NDFU to lead state pilot that could deliver $13M to N.D. farmers, ranchers for conservation practices

By Chris Aarhus, NDFU

North Dakota producers are about to receive a little extra incentive to bolster conservation practices on their operations.

North Dakota has been chosen as one of four states to participate in the Alliance to Advance Climate Smart Agriculture, a pilot program that will pay farmers and ranchers $100 per acre for adopting high-value conservation practices such as cover crops, no-till, minimum till, prescribed grazing and more.

North Dakota joins Arkansas, Minnesota and Virginia as states that were chosen for the USDA-funded grant. The project could pay out a total of $57 million to roughly 4,000 producers in 2024 and 2025. Enrollment is expected to begin prior to the 2024 growing season.

North Dakota Farmers Union is the pilot lead for North Dakota.

“North Dakota Farmers Union is going to be responsible for delivering $13 to $14 million to (North Dakota) producers — that’s a big deal,” said NDFU’s Matt Perdue, who serves as the project’s principal investigator for North Dakota. “This is real money that’s going into the producers’ pockets to support conservation. It’s exciting for an organization like ours to be part of that and to have a leadership role in it.”

Nationally, the program is led by Virginia Tech and principal investigator Dr. Thomas Thompson, an associate dean in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Thompson, a soil scientist, said two things excite him about this project.

“One is that most of the money is going directly to producers — that’s exciting,” he said. “And two is that (the money) is going to producers for practices that are almost without exception going to improve soil health.”

While NDFU serves as the lead in North Dakota, other partners will play a significant role. The North Dakota Conservation District Employees Association (NDCDEA) and a number of soil conservation districts are providing technical assistance for growers, while the North Dakota Grain Growers Association is assisting with producer outreach.

“This is a great opportunity for traditional and non-traditional partners to work together and showcase some great success stories and provide funding to landowners for conservation practices,” said Rhonda Kelsch, who represents the NDCDEA. “We hope it’s the start of something great.”

Ed Kessel, president of the Grain Growers, said the program could help fast-track implementation of these practices for producers who have previously shown an interest.

“When you look at adopting these practices, you still need to have a long-term plan because you’re not gonna see a direct benefit next year.” Kessel said. “It’s something that’s gonna take time. But if we can get people started and signed up, the better off we are. It’s a nice dollar figure, and it’s easy to implement. It’ll have value for those able to participate.”

ORIGIN

The Alliance is part of USDA’s $3.1 billion investment in the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, which supports 141 projects and seeks to provide direct, meaningful benefits to production agriculture, leverage the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart commodities and expand those markets for American producers, according to USDA.

Thompson and Perdue both credited Rural Investment to Protect our Environment (RIPE), a national organization that has long worked to provide a meaningful payment to producers for conservation practices.

“They have been working for some years to develop ideas on how federal farm programs could incentivize climate-smart agriculture,” Thompson said. “The genesis of the idea really belongs with them.”

NDFU and NDGGA serve on RIPE’s steering committee, which advises the organization on producer engagement, policy design and other opportunities that support its mission. 

“RIPE is a national coalition that has been trying to build support behind this,” Perdue said. “They look at the total public benefit of installing a specific practice. If that practice provides $100 of public benefit, then it gets included in RIPE’s platform. So that’s really where the $100 an acre came from for the Alliance project.”

In May of 2022, Thompson submitted Virginia Tech’s proposal to USDA. He said the project has a lot of working parts involving many partners.

“We had 14 named partners in the original proposal that was submitted,” he said. “We have maybe another 10 partners who will become part of our alliance within the next few months.”

PRODUCERS

Perdue said the project is limited to 160 acres or animal units per producer for a maximum payout of $16,000 annually. Producers will receive 50% up front, 25% after implementation and verification, and then the final 25% after reporting is complete. He added that producers who use the program in 2024 are eligible in 2025 as well.

“Producers can come back and receive funding the next year, but they can’t enroll the same acres for the same practice,” he said.

Forty percent of the project’s nationwide enrollment must come from under-served, socially disadvantaged or limited-resource farms. NDFU will be gathering feedback from producers throughout the course of the pilot.

Among the criticisms of other conservation projects is the lack of support for early adopters — the producers who have been using these conservation practices on their operation for some time. With the Alliance, early adopters are eligible to receive funding, though Perdue noted that any acreage dedicated to NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) would not be eligible for this project’s funding.

“This program is designed to serve early adopters pretty well,” Perdue said. “I think we all acknowledge that there are a lot of producers who are out there doing a lot of good stewardship practices. If we’re going to increase support for those practices, we need to make sure we’re covering producers who got to the game early and are already delivering on a lot of the benefits they provide.”

To measure the project’s success, USDA is using the COMET tool, which is a carbon capture calculator. Producers enter information about their land and management, and it estimates the environmental benefits associated with the specific conservation practice.

Enrollment will happen through a Virginia Tech online portal, though producers will get plenty of support.

“A producer enrolling in this program is likely going to have a touch with us, with Grain Growers and with their conservation district,” Perdue said. “We’re going to make sure those producers have access to information about the program and that they have the technical assistance to identify what really makes sense on their operation.”