Climate Smart Commodities for Idaho – A Public-Private-Tribal Partnership

By Doug Finkelnburg, University of Idaho Extension

Cattle graze swathed cover-crops in annually cropped field in North Idaho
Cattle graze swathed cover-crops in annually cropped field in North Idaho, an example of crop and livestock practices that will be supported by the Climate Smart Commodities for Idaho grant. Photo: Doug Finkelnburg.

The largest grant ever awarded in the history of the University of Idaho will explore how Idaho’s agriculture can address climate change. Over the next five years, $55 million will be spent to research and implement greenhouse gas (GHG) reducing practices in Idaho’s farming and ranching systems. The goal of this effort is to reduce the emission of up to 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year in Idaho alone, roughly equivalent to preventing the consumption of 7 million gallons of gasoline (I calculated this with the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator—a pretty neat tool). This is one of 70 projects USDA selected to receive $2.8 billion to better characterize GHG emissions related to agricultural production and develop mitigation strategies.

What sets this effort apart from previous climate-change and agriculture focused grants, other than the sheer scale of the effort, is its focus on implementation first and research second. More than half of the funds will be allocated directly to producers for field-scale practice implementation. Research will follow practice implementation to provide clearer, more accurate assessments of “climate-smart” practice related carbon sequestration, emissions reductions, or supply chain efficiencies achieved in an Idaho context. For example, several practices are already identified by NRCS as “climate smart” but some are potentially more beneficial to producers in certain regions more so than others depending on a number of site-specific conditions. By documenting real-world practice implementation across the state, we can better understand which practices in which areas achieve both GHG reduction goals and ensure farm and ranch resiliency. Put another way, we are exploring which practices have the best net return on investment for the farmer/rancher.

This isn’t to say research won’t be involved. We will collect data from every participant and at some select locations, we will carry out intense monitoring of not just greenhouse gas emissions but also yields, pests, weeds, plant diseases, net returns and soil health impacts. Further, we will evaluate market-based incentives for climate smart commodities. This includes research delineating supply chains, supporting development of climate smart certification for contracts, and assessing consumer appetite and thresholds for climate smart product purchase. The hope is that by identifying and eliminating inefficiencies in the farm-to-market process (which reduce producer costs and decrease GHG emissions) and by collecting the data to support a “better for the climate” claim, we can collectively help market-based incentives drive further innovation and create a positive feedback loop.

The potential upside of this effort cannot be overstated. It has been recognized for some time that there is a disconnect between consumers, who increasingly want, or demand, products produced with our climate challenges in mind, and the independent producers implementing practices that reduce the agricultural carbon footprint. Customers may be willing to pay a price premium for climate-friendly products, but commoditized agriculture has been seen as an impediment to this, since agricultural commodities are comingled and any identity, or value attached to the product’s method of production, is lost to the producer before the product’s ultimate consumption. This leaves the producer to absorb any extra costs or investments associated with climate-friendly production, without being able to claim the benefits. By identifying ways to reduce GHG emissions while maintaining or improving farm and ranch resiliency, Climate Smart Commodities for Idaho has the potential to increase demand for climate-friendly practices in some of our largest agricultural commodities: sugar, beef, potatoes, grains, and ultimately beer.

Truck on a field with crop residue being loaded with a front end loader
Agricultural lime is applied to mitigate acid soils, increasing nitrogen use efficiency and reducing need for synthetic fertilizer inputs. Photo: Doug Finkelnburg

That is the meta-view. What does Climate Smart Commodities for Idaho look like at the implementation level? The Idaho Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene Tribes, Desert Mountain Grass-fed Beef and The Idaho Chapter of The Nature Conservancy will contract with producers to implement individual projects much like the NRCS does today with conservation grants. Those partners will be responsible for allocating funds and ensuring practices are implemented as outlined in individual producer contracts. They will also provide technical advice and assist in monitoring and data collection. Necessarily, this effort will differ from NRCS conservation programs by having more flexibility to experiment with practice implementation.

Which practices will be supported? Those crop and livestock practices that reduce emissions and or build carbon stocks including livestock feed production and manure management, crop-livestock integration, precision fertilizer application, soil amendments, reduced tillage, and increased soil coverage.

At University of Idaho Extension we will coordinate with these funded partners to help highlight individual projects through enhanced demonstration projects, field-days and producers’ meetings. We will also amplify lessons learned, reaching out to and sharing information with Idaho producers not able to be directly involved.

It’s going to be wild! At the end of the day though, healthier, more resilient food production systems within Idaho will be the result of these efforts. If all goes to plan, this project will serve as a model for future action in other states and a catalyst for more climate resilient food for everyone.