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Can Family-Owned Forests Help the U.S. Achieve a Low-Carbon Future?

Nature-based climate solutions present an attractive way to tackle climate change and help America’s farmers and ranchers in their mission to feed the country. For example, practices like cover cropping and no-till can benefit farmers and ranchers by improving yield consistency while decreasing the need for costly inputs. Many climate smart practices also lead to healthier, carbon-rich soils.

For decades, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has helped bolster nature-based climate solutions. In particular, existing NRCS Farm Bill programs deploy billions of dollars annually towards easing the financial burden for landholders as they transition to conservation agriculture. These working lands programs include Farm Bill programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).Two men standing in a forest, discussing data on a tablet












In recent years, NRCS has looked to innovation to spur nature-based climate solutions, funding an array of pilot projects through its Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program. As the U.S. seeks to rapidly decarbonize all sectors over the coming decades, protecting the health of our nation’s working landscapes and improving our farming practices will play a critical role.

The CIG project profile below highlights how the NRCS can continue to shape and advance
carbon sequestration projects into the 21st century.

Thinking Small: New Models for Carbon Sequestration

In recent decades, there has been growing demand for carbon credits, driven by regional and local carbon markets and organizations looking to voluntarily offset their emissions. This creates a potential new revenue stream for farmers and ranchers who can adopt climate smart agricultural practices. However, many landholders are unable to participate in these markets because the cost of verifying the amount of carbon they are storing in the soil or in trees is too costly and technically challenging.

Last year, the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) received a CIG award of nearly $1 million to develop the framework for the Family Forest Carbon Program (FFCP), which aims to increase participation of small, privately owned forest owners included in carbon market opportunities. The FFCP reimagines carbon accounting, basing payments not on inventories of carbon (which require costly verification for landowners), but rather on specific forest management practices that have been scientifically shown to increase the amount of carbon that gets removed from the atmosphere and stored in the trees and soil.

FFCP has established a series of permanent measurement sites on sample properties and is comparing these results to measurements taken by the U.S. Forest Service, allowing them to ground truth estimated carbon sequestration rates while minimizing verification costs. The FFCP will then market and sell off these carbon credits on the voluntary market.

"The CIG funding allowed us to pivot in a number of ways, early on, that helped ensure we were creating a product that worked for the landholders,” said Christine Cadigan, Senior Director for the FFCP.

The FFCP is still in its early stages, but thanks in large part to the CIG award, the AFF has been successful in piloting the program in the Central Appalachian Region. This proof of concept has led to more funding, with the tech giant Amazon gifting about $7.5 million to the project in April of 2020; in addition to this grant, Amazon also comitted to purchasing $2.5 million in carbon credits from the FFCP once they are generated. The FFCP currently has about 50 contracts with landowners, representing over 6,000 acres of forested land.

The ultimate goal of the project is to facilitate landowner participation in carbon markets for nearly 300 million acres of family-owned American forests. According to the AFF, if 20% of family forest acres adopted practices to optimize carbon sequestration, about 3.5 gigatons of CO2e would be sequestered by the end of the century.

This is far from the first project that the NRCS has funded that seeks to open new opportunities for carbon sequestration. In 2011, Ducks Unlimited received a $161,000 CIG to develop necessary methodology to quantify the net carbon benefit that is gained by avoiding grassland conversation; a 2016 CIG granted to The Climate Trust helped develop the legal and financial frameworks for an investment fund focused on carbon credits; and in 2017, the first ever carbon credits generated from rice farmers were sold to Microsoft, thanks to a CIG that was awarded to the Environmental Defense Fund.

NRCS and Carbon Sequestration: Decades of Technical Knowledge

The USDA has the technical ability and relationships with farmers and agricultural organizations that will prove critical for developing nature-based climate solutions in the United States. In particular, NRCS is well positioned to help validate carbon sequestration rates rapidly without incurring large costs. Through its existing COMET-Farm tool, the NRCS has the expertise and data-collection systems in place to conduct largescale carbon sequestration assessments.

Man standing in a forest clearing, looking into the distance as if contemplating the forest.






COMET-Farm is a whole farm and ranch carbon and GHG accounting system that takes in farming practice information, mixes it with weather data from satellites and sensors and soil information from USDA databases, and then uses computer models to estimate how quickly carbon builds up in soils and GHGs escape. COMET-Farm generates its carbon accounting estimates without requiring a site visit or soil samples, greatly reducing the burden on farmers to verify their sequestration rates.

Over the years, NRCS has steadily built a reputation as a trusted source of best-available science and management practices, advising producers and agricultural businesses alike. These relationships will prove critical to developing nature-based solutions across the country. Farmers and ranchers that wish to leverage carbon-smart farming to increase yields and bring new revenue streams to their farms will likely look to their trusted local NRCS office for technical and management advice.

Nature-based climate solutions will continue to play a critical role as the country and the world look towards a low-carbon future. NRCS is ready to help.