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Public-Private Partnerships Can Support Farmers: Op-ed by Jason Weller

This op-ed is by Jason Weller, chief of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It mentions a gathering offered by Conservation Finance Network and funded by NRCS. 

Innovation has its roots on the farm – where each day farmers adapt, balance and experiment, doing the most with less while striving for the best yields and healthiest landscapes. As the world’s population grows, farmers have less arable land available but more mouths to feed, while they also face challenges like drought and other climatic extremes. Farmers have their work cut out for them.

At the USDA, we also have our work cut out for us as we support farmers who face this enormous task, ensuring they have the tools and resources they need to maintain resilient and productive farms. Like our agricultural producers, USDA has to adapt, balance and experiment with new approaches to adjust to new realities and circumstances in the agricultural sector. On top of our successful collaborations with our more traditional conservation partners, we are increasingly reaching out to nontraditional partners to incubate innovative approaches and bring additional financial resources to the table.

One particular area of focus for NRCS is the realm of emerging environmental markets and the conservation finance sector. These market-based approaches can extend NRCS’s mission, stretch the public dollars we’re able to provide through the Farm Bill, and help us reach new partners and producers. Our investment in market-based approaches can help farmers take advantage of new financial opportunities and incorporate conservation activities that can improve the production and resilience of their operations.

In the past two years, through its Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program, NRCS has invested $12 million into 21 conservation finance pilot projects, through which partners match public dollars at least one-to-one. These cutting-edge projects are testing new financial approaches, leveraging environmental markets, and improving our ability to measure the impact of conservation actions on the landscape. Examples of these projects include:

  • The Climate Trust established a new Working Lands Carbon Facility to fund greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction projects on agricultural and forested lands.

  • Encourage Capital is establishing a Working Lands Investment Fund to stimulate investment in conservation through the purchase of carbon credits generated by producers.

  • Fresh Coast Capital is piloting an innovative approach to financing green infrastructure in legacy cities through impact investing in urban agroforestry and harvestable crops.

Another of the CIG projects helped Conservation Finance Network establish the Conservation Finance Practitioners Roundtable, a community of practice designed to help stakeholders grow the emerging sector. The Roundtable is meeting this week in Washington, DC. The Roundtable meetings are used to explore current issues and challenges in the conservation finance sector and provide a forum for support for the conservation finance CIG projects.

In addition to our financial assistance opportunities, NRCS provides scientific expertise and tools that are attractive to corporations seeking to increase the sustainability of their supply chains. We recently partnered with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to help the company reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of its milk suppliers. Ben & Jerry’s will be using COMET-Farm, a greenhouse gas estimation tool developed by NRCS in partnership with Colorado State University, to help its dairy farmers better understand the greenhouse-gas implications of land-management actions.

Future of Public-Private Partnerships

Through engagement with the private sector, we have learned that the growing field of conservation finance offers tremendous opportunities to deploy significant investment capital to protect, restore and maintain our natural ecosystems.

According to a recent report produced by Credit Suisse, World Wildlife Fund, and McKinsey & Company, approximately $52 billion is invested per year in conservation projects across the world, with government providing the large majority of the investment. This is a great start, but estimates are that we need an annual investment of between $300 billion and $400 billion to preserve healthy ecosystems. Private investment capital can go a long way toward filling this gap to finance the productive capacity and health of our ecosystems.

Conservation finance and environmental markets are relatively new lines of business for NRCS. We are analyzing some of our flagship conservation programs to explore how we could do a better job leveraging private capital. By leveraging the financial and technical resources of NRCS and other public-sector agencies, our hope is that we can help unlock the enormous potential of private investments to help us maintain and improve our natural-resource base while ensuring the sustainable production of food, fiber and fuel in the future.

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