The High Plains of Eastern Colorado is an unforgiving place to farm.
Most farmers in the region practice dryland farming, relying only on rainfall and using no irrigation whatsoever. Here climate disruption is felt keenly — there is no backup water to tap into when the rains don’t come.
Many farmers worry about the disrupted weather patterns they are already experiencing and know their families’ livelihoods depend on adapting their entire on-farm ecosystem to a new climate reality.
Some farmers have faced this challenge head-on by building their soil health through practices like no-till, reduced fallow, increased diversity and cover cropping.
Healthy soil can make farms more resilient to weather extremes, while reducing the need for fossil-derived pesticides and fertilizers — and as an important side benefit, help combat climate change.
These long-term soil health innovators are leading the way on soil carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture.
Just before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced more than $13 million in grants to support nine on-farm pilot projects designed to demonstrate and improve soil health practices.
The innovative new pilot project, part of the 2018 Farm Bill, was developed through a unique collaboration of environmental, business and farming groups led by E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and originally championed by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and supported by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.
The USDA awarded $1.6 million to a group consisting of High Plains farmers, nonprofits, researchers and environmentalists for their project titled FARMS: Farmers Advancing Regenerative Management Systems.
It is a joint effort between the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, Health First, E2, the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University and the Western Kansas Agricultural Research-Extension Centers.
FARMS will provide funding for farmers to implement new conservation practices and increase carbon sequestration. The project will explore ways to certify that carbon so they can participate in carbon markets and measure whether food grown in healthy soil is more nutrient dense.
It will coordinate local mentoring networks so farmers can benefit from one another’s experiments and breakthroughs, and it will honor the soil health work that these farmers have been doing for decades.
The benefits of sequestering carbon in our soil could be huge. If farmers across Colorado adopted no-till and reduced fallow, their soils could sequester 3-4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — the equivalent of taking 650,000-840,000 cars off the road, studies have shown.
That could be a big boost to meeting the goals of the Climate Action Plan passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this year. The plan stipulates that Colorado will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2025 and by 90% by 2050.
MORE: The FARMS Project will be discussed at the 32nd Annual High Plains No-Till Conference in Burlington, Colorado, on Feb. 4-5. More information also available at wwwfarmsproject.org.
The project also could be a game-changer for farmers who know improving soil health is essential to becoming more resilient and combating the changing climate.
“For farmers across the Eastern Plains, finding ways to promote soil health practices while boosting incomes is essential to sustaining a strong farm economy,” Sen. Bennet said in a news release.
“This grant will go a long way in giving farmers the tools and resources they need to pursue innovative long-term strategies to improve soil health, in turn benefiting our rural communities.”
Lauren Hafford is a mechanical engineer who is passionate about carbon sequestration. She is a recent alum of the E2 1Hotels Fellowship program, and will serve as the Evaluation Coordinator for FARMS.