Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new round of climate-smart commodities projects, funding smaller initiatives that target niche markets and often have a greater role for minority farmers and institutions.

Some 71 projects will share up to $325 million, with most of them receiving close to $5 million, the limit for the latest round. The first round of awards, announced in September, totaled 70 projects that will share up to $2.8 billion.

The projects are designed to measure and verify the impact of climate-related farm practices and to test ways to market commodities that are produced with a smaller environmental footprint.

“We recognized in developing and designing of this program that it wasn't enough to create large projects, that we also had to address and attend to the needs of small-sized family operations, as well as those who have been historically underserved,” said Vilsack, who announced the latest round of funding during an appearance at Tuskegee University, a historically Black institution in Alabama.

The broader initiative will involve 60,000 farmers. Vilsack said the projects, which will be carried over one to five years, should collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 million metric tons during the period they are in effect.

USDA is funding the projects through its Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority, but participating farmers also could receive help through farm bill conservation programs, which were bolstered by the Inflation Reduction Act enacted earlier this year. 

The commodities targeted in the latest round of projects include buffalo, sheep, goats, eggs, dairy products, hemp, leafy greens, wheat, chestnuts, pecans, walnuts, tomatoes, peaches, prunes, elderberries and wood products.

Corn and soybeans also figure into a few of the projects, including one led by Yale University, which will use basalt dust, rather than agricultural lime, to increase soil pH through a method known as “enhanced rock weathering” to accelerate carbon sequestration.

Other projects in the latest round include one led by the University of Illinois to employ minority farmers across five states in scaling up robotic cover crop planting and the verification of soil carbon levels through robotic sensing technology.

A project led by Central State University, a historically Black school in Ohio, will help minority vegetable and beef cattle producers in Ohio and southern Michigan adopt climate-related practices. Small-scale and urban farmers will get funding to pay for a portion of their operating costs.

A Chickasaw Nation project in Oklahoma is aimed at marketing pecans verified as climate-smart. Farmers in the project will receive incentives for reducing chemical applications on pecan trees and converting pastures to multiple species of native grasses.

A project led by the American Lamb Board will measure the soil health and greenhouse gas benefits provided by prescribed grazing at four demonstration sites. Historically underserved producers will get funding and technical assistance as part of the project.

Tuskegee is involved in several projects and is the lead partner in two, one in agroforestry and the other aimed at developing “silvopasture systems and climate-resilient forage systems” for sheep and goats. That project’s goals include creating a mobile processing and marketing system to support sales to farmers’ markets and local restaurants.

Olga Bolden-Tiller, dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences at Tuskegee, said the animals will be fed high-protein crops such as legumes to help them gain weight more quickly, “which improves productivity and profitability.”

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