Financial incentives may be the key to helping farmers transition to sustainable farming practices, according to the 2021 Pasa Sustainable Agriculture virtual conference.

Promoting land stewardship with financial incentives remains a key challenge to those hoping to transition to sustainable farming practices and work through a conservation lens.

At the 2021 Pasa Sustainable Agriculture virtual conference in early February, several panelists with both farming and policy backgrounds took some time to outline different approaches and challenges for financing sustainable agriculture.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “sustainable agriculture” is farming that achieves three things: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. It produces food and fiber while enhancing environmental quality and natural resources, as well as enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole. In practicing sustainable farming, growers use methods to promote soil health, minimize water use, and lower pollution levels on the farm.

Jeanne Merrill, of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN, said that her program has looked to federal conservation Farm Bill programs as a model. However, she said that some of the language in those bills falls short in terms of technical assistance and financial incentives for those transitioning to more sustainable forms of farming.

She said grants from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, can help operations with conservation practices, but haven’t focused on soil health or reducing greenhouse gas emissions over time. Nationally, she said, these grants still mostly go to large CAFO operations.

At the state level, “climate smart” programs in California have pulled climate-related issues like these to the forefront. CalCAN was founded in 2009 and focuses on legislative policy shifts and on building healthy models for healthy soils and other farmland conservation methods.

Merrill also said that lucrative finance programs need to be more relevant to diverse farmers, offer technical assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers and offer incentives, if work on climate mitigation is to be viable.

Going Beyond Business Plans and Linking to the Community 

Philip Taylor, executive director and co-founder of Mad Agriculture, talked about the three-step program his organization uses with farmers to build a business plan and explore financial options. Mad Agriculture is a holistic farming business service that aids farmers focused on regenerative and sustainable agriculture practices with their business planning and project financing.

Growers first work with Mad Agriculture to show intention, desire and reciprocity with the land in the farm design and operations planning. The team assesses building both financial and ecological capital within the farm.

“It’s pretty fun to do that dreaming part,” Taylor said.

However, as with many business-modeling exercises, this step tends to lead to a written plan that lives primarily on a bookshelf. To keep that from happening, Mad Agriculture then helps a farm identify monetary support for their plan, streamlining financial options and seeking additional revenue streams from both crop and carbon markets. The program’s dual method of vision and pragmatism creates a more realistic financial approach for farm operations.

Building a foundation of community is key, Taylor said, and from there, a farm can see its relationship to the marketplace. With a holistic farm plan in place, Mad Agriculture can showcase a farm’s conservation efforts and work as a liaison between a farm’s vision and government and other programs.

Resurgence in Interest in Carbon Offsets

Ben Bartley, who manages the protocol and asset certification for the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, feels that identifying and bringing in new markets to carbon offsets will offer diverse revenue streams to farms looking to capitalize on sequestering carbon in their sustainable agriculture practices.

The ESMC is a nonprofit organization that works to compensate farmers who are doing climate mitigation with their farming practices. Its research arm develops techniques that create models for and funds cost-effective, scalable regenerative agriculture, focusing on measurable changes in soil health, and water quality and quantity.

With the current resurgence in carbon offset programs, a rise in grower interest for regenerative agriculture incentives, and increasing consumer demands for food systems that use these models, Taylor said the ESMC is sure these incentive programs will only continue to grow over time.

“We’re trying to hedge bets with eggs in all baskets,” he said.

During the Pasa session, Merrill and Taylor discussed the challenges of a carbon offset program.

Companies less interested in reducing their own pollution can simply pay for carbon offsets without considering a need to change their own practices, they said. The polluters continue to pollute, almost with an incentive, because they are financially supporting regenerative agriculture practices. And, given the current carbon market, only very, very large farm operations would be able to benefit from offset programs.

“We’re in a place of huge opportunity and potential challenges,” Merrill said.

Referring to the first payment-for-services model for carbon offset programs over the last decade, Merrill said, the program was completely voluntary, and carbon lost its worth per ton very quickly.

But all the speakers in the Pasa session agreed that time is of the essence when it comes to maximizing these programs for climate mitigation. Right now, there is a consumer and advocacy push, as well as an ecological demand, for such shifts and services.

Advocates and incentive programs need to support interested farmers and begin with the soil, Taylor said. Finding and bolstering like-minded communities can initiate change right away.

“There’s ways to get moving right now,” he said.

This Pasa session brought in speakers from far-reaching parts of the U.S. and was one of many over the course of the Pasa farm conference in early February that focused on climate mitigation through methods such as sequestering carbon and sustainable practices for healthier soils.

Melissa Cipollone, Pasa’s communications strategist, said that because this year’s event was virtual, it allowed a broader range of people to participate at a national and international scale for the first time, thus creating a broader range of discussions with attendees.

Liz Wagner is a freelance writer in eastern Pennsylvania.