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With support from a new grant, some Native American farmers and ranchers are getting first-hand exposure to the benefits of carbon farming.
Historically, the grasslands of the U.S. have been home to a diverse range of species, including large herds of grazing animals. Today, there are more than 600 million acres of grazed land nationwide, both native and improved pasture, with a high concentration in the Plains and Western United States. These grazed lands are iconic North American landscapes, but perhaps more importantly are central to the livelihood of many Native American farmers and ranchers. Notably, there is a greater proportion of Native American farms classified as beef cattle farms or ranches than the nationwide average: 37% compared to 29%.
These statistics demonstrate both the challenges and the opportunities for agricultural carbon markets and conservation programs in Native farmland. While these programs have the potential to provide rural communities, including tribal nations, with significant ecological and economic benefits, Native American farmers and ranchers may be inclined not to participate. Lack of information tailored to the specifics of Native American farming and ranching could inhibit enrollment, and historically underserved producers may not have adequate evidence from first-hand demonstrations to be convinced of the long-term benefit of implementing conservation practices.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of programs in the carbon space, including Carbon by Indigo. We at Indigo are interested in ensuring our program is tailored to historically underserved producers. Carbon positive farming practices can enable an additional revenue stream along with increased soil health, ensuring these lands stay productive for generations of Native landowners and communities.
A step forward
To address these issues, the National Indian Carbon Coalition (NICC) has been awarded a two-year grant from the USDA-NRCS Equity Conservation Cooperative Agreements program, that will enable NICC and Indigo to work together to support Native American farmers in carbon farming practices. NICC, in collaboration with Indigo, will use the funds to establish grazing and cropland demonstration sites with Native American producers that quantify the impact of different management strategies on soil organic carbon, and serve as educational sites for historically underserved producers.
Equity will be a vital part of our climate change work, as America’s farmers and rural communities are on the frontlines of climate change.
Indigo will enable the generation of high-quality, verified carbon credits on these demonstration sites and will produce standards for project developers to ensure adequate consideration in carbon programs is made for Native American farmers and ranchers. Indigo in collaboration with NICC and NRCS will develop guidelines for Native American producers to ensure awareness of USDA NRCS programs like Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), as well as loan programs offered by USDA to historically underrepresented groups.
In announcing this grant, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack emphasized: “Equity will be a vital part of our climate change work, as America’s farmers and rural communities are on the frontlines of climate change. Our work with producers and partners will invest in climate smart solutions that improve profitability and resilience, open new market opportunities, and build wealth that stays in rural communities.”
Indigo is excited to partner with NICC to further these goals and ensure equal access to carbon programs and resources.
The grazing opportunity
Grazed lands play an important role in carbon farming. Grazing systems worldwide are found in marginal landscapes generally unsuitable for cropping. These landscapes are typically characterized by lower soil fertility and rainfall, and/or varied topography. The same elements that make these lands ideal for grazing also contribute to their fragility. Integrated grazing practices are one of the five key principles of proper soil health management and can help protect these working lands. Additionally, there is growing evidence that with proper management the potential for carbon sequestration is substantial in both integrated cropland (grazing and crops) and in perennial grasslands.
Quantifying these carbon changes is a significant hurdle for registry-approved programs like Carbon by Indigo. Numerous potential combinations of grazing management practices, methane emissions, and nitrous oxide emissions are difficult to quantify and model. This variation in geography and landscape coupled with the wide variety of ways in which farmers and ranchers manage their grazed acres has led to a range of outcomes in existing studies. The demonstration sites funded by this grant will help us gain a deeper understanding of the effects of implementing specific grazing management practices in both cropland and perennial grasslands and will refine our understanding of which carbon farming practices lead to the best outcomes in specific geographies.
What we will do
NICC, in partnership with Indigo Ag, will develop resources to increase access to carbon crediting opportunities and NRCS programs for Native American tribes and individuals, as well as implement demonstration sites with Native American producers in cropland and grazing systems. Our goals are to:
- Establish grazing demonstration sites with Native American producers to quantify the impacts of different grazing management strategies on soil organic carbon
- Establish cropland demonstration sites with Native American producers that will serve as educational sites while generating high-quality, verified carbon credits
- Develop standards and guidelines for project developers to ensure adequate consideration in programs is made for Native American farmers and ranchers, and for Native American producers to ensure awareness of USDA NRCS programs using Carbon by Indigo
NICC and Indigo will partner directly with native growers and cattle producers on their own operations. We will identify sites that have been historically managed with continuous grazing and will work with the farmers to implement new rotational grazing strategies, comparing the two approaches over the lifetime of the grant. Additionally, Indigo will identify cropland demonstration sites with tribal producers for comparison of climate positive practices with conventional practices. Indigo will also support these growers’ enrollment and participation in our Carbon by Indigo program.
Indigo’s yearly soil collection across every site will be used to evaluate changes in soil carbon and bulk density resulting from regenerative practice changes on a yearly basis. Some grazed sites will also be monitored with eddy covariance towers to assess carbon dioxide emissions, which are essential in grazing systems to understand the full GHG footprint of the different grazing practices.
NICC has identified preliminary sites with Native American tribes across South Dakota and Oklahoma. These locations have large swaths of tribally managed grazing land and cropland. Each new research location will complement Indigo’s existing Soil Carbon Experiment sites in furthering our understanding of the impact of regenerative practices across environments. Additionally, these experimental locations will be used as demonstration sites for Indigo and NICC.
Indigo’s Soil Carbon Experiment
Since 2019, Indigo has enrolled thousands of acres in the Soil Carbon Experiment, a multi-year project aimed at deepening our understanding of the effect carbon farming practices have on soil carbon. We are excited to expand the scope of this experiment in a way that is aligned with Indigo’s mission. This grant will support our work to generate high-quality carbon credits and will help pave the way for our expansion into grazed lands. In collaboration with NICC, growers and cattle producers and these locations across the country will open the opportunity to generate high-quality, verified credits and will provide historically underserved populations guidance on the practice changes needed to participate in carbon markets.
NICC is an American Indian-led nonprofit program that helps tribal nations and individual Indian landowners take advantage of carbon credit and other environmental commodities markets through the development of carbon sequestration or offset projects. Carbon projects offer a unique opportunity for tribes to protect their land, preserve it for future generations, and generate long-term income for the tribe with minimal risk and maximum return. NICC is a trusted partner for tribes and tribal communities, ensuring that tribal interests are protected and potential revenues are maximized.
About the Authors
Ryan Dierking is a Senior Data Scientist at Indigo Ag and Adriel Hsu-Flanders is a Product Manager for Carbon Quant Product at Indigo Ag.