GRAND FORKS — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $2.8 billion in 70 climate-smart projects nationwide in the first pool of Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.
The projects are funded to create market opportunities for American commodities produced using climate-smart production practices. Seventeen of those projects will touch North Dakota, said Mary Podoll, state conservationist for North Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Its goal is to incentivize producers to use climate-smart practices benefiting soil health, wildlife habitat, land restoration and more. The program will increase to an allocation of more than $3 billion with projects from the second funding pool announced later in 2022.
The supported projects are anticipated to deliver significant impacts for producers and communities nationwide, including expanding markets and revenue streams and “putting a dollar sign on environmental benefits,” Podoll said.
“Every 30 years we look at hydraulics rainfall in the state, which changes formulas for engineering within the industry,” Podoll said. “We’re seeing the changes are more extreme and happening faster. We have to help our producers adapt. Do they have the right tools and strategies so there’s a benefit to them and societal value?”
While this initiative is an important step to help support the agricultural industry in making climate-smart changes, some producers in North Dakota have been taking on climate-smart initiatives for decades on their own and with support from other programs at NRCS, Podoll said.
Common initiatives that North Dakota producers already take part in, maybe not even realizing they’re “climate smart,” include diverse crop rotation and planting cover crops.
But some initiatives are newer ideas, even taking what some producers usually consider “nuisances” and turning them into opportunities, such as taking seasonal prairie potholes or wetlands that are usually drained and moved and instead incorporating them into farming.
“This area is rich with seasonal prairie potholes, and we have a diamond in disguise with what producers are able to show for future societal benefits for carbon storage, since those wetlands are considered carbon sinks,” Podoll said. “There are times when they are farmable. We can farm through and around them.”
Other initiatives that Podoll hopes will catch on among North Dakota producers include:
- Reduced- or no-till farming to reduce soil erosion, increase plant-available moisture, and increase soil health and soil organic matter content.
- Plant conservation cover for pollinators and beneficial insects, and establish Monarch butterfly habitat.
- Incorporate vegetative barriers and contour buffer strips to improve soil health.
Paul Overby, a 63-year-old farmer near Wolford, has been incorporating such practices over his and wife Diane’s 33-year farming career. Most practices he made as a management decision, helping to reduce risk and manage crops on a 1,800-acre property, rather than with climate change in mind.
“Behind all of this for us is a Christian-based stewardship ethic of taking care of the land and what we’ve been given,” Overby added.
Overby raises canola, field peas, flax, sunflowers, oats, soybeans and spring wheat — twice as many crops in his rotation compared to other producers. He also rents out a portion of land for cattle grazing.
“Because we’re a smaller operation, we don’t have the hired staff to help us out, so some of the initial motivation was to diversify the workforce,” Overby said. “We spread out the harvest and planting windows with the different crops, and it helped create a diversification of income. We chose crops with different opportunities, which helped with financial risk management, so not all of my eggs were in one basket if a disease or pest took hold.”
Along with diverse crop rotation, Overby has also followed no-till methods, nitrogen management, zone management and yield mapping since 2005 among other common practices like cover crops. He also converted pastureland into rotational grazing pastures about a decade ago with the support of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from NRCS.
All initiatives have lent to better soil health, which has resulted in better yields and better water absorption in his fields, he said. He and his wife’s average yields last year were 20-30% higher than county averages, and he sees significantly less nuisance wetlands because his fields absorb the water better than they did before he incorporated the practices.
Climate-smart initiatives such as these are not only a societal benefit over time, but make sense for producers.
For example, using cover crops helps retain the soil health and as producers start building their soil through such practices, they start to see better yields and less input costs, because the fields require less weed and pest control as the soils get healthier and rotations break up pests cycles, Podoll said. She added that once producers implement more good soil health practices they see “considerably less money spent on input.”
“If you have a healthy soil system, it’s not just yourself you’re helping with economics and yields,” Podoll said, “but all of those things have community value: food security, water quality and clean air.”
Of all the initiatives, no-till is one of the practices that has yet to catch on in North Dakota, Overby said, and he hopes that through the newly supported programs more producers will adopt the practice.
“No-till is still a huge work in progress, since we tend not to see the erosion of topsoil over time,” Overby said.
Producers depend on topsoil, which is the uppermost layer of soil rich in nutrients, to cultivate crops. But due to tilling, which loosens the topsoil and releases it into the air, it erodes over time from wind and water.
“I carry a roll of dimes in my pocket because the NRCS allowable loss of topsoil erosion per year is the thickness of a dime,” Overby said. “There are 50 dimes in a roll, which is 3 inches long. Over a farmer’s 50-year farming career who follows ‘good practices’ of tilling and loses no more erosion than allowable, they’re still losing 3 inches of topsoil in that time.”
It takes 100 years to grow back an inch of that topsoil.
“If we keep doing this, how productive will our soil be in the Great Plains in 100 years?” Overby said. “These things are weighing on me because I don’t have many years left to have an impact, and I want to make sure we have a good future for my nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren.”
He hopes that more producers will start to incorporate climate-smart practices through USDA supported projects. But the danger he sees is that producers will only go into it with a dollar incentive in mind, rather than because they’ve been educated about the benefits.
“If you just change practices without changing mindset and there’s not an instant result, you’ll quit when you don’t have anybody paying you to do it,” Overby said. “We need educators, technical service providers and hand holders with this too.”
And while he’s excited to see such initiatives supported and encouraged among producers, he wants to see a permanent piece in the 2023 farm bill regarding climate-smart initiatives.
“This is not a short-term game,” Overby said. “This is going to take place over the next 30 years.”