation has been included for outreach activities.  NCFSWC - Final Report Supporting Documentation

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.