A new pilot program that will pay farmers to adopt conservation practices has launched with overwhelming interest from New York farmers. The New York Outcomes Fund, a partnership of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association and the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, formally launched at the growers association’s annual meeting Jan. 19. The fund supports farmers transitioning to regenerative agriculture practices that generate science-based carbon reductions and water quality improvements.
“We were concerned about getting 1,000 acres, and we received interest from over 10,000 acres in one day,” said Dr. Mark Humbert, co-owner of Humbert Farms in Rose, NY and a board member of the NY Corn & Soybean Growers Association. “When you’re in a large group of farmers in New York and a third of them sign up and say, ‘we’re interested in talking to you about doing this,’ that’s impressive. That shows there’s a hunger for this.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the number had risen to 36,000 acres – though the pilot program currently only has funding for a fraction of that interest, said Alan Martinez, senior manager for strategic partnerships at Cornell Atkinson. Martinez and John Tobin, professor of practice in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, have spent the past two years researching innovative financing strategies to help farmers adopt regenerative agricultural practices in the Great Lakes watershed. The NY Outcomes Fund uses a “pay-for-performance” approach that compensates farmers for the greenhouse gas (GHG) and water quality benefits produced by new regenerative practices. Farmer payments are supported by corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit institutions who purchase the GHG and water quality outcomes to address sustainability commitments. All outcomes are verified through field visits and sampling. The just-launched pilot is funded by an initial investment from the Great Lakes Protection Fund. Martinez said that in light of the initial success of the launch, the partnership is exploring a path to expand the program with additional investors and outcome buyers.
“We’re looking for partners that see an opportunity for NY agriculture to work better for people and the planet. If successful, this pilot will help us understand what it takes to transition more land from conventional to regenerative practices,” Martinez said. “Many organizations in the public and private sectors are interested in solutions that can scale to address climate, water quality, and biodiversity challenges. We have built a plug-and-play solution for those who have sustainability targets, but don’t know exactly how to reach them.”
There are several programs focused on paying farmers for carbon sequestration, but the New York Outcomes Fund takes a broader view, paying farmers for a wider variety of management changes that lead to cleaner water, healthier soils and they plan to explore biodiversity outcomes too, Martinez said.
Martinez and Humbert both credit the success of the launch to the fact that the program was developed collaboratively, rather than dictated top-down. Over the past two years, Martinez and his team, with support from Cornell Cooperative Extension, have talked with more than 300 farmers and their partners, as part of the Transition Finance for Regenerative Agriculture Systems project, which was developed in partnership with the Great Lakes Protection Fund.
“Sometimes we farmers can be seen as the enemy because of some of the stuff we do, whether it’s manure or pesticides or whatever,” Humbert said. “But we’re not doing this to ruin the water, ruin the soil, ruin the air – most of us are trying to pass our farms down to our children and grandchildren, so we see soil and water as a legacy that we want to protect.”
Humbert adopted many conservation practices on his farm years ago – strategies like no-till farming and planting cover crops, which reduce erosion, improve soil health and sequester carbon. He found that for the first three years after implementing regenerative changes, he saw a lag in yields and profits before improvements in soil health led to increases in yields and profits. It can be hard for farmers to adopt practices that will hurt their short-term bottom line, he said.
“So how do you incentivize farmers who may be on the fence or not even interested, if they know full well that for the first few years, they’re not even going to make money doing this?” Humbert said. “The model our partnership is building could really move things forward. And hopefully folks can stop thinking of us farmers as the problem; we want to be part of the solution.”
Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.