HomeGrantsClimate-smart agriculture recommendations consider social and environmental co-benefits of soil health

Climate-smart agriculture recommendations consider social and environmental co-benefits of soil health

In 2020, the Institute on the Environment hosted the Agricultural Climate Solutions workshop where a small group of attendees coalesced around a shared interest in establishing goals and comprehensive tracking systems that account for not only greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, but also other environmental and social co-benefits of soil health climate solutions in Minnesota agriculture. That group was awarded an IonE Impact Goal grant to continue their work on an agricultural carbon monitoring and tracking project. With the grant they hosted a workshop and drafted recommendations for four distinct communities of people to take action. They share their reflection on the workshop and recommendations here.

Our project on agricultural carbon monitoring and tracking is wrapping up following a successful workshop and recommendations for legislators, state agencies, community and farm organizations, and researchers. “We decided early on that this effort would focus on soil health based solutions because those have the potential to reduce emissions, sequester carbon, and help agricultural lands adapt to climate change– benefits worth pursuing despite the unknowns!” said Jessica Gutknecht, associate professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate, IonE Fellow, and project principal investigator. 

Because of an increased interest and funding available for climate solutions in agriculture, we have a pivotal opportunity to achieve the broad ecological benefits of soil health improvements in tandem with building social resilience. Funds for agricultural climate solutions are currently landing in a “Wild West” setting of soft agricultural emissions reductions and sequestration assumptions, but a holistic monitoring and tracking effort could identify effective strategies that move us toward clear, shared environmental and social goals. Those goals should be set for a net emissions reduction of 30 percent in 6 years and deeper reductions over longer horizons and the advancement of participation by small- and medium-sized farming operations and underserved, underrepresented, and historically excluded farmers. 

“Climate-smart agriculture is a hot topic,” noted Aaron Reser, associate director of Green Lands Blue Waters, project partner and workshop facilitator. That helped bring together about 60 people to a virtual workshop in the summer of 2022 to generate ideas for systemic tracking and monitoring that includes social and environmental outcomes. Significant attention and intention was paid to recruiting diverse attendees to the workshop and we had an effective mix of university faculty and staff, farmer- and policy-focused nonprofit staff, state agency staff, national agricultural and climate experts, and farmers and other agriculture-engaged community voices. 

Despite their diverse expertise and experience, and within an overall context of unsettled science and policy, our workshop attendees were in clear agreement: systems are at a breaking point and the consequences of inaction are dire. It was important to all to assert that agricultural climate solutions are already available and that a fair proportion of available climate-smart agriculture funding ought to be accessible to farmers using soil health based practices, particularly farmers who are women, racially diverse, and operating smaller-sized farms. 

An important outcome of the workshop was written recommendations to guide stakeholder actions for legislators, state agencies, community and farm organizations, and researchers. George Boody, science and special projects lead at SoilCarbon LLC, says, “The Minnesota legislature, in this past historic year, moved the needle forward in significant ways on the soil health front with massive new funding. However, the impacts of that funding depend on a better understanding of just what climate smart agriculture is and is not, and how much it can move the needle to lower emissions and remove some of the excess atmospheric CO2 in the context of social equity. Our recommendations speak directly to those issues.” Outreach on those recommendations is ongoing.

Through the workshop and writing our recommendations, we learned a tremendous amount about the creativity and insight that can come from rich dialogue and team thinking. We also learned, and acknowledge, that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to build a diverse, multi-stakeholder community. But that effort is necessary and matters because this kind of ingenuity and community thinking is what is needed to shift the needle on climate change. We hope that the recommendations that resulted from this project, which are freely available for all to use, will be useful for fueling future conversations and action.


This team was led by Jessica Gutknecht ( IonE Fellow; UMN Department of Soil, Water, and Climate; Forever Green Initiative), and includes Joel Tallaksen (UMN – West Central Research and Outreach Center), George Boody (SoilCarbon, LLC; Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture; Retired from Land Stewardship Project), Peter Ciborowski (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), Jennifer Schmitt (IonE), Eric Lonsdorf (IonE), Colin Cureton (Forever Green Initiative), Aaron Reser (Green Lands Blue Waters) and Erin Meier (Green Lands Blue Waters). 

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