Promoting Southeastern Agriculture Resilience with Carbon Farm Planning

Progress report for LS20-326

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
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
Co-Investigators:
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

Abstract:

The Project’s goals include 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 western 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 will partner with the Carbon Cycle Institute, the Organic Growers School, 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 western NC conventional farming systems. The training will introduce 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 will feature USDA climate change adaptation guidance, leverage USDA Climate Hub resources, and teach participants how to use COMET-Planner, an online NRCS resource that assesses carbon sequestration at the farm level per conservation practice. The technical advisors will target 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.

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.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Anne Coates (Educator)
  • Bryan Evans (Educator)
  • Cameron Farlow (Educator)
  • Laura Lengnick (Educator)
  • Nathan Lowder - Producer (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

The NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation proposes to delivery a holistic planning approach for increasing weather resilience and carbon sequestration at the farm level. Farmers and technical advisors in North Carolina will be walk through the Carbon Farm planning process that leverages USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service protocols in California and is supported by the USDA COMET-Planner. The lead training organization is the Carbon Cycle Institute, a nonprofit supporting the California Resource Conservation Districts through a model framework for land management that emphasizes carbon as the organizing principle. The end result will be 5 Carbon Farm pilots, 5 community outreach meetings, YouTube styled testimonials, 40 technical advisors trained to continue practice adoption in future years, and recommendations for adapting the NRCS processes to Southeastern farming systems.

 

THE AUDIENCE: The Southeastern agricultural community includes a wide variety of vibrant production systems from small plots supporting the buy-local movement, greenhouse and horticulture operations, specialty crops, to traditional row crop and livestock farms. By focusing a pilot in the Southern Appalachians, project partners tap into an agricultural community that are early adopters of farmland preservation, have successfully transitioned from tobacco to other production systems, and are supported by a regional buy-local community with hubs in Asheville, Boone, Hendersonville and other locations. The NC Conservation Partnership (county, state, federal, and supporting nonprofits) has a long-standing tradition of bringing innovative conservation technologies and processes to the Southeast agricultural community. The concept of locally-led conservation is our foundation, with farmers actively participating in program and policy development.

 

THE PROCESS: Five farmers will partner with their Soil and Water Conservation Districts to serve as Carbon Farm pilots, demonstrating to their community and the region the value of looking at farming operations through the lens of carbon sequestration and weather resilience. Carbon Farming practices enhance the rate of carbon capture and increase other ecosystem co-benefits while also mitigating climate change. The process is backed by scientific information organized under the umbrella of the USDA’s COMET Planner. The Carbon Farm pilots will be selected from a twenty-two county area in western North Carolina, representing the diverse production systems in the Southern Appalachians. These local producer and technical advisor teams will walk through a planning process that evaluates the whole farm with carbon at the heart of the process.

 

The actual training process includes introducing participants to the Carbon Farm planning process through online training, a hands-on field investigation, then technical support as the Carbon Farm teams develop their farm specific plans and host outreach meetings. The process will include the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s California Carbon Plan Guidance, serving as a technical standard, last revised March 2017. An Advisory Group that includes conservation partnership leadership and other supporting organizations will track the progress and establish options for institutionalizing the Carbon Farm planning process into the larger conservation planning process in the Southeast.

 

Based on guidance documents from the Sonoma Resource Conservation District in California and the Marin Carbon Project, the Carbon Farm planning process includes multiple steps. It starts with a producer(s) meeting to review the history of the operation and document the farm management goals. Participants will review and document the farm’s ecological factors (soils, slope, aspect, elevation), existing land use, assess vegetative cover and document livestock management practices if applicable (stocking density versus timeframes for rotation grazing and periods of rest). After conducting an overall inventory of natural resource conditions, participants will identify opportunities to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions and enhance carbon sequestration. Depending on the operation type, nutrient management, grazing management, crop rotations, and other aspects will be reviewed and documented. All the information will be used as data points in the USDA’s Greenhouse Gas model, COMET-Planner, and other similar tools with an assessment report provided to the producer. Participants will then prioritize practice adoption based on producer interest, funding resources available, and carbon benefits. Participants will establish a system to track practice implementation and apply adaptive management in future years with monitoring.

 

The Foundation has successfully used the framework of on-farm research and demonstrations in its Soil Health Initiative and the Improving Pastures Program. By providing seed funds to establish on-farm demonstrations and host outreach meetings, a greater number of producers are exposed to concepts that have yet to be adopted on a widescale basis. The Soil Health Initiative is in its sixth year and has provided training on cover crops to over 1,000 farmers since inception across 18 counties. Cover crop adoption has increased statewide from 2012 to 2017 by almost 90,000 acres and 525 farms according to the recent National Agriculture Statistics survey, pointing to a potential correlation in the partnership’s outreach efforts during that time. The Improving Pastures program is in its first iteration, and with Demonstrations in 15 counties; over 300 producers and technical advisors having been exposed to a variety of renovation techniques. These processes are also designed to sustain themselves in future years by creating county level inter-agency technical groups of Cooperative Extension, commodity groups, and other influential farmers. These technical groups continue the use the Demonstration sites to promote best practices. The farmers really like to showcase the good conservation work they do and all the attendees indicate a high rate of willingness to adopt the practices and management techniques highlighted.

