Virginia Tech's Burruss Hall. Courtesy of Ben Schumin.

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, according to a release from the school.

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.

“This is a watershed program that helps the agricultural industry be a leader in addressing climate change,” said Tom Thompson, principal investigator on the project and associate dean of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a statement.

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 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.

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.