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University of Missouri aims to recruit 3,000 farms for climate-smart practices with USDA grant

Cattle graze in a pasture on Mac Kincaid's farm in Jasper, Missouri. Grazing promotes soil health and is one of many regenerative agriculture practices supported through the USDA grant.
Betheny Bedeker
Center for Regenerative Agriculture
Cattle graze in a pasture on Mac Kincaid's farm in Jasper, Missouri. Grazing promotes soil health and is one of many regenerative agriculture practices supported through the USDA grant.

The largest federal grant in University of Missouri history is focused on helping farmers implement climate-smart practices.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the $25 million grant to the university’s two-year-old Center for Regenerative Agriculture earlier this fall.

The project is one of 140 nationwide in a $3.1 billion effort by the USDA to create climate smart commodities.

Director Rob Myers said the center intends to reach 3,000 farmers and affect 500,000 acres of land across Missouri in the next five years — going a long way toward the center’s overall goal of developing more resilient farms and food systems.

Farmers will receive a financial incentive for implementing practices like cover crops, agroforestry and grazing. But Myers says farmers are most motivated by improving their land.

“The number one thing driving interest in regenerative ag for farmers is soil health, no doubt about it,” he said.

Other climate smart USDA grant-funded projects in the Midwest include plans to implement climate smart grains for chicken production, prescribed sheep grazing and diverse crop rotations.

Missouri farmers are currently managing a months-long drought and in recent years experienced debilitating rains. Myers said the near constant rains in 2019 tied the hands of farmers and over a million acres in the state went unplanted.

“The land was just left idle because the farmers couldn't plant the fields; (they) were too wet and muddy,” he said.

Regenerative farming practices aim to help improve the resiliency of crops and livestock. Kelly Wilson, assistant director at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, said farmers are interested in protecting their farms and their soil against increasingly intense weather.

“Farmers are definitely seeing extreme weather every year, whether it's flooding or drought, sometimes in the same year,” Wilson said. “They are seeking ways to address it.”

The financial incentives for participating farmers will be based on which regenerative agriculture practices are implemented and on how many acres. The center wants all types of farmers to be able to participate, from those that grow large quantities of commodities to urban farmers. Wilson is also working to make sure this program can help small producers.

“If you're a horticulturist, if you're a vegetable farm, and you only farm, I don't know, an acre of vegetables, it's not worth it to get a $30 payment,” she said.

Large food and agriculture companies have begun to incentivize regenerative practices for their producers. The Center for Regenerative Agriculture wants to help farmers take advantage of this burgeoning market.

“Let's say a soybean farmer is using something like a cover crop to improve the way they're doing that from a climate change standpoint,” Myers said. “If they're doing that, then the question is, is there some buyer that will pay the farmer more for using that practice?”

Regenerative agriculture is increasingly being seen as a solution to climate change due to its ability to keep carbon in the soil. However, there is still a lot unknown about the longevity of that carbon capture. University researchers will also test soil on farms that use regenerative practices in the next five years in hopes of providing more answers.

Wilson notes 61% of farmland is not owned by the person cultivating it. Getting landowners on board has big potential, both for farmers interested in sustainable practices and owners who are invested in the longevity of the land.

“That's like a big untapped area that could really move the needle a lot more,” Wilson said.

The Center for Regenerative Agriculture’s website provides resources and information for farmers, consumers and landowners. Since the award was announced, Wilson has been working to connect with interested Missouri farmers and get started.

“We really are excited to be able to actually put those incentive payments in the hands of farmers,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referenced heavy rains and flooding in Missouri as having occurred in 2018. The correct year was 2019.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

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