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Environmental Markets & Conservation Finance Success Stories

NRCS success stories about Environmental Markets and Conservation Finance


Urban Farm Innovations in Illinois

Deep in the heart of the Corn Belt, a different kind of agriculture is taking root in the city of Peoria, Illinois. With the help of a 2016 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, a vacant lot in downtown Peoria has been transformed into green infrastructure, an urban forest, and a working farm.

Ribbon Cutting Well Farm Sign












Kari Cohen, Director of NRCS’s Conservation Innovations Team, represented USDA and spoke at the June 30, 2018 ribbon cutting for Well Farm at Voris Field.

“CIG is all about innovative solutions to natural resource challenges,” said Cohen. “Greenprint partners and the city of Peoria are showing that they are on the cutting edge of marrying green infrastructure with agroforestry and farming.”

Well Farm is one of the nation’s first stormwater farms, capturing stormwater runoff while growing harvestable timber and growing vegetables. The farm is fully instrumented to measure the site’s success in managing stormwater.

Greenprint Partners' Vice President of Programs, April Mendez, emphasized that her team’s deep partnerships with local organizations were critical to shaping the project design to maximize community benefits. ”Our benefits-driven design approach to green stormwater infrastructure requires us to put down roots in the community,” she says. “As we scale this practice across the US, we'll continue to seek the kinds of local partnerships that made the Well Farm a success.” 

RibbonCutting_Site Tour_Raised Beds












Well Farm, covering 1.5 acres, was engineered and contoured to optimize stormwater management. Vegetables and flowers are grown in raised beds and later sold at the Peoria farmers market. The planted trees are hybrid poplars, a fast-growing species that take up a lot of water and can ultimately be harvested for timber.

Partners in the CIG project include the city of Peoria, the GITM Foundation, and the AKRF engineering firm.

The CIG project was funded as part of a cohort of conservation finance projects. NRCS is interested in conservation finance as an emerging sector that seeks to bring non-Federal sources of funding to natural resource conservation.


New Revenue Option for Ag Producers to Yield Attractive Returns

It’s Thursday afternoon and the sky is overcast, rolling clouds giving way to intermittent rain. Dan Probert, who owns Lightning Creek Ranch with his wife Suzy, stands by the edge of the road and gestures to the surrounding pasture. “We manage and monitor our grazing operation with the assumption that we are doing something wrong,” he says. “We go into this with a degree of humility.”

Probert is explaining the guiding principles behind his family’s management of their land, a careful regimen designed to optimize soil health and support regeneration of the prairie’s native bunchgrasses. And with the help of Farm Bill programs, they’re protecting the Lightning Creek Ranch from development as well as finding new revenue options like carbon trading markets.

In 2016, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) purchased an easement on the 12,225-acre ranch. The terms of the conservation easement allow the Proberts to continue running cattle but also ensure that the ranch’s carbon-rich soil won’t be disturbed, keeping that carbon (soil organic matter) locked in the soil forever.

In late May, Lightning Creek Ranch's pastures are studded with native bunchgrass and flecked with purple and yellow wildflowers.

An effort funded by NRCS’ Conservation Innovation Grants program is helping the Proberts sell carbon credits for keeping their soil undisturbed, creating a new source of income for the family.

This NRCS grant to The Climate Trust, a non-profit based in Oregon, supported the establishment of a Working Lands Carbon Fund. The funding was used to develop the legal and financial framework of the fund, which became Climate Trust Capital’s Fund I.

This $5.5 million carbon offset investment fund provides upfront capital for the development of carbon credits. Fund I was launched in October 2016, supported by an investment from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Fund I invests in forestry, grassland conservation, and livestock digester carbon projects in return for partial ownership of the resulting carbon credits.

In the case of Lightning Creek Ranch, capital from Fund I provided critical financing early in the project and contributed to the purchase of the easement. While the easement on the ranch protects the landscape’s ecological value and will support ranching livelihoods for generations, it also represents a significant investment in the 55,000 tons of carbon sequestered in the ranch’s healthy soils.

Probert works with the Nature Conservancy to monitor the prairie's regeneration, forage composition, and wildlife habitat. Both the ranch and the landscape's ecology depend on this vigilance.

The Climate Trust anticipates that this investment in avoided grassland conversion will yield attractive returns once the carbon credits are sold. Some of the carbon credits generated by Fund I’s projects are destined for sale in California’s regulated greenhouse gas market (forestry and biodigesters). Others will be sold to buyers that choose voluntarily to purchase carbon credits, such as a company looking to meet its sustainability goals.

“The Climate Trust project exemplifies what we are attempting to do with our cohort of conservation finance CIG projects,” said Kari Cohen, Director of NRCS’ Conservation Innovations Team. “The Working Lands Carbon Fund has demonstrated that we can leverage our Federal funding at least five times over, and that we can also leverage other NRCS programs to put philanthropic and private sources of capital to work on agricultural and forest lands.”

The Lightning Creek Ranch employs a careful regimen designed to optimize soil health and support regeneration of the prairie's native bunchgrasses.

With the initial investments completed, the Climate Trust intends to scale up to a much larger carbon investment fund that appeals to impact and institutional investors.

Models like the Working Lands Carbon Fund hold significant potential for investors interested in conservation impacts while providing a new source of income and capital for stewardship-minded landowners.

For the Proberts, the easement and the carbon payments are helping protect their ranch, and their way of life, for future generations.

Lightning Creek Ranch is set within the Zumwalt Prairie in Wallowa County, Oregon. The Zumwalt is the largest remaining landscape of Pacific Northwest bunchgrass prairie in North America.

Our Team

  • Kari Cohen, Director, Conservation Innovations Team
  • Adam Chambers, Co-Leader, Energy and Environmental Markets Team
  • Lindsay White, Management Analyst, Conservation Innovations Team