Peter Smallidge, Director of the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest in VanEtten, NY, checks the sugar levels on his maple sap research plots. Smallidge is partnering with Xiangtao Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, to test techniques that may help forests regrow after timber harvesting. 

$60M USDA grant supports NYS climate-smart farms and forests

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is partnering with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Department of Agriculture and Markets and a dozen other organizations to help farmers and private forest owners implement climate-smart practices, part of the state’s nation-leading commitment to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

On Sept. 20, state officials announced that the “NYS Connects: Climate Smart Farms and Forests Project”has been awarded a $60 million grant under the first-ever Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The project was one of 70 selected nationally from 450 submitted proposals. USDA’s total investment in these grants is $2.8 billion.

“The climate crisis is here and now and the only way to address it is to develop holistic solutions that also create a huge number of co-benefits, especially for landowners and farmers, who are critical allies in this fight,” said Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “This project will enable us to build collaborative, practical, scalable and equitable solutions that pay farmers for the many ecosystem services they provide.”

The statewide partners include CALS, Cornell Small Farms program, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Harvest NY Urban Agriculture program, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Syracuse University. Specific dollar amounts going to each of the statewide partners will be finalized in the next few months, according to the DEC.

“These funds will support the work of top-notch partners, like the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the State Department of Environmental Conservation, to make significant advancements in realizing New York State’s goal to slash greenhouse gas emissions,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York).

“In New York state, private forests are removing climate-altering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate equal to the emissions from 2 million gasoline-powered vehicles, highlighting the importance of partnering with landowners to sustain our forests and fight climate change,” said DEC Commissioner and Climate Action Council co-chair Basil Seggos.

“This USDA award is major, exciting news for New York, and will build on the tremendous work that has been ongoing at the state level to combat climate change,” said State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball. “Together… we are leading the way in innovative, best agricultural environmental practices that are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and helping farms build resiliency to the impacts of a changing climate.”

“We know that many farmers are already engaging in climate-protective practices, because of their commitment to the environment, the health and wellbeing of their farms and families and the knowledge that we all have to tend to our vulnerable natural resources,” said Anu Rangarajan, director of Cornell Small Farms. “This grant will give us a chance to reframe the way we talk about climate-change mitigation by engaging in market-based strategies that incentivize farmers to adopt more of these practices.”

Part of the USDA grant will facilitate innovative work to drive down methane reductions for dairy operations. A pilot program will help dairy farmers cost-share practices that utilize longstanding Cornell digital agriculture tools like the CNCPS system, and work will be verified through a methane measurement approach with PRO-DAIRY.

The project will also involve significant research on measuring and quantifying the greenhouse gas impacts or benefits of various farm and forestry practices, laying the groundwork for potential carbon markets – an effort to put price tags on environmental costs and benefits that are not accounted for in the open market but that have long-term impacts on the public. Carbon market proposals call for paying farmers and forest owners for adopting evidence-based practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester existing emissions.

Xiangtao Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, uses light detection and ranging, also known as lidar, techniques to estimate how much carbon forests are storing and sequestering. The technique reconstructs realistic tree structures by retrieving billions of laser shots and providing an accurate, rapid and non-disruptive way to measure tree circumference and estimate biomass. Temporal changes of biomass indicate how much greenhouse gas trees are taking in and converting into plant material.

For the new grant, Xu will be working with Peter Smallidge, director of Arnot Forest, to test whether slash walls – natural barriers built from branches and other non-marketable leftovers from logging, meant to keep deer from eating tree saplings – and other forestry practices help forests regrow after timber harvesting.

“New York wants to reach net zero by 2050 and a big part of the state’s carbon management plan is based on carbon assimilation in natural lands. But there’s huge uncertainty around how much carbon natural lands are really absorbing,” said Xu, who hopes his work will help reduce that uncertainty while supporting the New York timber industry. “I think we’re past the stage of arguing about whether we should address climate change; we’re at the stage of figuring out how to do it in the best, most accurate, most cost-effective way.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.