BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech received an $80 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to pilot a program that will pay producers to implement climate-smart practices on farms of all sizes and commodities, an initiative that could have significant impacts on curbing climate-changing gases.
Virginia Tech will distribute at least $54 million directly to producers to help them enact these climate-smart agricultural practices for crop and animal production. The grant, which is the largest in the university’s history, will create a three-year pilot program in Virginia, Arkansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota that will test the feasibility of rolling out a similar program on a national scale. If scaled up nationally, the program could help producers reduce agricultural emissions by 55 percent and total emissions in the United States by 8 percent after 10 years.
“We are proud to lead this effort that gives agricultural producers incentives to enact climate-smart practices and the financial means to do so,” said Tom Thompson, principal investigator on the project, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, director of CALS Global, and a professor. “This is a watershed program that helps the agricultural industry be a leader in addressing climate change.”
According to Thompson, the credit for the pilot concept belongs to RIPE (Rural Investment to Protect our Environment), the lead Virginia Tech partner on the pilot program, and the project will be known as the RIPE Partnership.
The pilot program will pay producers $100 per acre or animal unit for voluntary adoption of climate-smart practices that deliver more than that amount in public environmental benefits. Unlike previous cost-sharing programs that put some of the financial burdens of adopting climate-smart practices on producers, this program pays producers more than the cost of implementation of these practices while also improving their bottom lines. In addition to RIPE, 15 state and national organizations will help to implement the RIPE Partnership.
The RIPE partnership pilot will reach an estimated 5,200 operations representing up to 600,000 acres in the initial four states. If scaled up nationally, as much as 80 percent of agricultural producers could be enrolled in the program, which would make a significant impact on global carbon emissions. Only about 3 percent of producers currently participate in carbon reduction programs.
In tandem with tackling the issue of climate change, the project also will target boosting agricultural productivity in order to help feed a growing global population that is expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050.
“The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been a driving force for innovation and adoption of best practices that have helped the agriculture industry grow since Virginia Tech was formed 150 years ago,” said Alan Grant, dean of the college. “This pilot program is at the core of our land-grant mission as we strive to serve our communities by investing our time and knowledge to help them thrive both now and for generations to come.”
Producers also will be able to market their climate-smart commodities to the American public through certificates with tracking numbers. Informed by feedback through a series of roundtables, the tracking system will include information needed by commodity purchasers to meet their sustainability goals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “is delivering on our promise to build and expand these market opportunities for American agriculture and be global leaders in climate-smart agricultural production,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said when he recently announced $2.8 billion in funding for 70 climate-smart projects. “This effort will increase the competitive advantage of U.S. agriculture both domestically and internationally, build wealth that stays in rural communities, and support a diverse range of producers and operation types.”
“Agriculture is a key economic engine for the commonwealth. I’m thrilled that our advocacy helped bring this record funding to Virginia Tech to pilot ways to encourage Virginia’s vibrant agricultural community to adopt sustainable practices, which are critical to the future of the industry in Virginia and across the country,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.
“Embracing innovative and sustainable farming practices is central to the kind of comprehensive climate strategy we need to keep our communities safe,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. “I’m proud of the valuable contributions Virginians are making to that effort, and am glad to have helped Virginia Tech secure this federal funding to support rural communities and protect our environment for generations to come.”
The initiative will help agriculture and forestry — the largest private sector industries in Virginia — continue to thrive.
“Agriculture and forestry combine for an annual economic impact of over $90 billion. They are a crucial component of Virginia’s economy, especially in our rural areas. Promoting and growing economic development is a top priority for the administration. Ensuring a sustainable and vibrant industry will be crucial for the long-term growth and success of Virginia,” said Matt Lohr, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry. “This pilot project provides an optimal plan for investing in rural communities and supporting agricultural producers who deliver significant environmental benefits through their climate-smart production practices.”
In Virginia, the college is partnering with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Virginia State University to roll out the program. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also provided support for the grant application.
A website will be available within the next few months to allow producers within the pilot states to apply and enroll in the program.
Virginia Tech researchers will create a model that selects participants to ensure program diversity. At least 40 percent of participants will be underserved and small producers, reaching at least 2,100 operations. A minimum of 630 operations with socially disadvantaged or limited resource producers will participate in the pilot project.
The grant will provide $2 million to both Minnesota and Virginia to pilot the implementation of high-value and high-cost climate-smart practices in animal feeding operations. The pilot’s near-term impacts will be an estimated greenhouse gas benefit of 320,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and a total environmental value of $220 million. The national program would have a benefit-to-cost ratio of 5:1, reaping a total environmental benefit of $440 billion, working under the assumption that multiple climate-smart practices are implemented on the same cropland acres and animal units after ten years of the program.
Producers will receive 50 percent of the payment upfront, 25 percent after implementation, and 25 percent after final reporting is completed. Limited-resource producers may be eligible for a 100 percent upfront payment.
The program will rely heavily on research and programs at Virginia Tech, including the Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP Report) and insights from experts in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and the School of Animal Sciences.
There will be rigorous monitoring during the three-year pilot program to ensure the transaction costs associated with implementing the climate-smart initiatives are minimized and that there are few barriers for producers who enact such initiatives in their operations. Virginia Tech researchers will track the greenhouse gas savings of the initiative as they are implemented, quantify the benefits of other environmental impacts such as reduced soil erosion, and examine consumers’ willingness to pay for products with climate-smart labels.
Some of the climate-smart practices in the program include:
- Crop practices: Cover crops; no-till; reduced till; nutrient management, including precision nutrient management; conservation crop rotation; silvopasture; riparian forest buffer; riparian herbaceous cover.
- Rice practices: Residue management, no-till; residue management, reduced till; irrigation water management–alternate wetting and drying for water conservation in rice; conservation crop rotation; nutrient management, including precision application and/or advanced formulations.
- Livestock practices: Comprehensive nutrient and manure management plan and implementation; roofs and covers; waste separation facility; feed management to reduce enteric emissions; prescribed grazing; nutrient management; silvopasture.
Each state participating in the program will work with local conservation districts and partner with organizations to ensure underserved producers are part of the program. Virginia Tech will also work to ensure that program enrollment is statistically representative of the diversity of agricultural operations within each state.
If this project is adopted nationally, Congress could set a target for a minimum level of additional reductions to be achieved and grant USDA authority to raise payment terms for new practice adoption without creating an incentive to delay adoption.
“This is an extraordinarily exciting time to be involved in agriculture,” Thompson said. “Farmers have always been the great stewards of our land, and American agriculture has long been a productivity powerhouse. This pilot program will help them continue to be so for generations to come.”
–Zeke Barlow, Virginia Tech