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Advancing Organic in Climate-Smart Agriculture Programs

On February 7, 2022, U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the availability of $1 billion in grants for Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities through the Commodity Credit Corporation. The purpose of the new program is to support the production and marketing of “climate-smart commodities,” produced using USDA-defined climate-smart practices, through 30 to 50 pilot projects over the next five years. Organic Trade Association applied for the first pool of funding, designated for projects ranging from $5 million to $100 million.

USDA had requested public feedback on how to structure the pilot program through a Request for Information in September 2021. In response, OTA urged USDA to (1) recognize organic agriculture as a key part of the solution to tackle climate change; (2) integrate organic into climate-smart agriculture programs; (3) increase technical assistance and knowledge of organic farming systems; (4) promote organic through market and infrastructure development; (5) employ life-cycle analysis in Climate-Smart programs; and (6) recognize and reward organic farmers as early adopters of climate-smart practices.

After reviewing public comments, USDA published a Notice of Funding Opportunity calling for partnerships across the supply chain to propose pilot projects. The projects must provide voluntary incentives to farmers and landowners to (1) implement climate‐smart production practices, activities, and systems on working lands; (2) measure, monitor, and verify the carbon and greenhouse gas; (GHG) benefits associated with those practices; and (3) develop markets and promote the resulting climate‐smart commodities.

Upon publication of the notice, OTA recognized that the opportunity could support the collection of primary data on the soil impact of organic systems, which could plug into existing USDA verification tools such as the COMET-Farm modeling tool and enable it to begin accurately measuring GHG outcomes of organic farms. OTA submitted a proposal that would incentivize organic and transitioning farmers to implement or improve climate-smart practices through free soil testing and tailored technical assistance in response to soil data.

Rewarding and Incentivizing Organic Farming Systems and Continuous Improvement

OTA, in collaboration with The Organic Center, worked on a proposal to build a pilot program entitled Advancing Climate Outcomes and Expanding Markets Through Soil Testing and Verification in Organic Systems. Leading up to the submission of the project, OTA collected input on the pilot from OTA members, including those who serve on OTA’s Climate Change Task Force.

If selected for funding, the pilot will provide free soil testing and analysis for up to 1,600 organic and transitioning farmers to verify the outcomes of their climate-smart practices. Over the five-year pilot program, organic farms will be sampled twice, and transitioning organic land will be sampled three times. The Organic Center used its expertise to build out the soil-testing element of the pilot program, which will analyze physical, chemical, and biological soil characteristics related to nutrient cycling, soil fertility, and GHG emissions—including carbon sequestration and other indicators of nitrogen use efficiency (i.e., reduction of NO2 emissions). Soil tests results will offer real-time accurate reporting and tracking of GHG benefits (versus predictions from models), document increased efficiency of carbon sequestration in participating farms, and capture improved nitrogen cycling and other climate-resilience outcomes.
Specifically, the soil tests will measure both short- and long-term metrics of climate-resiliency including:

  • Total carbon/organic carbon
  • Aggregate stability
  • Available water capacity
  • Bulk density
  • Reactive carbon
  • Particulate organic matter
  • Soil organic matter (SOM)
  • Soil Respiration
  • Soil Enzymes
  • Soil pH and buffer pH
  • Sum of cations (CEC)
  • Base saturation percent
  • Soluble salts
  • Nitrate-nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Sodium
  • Sulfur
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Copper

Farmers will receive free tailored and culturally appropriate technical assistance to add and enhance practices that improve soil health, sequester carbon, and enable continuous improvement in their organic farming system. As part of the pilot, OTA reached out to partners to build a nationwide network of technical assistance providers and consulted with certifiers to imagine integrating their work into the program. The pilot will support the integration of voluntary climate-smart practices and outcomes into the existing USDA National Organic Program certification procedures and documentation. This will reduce costs and eliminate duplicative requirements in current and future programs centered around climate-smart agriculture.
Finally, verified climate outcomes will inform a marketing and consumer education campaign on the climate benefits of USDA-certified organic products. The OTA pilot proposal will include a marketing campaign to benefit all organic and transitioning farmers and a process to recognize those who are enrolled in the pilot and therefore going above and beyond to improve practices and outcomes.

Building a Coalition

During the application period, OTA recruited a network of more than 20 partners, almost all of which are OTA members, to plug in at various points of the supply chain from direct farmer outreach to retail promotion to consumer education. The partners agreed to promote engagement in the pilot program to more than 12,000 farms and operations across six million+ acres producing a wide range of organic goods including vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, cotton, hemp, and more. Each partner’s role in the project was mutually determined based on their knowledge and experience of the subject area, geographic reach within their target region, and capacity to deliver on ambitious goals. Partners included technical assistance providers, organic certifiers, marketing cooperatives, farmer organizations, and other companies.

Next Steps

According to USDA, more than 1,000 applications were submitted for the climate-smart commodities partnerships with funding requests totaling more than $18 billion, demonstrating the strong interest and need from the agriculture sector to find solutions to the climate crisis. Awards are expected to be announced in Fall 2022.

OTA thanks members and other friends of organic who participated in the grant proposal process for their generous contributions of time, expertise, and feedback. The work to put together the application and pilot proposal strengthened the connections that OTA and TOC share with stakeholders and the larger organic community. The overarching goals and components of the pilot can be used for additional grant or funding opportunities, and created a framework for future collaborations to collect organic data and support organic farmers.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.