 

THE SUPPORT TEAM: To oversee the program’s process, the Foundation will establish a state level Advisory Group. The group will include agriculture and conservation leadership as well as the agency staff that will attend the training in addition to the Conservation Districts. The Advisory Group will meet by teleconference for an estimated 6 times during the course of the grant. The Advisory Group will oversee selection of participating Conservation Districts, select the five Conservation Districts to host a Carbon Farm demonstration, and will provide input on program guidance. The Advisory Group will also review the California NRCS Carbon Farm Planning Guidance and adapt it for Southeastern farming systems. Below is a description of the lead Advisory Group members.

 

The Carbon Cycle Institute developed a model framework for land management, emphasizing carbon as the organizing principle, and formed in 2007 based on the lessons learned during the Marin Carbon Project. Their framework relies on sound policies, public-private partnerships, quantification methodologies and innovative financing mechanisms that ultimately empower local organizations to efficiently implement on-the-ground, science-based solutions. In California, Resource Conservation Districts are an essential component of this framework, by acting as hubs that foster local partnerships to develop and implement Carbon Farm plans and practices at the farm level. The Carbon Cycle Institute serves as a catalyst and incubator of processes to scale up adoption of carbon beneficial conservation practices. This project will allow the Carbon Cycle Institute to expand their efforts into Southeastern production systems by serving as lead trainer.

 

Cultivating Resilience, LLC, is a national leader in moving sustainability values into action in businesses, community organizations, and government policy and programs across a diversity of scales from local to national through the application of social-ecological resilience science. Laura Lengnick, principal and soil scientist, focuses on principles that explore how the integrated management of farm assets can reduce risks and capture new opportunities in nature-based climate resilience. She served as lead author on several publications including the 2012 USDA Report Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation and the SARE Bulletin Cultivating Climate Resilience on Farms and Ranches. Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate is a cornerstone publication that explores climate resilience through the adaptation stories of 27 award-winning sustainable farmers and ranchers.

 

The Organic Growers School is a 501(C)3 that serves as a provider of practice and affordable organic education in the Southern Appalachians, building vibrant food and farming communities by boosting the success of organic farmers in the region. For the past 26 years, they have offered an annual conference that exposes more than 2,000 farmers, educators, and consumers to practical information about organic agriculture. They also support farmer-led networks with apprenticeships, trainings, resources, and farm assessments.

 

The NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts is a 501(c)3 that directly supports the state’s 96 conservation districts by providing trainings and conservation information transfer, serving a farmer-led community that provides input on state and federal agricultural policies and processes. The NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation serves as a sister nonprofit that is led by a statewide board whose mission is to promote, protect, and improve North Carolina soil and water resources for the enhancement of economic growth and stewardship of the natural environment. The Foundation leverages resources from individual, family, corporate and philanthropic organizations to enhance education at all levels, improve the environment, and build capacity to sustain economic and conservation benefits for future generations.

 

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has adopted a Carbon Plan process standard in California. The North Carolina NRCS team supports testing out this process in the Southeast. Staff at the NRCS East Technology Center and the NRCS Soil Health Division, as well as other state level staff, have agreed to be a part of the training process and serve as trainers in future years.

 

THE OUTPUTS: The 5 Carbon Farm plans will serve as regional examples during future process adoption and outreach. A version of the plans will be housed online as well as a recording of the online training. The YouTube styled testimonials will include interviews with the farmers, the trained technical advisors and will be housed online. A social media tag will be used to promote all the activities at the outreach events. Information will be shared at statewide trainings of conservation districts and regional technical trainings events such as the Southern Cover Crop Council field days. The Advisory Group will create a proposed Carbon Farm process that can be adopted by NRCS for North Carolina and considered by others states in the Southeast. North Carolina will have a set of Carbon Farm trainers that can perpetuate activities in future years and support agricultural opportunities to address climate change.

Research results and discussion:

Research will be conducted in Year 2.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 Online trainings
18 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 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

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 culturalized 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 soil analysis will include an assessment of on-farm results as compared to COMET-Farm outputs to identify any knowledge gaps.

 

Additional program information will be posted at www.ncsoilwater.org under the Active Programs Agriculture Resilience – Carbon Farm Planning. Additional questions should be directed to Michelle Lovejoy, Foundation Executive Director, at mlovejoy@ncsoilwater.org.

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.