Investing in Training and Workforce Development for Agricultural Conservation Professionals Is a Critical Step in Realizing Agriculture’s Ability to Mitigate the Climate Crisis

Jim Jensen from Jensen Ranch reviewing a carbon farm plan for his ranch. Image by Paige Green.

Agricultural lands present one of our most valuable opportunities to scale up rates of carbon sequestration across the globe. Carbon farming—intentionally managing agricultural lands to maximize carbon capture and recarbonize the landscape—is an essential tool in addressing climate change that also builds ecological health and helps make farms more resilient to a changing climate. In a historic first, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture have created new funding programs for conservation and carbon farm plan development, an important element in scaling agricultural climate solutions. 

With the widespread adoption of carbon farming practices, the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI) estimates that California’s agricultural lands could sequester over 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually by 2030, more than offsetting the agricultural sector’s own GHG emissions and contributing significantly to the state’s overall climate goals. One of the critical barriers to scaling the adoption of these practices has been farmers’ and ranchers’ limited access to agricultural conservation professionals with expertise in climate adaptation and mitigation. The role of agricultural professionals — including Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) staff, university extension offices staff, and others — as technical assistance providers is critical in helping agricultural producers identify, plan, fund and implement carbon farming practices. 

Carbon cycle literacy and understanding of the role of carbon in agricultural landscapes are critical for the next generation of agricultural conservation professionals to meet the urgency of the climate crisis. Investments in training and workforce development for agricultural conservation professionals are needed to ensure California’s farmers and ranchers have access to trained agricultural conservation professionals with expertise in climate adaptation and mitigation.

CCI’s Jeff Creque and Lynette Niebrugge at a field training for RCDs discussing Carbon Farm Planning and demonstrating soil sampling.

CCI has focused on building technical assistance capacity and public sector support for carbon farm planning and implementation since its establishment in 2013. This has meant developing the tools, methods, and training opportunities needed to establish local and regional carbon farm planning programs; partnering with universities to expand education and training programs; and working closely with partners such as the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, California Climate and Agriculture Network, and The Climate Center to increase public sector investments in essential technical and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers. 

CCI and Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems, Carbon Farm Training January 2020. Image by Lynette/CCI.

One of CCI’s partners in scaling carbon farm planning education and training opportunities in California is Chico State University’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems. We asked Dr. Cynthia Daley, the Center’s director, to share with us more about the value of these training programs and the need for such programs to expand the capacity of carbon farm planners and uptake of carbon farming throughout California and the U.S.

Dr. Daley training students. Image courtesy of Chico State University.

What is your vision to expand workforce development around climate-beneficial and regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is the future of agriculture. There’s no doubt about that. But for growers to go down that path, they must have access to technical expertise. I love what the California Department of Food and Agriculture is doing with the Healthy Soils Program because it is easy for growers to offset some of the implementation costs associated with regenerative agriculture. To facilitate more comprehensive use of programs like that, we must continue to grow the technical service base. We also need to continue the dialogue as it relates to soil health, water use efficiency, and economic return. Those are not difficult conversations to have with growers. 

We need trained technical staff to support climate-smart agriculture. This involves training those already in the industry as pest control advisors, certified crop advisors, agricultural consultants, NRCS staff, RCD staff, and farm and ranch managers, in addition to those students who are coming through the University system in agronomy, soil science, land resource management, animals science, etc.

What are the educational and training opportunities needed, from a workforce development perspective, for creating a pipeline of next-generation trained conservation/regenerative farm and ranch planners or TA providers? What opportunities are currently provided to Chico State students? 

We have developed a Technical Service Provider (TSP) Training Program. This program is designed for both industry personnel and students. Carbon farm planning is incorporated into our course on holistic farm and ranch planning and design. People that go through the TSP program are also connected with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to get credentialed through their program. We have been helping guide people through their training to combat that bottleneck in the industry.

CCI is our partner in this programming. We use their trainers and curriculum in our Holistic Farm and Ranch Planning and Design Course. CCI staff are the best carbon farm planning trainers in the country. The institutional knowledge that CCI brings to the table is considerable; the carbon farm plans that come from people they have trained are complete, sophisticated, and doable. We value their approach and expertise. 

What resources and state support do universities need to develop the necessary training and educational opportunities for undergraduate students?

Technical service training is essential to the governor’s implementation plan to bring California into carbon neutrality. Agriculture has to do its part. We can be a part of the solution if we have the resources and support to make it happen. We are currently working off grants, but we would love to have a line item in the state budget to continue to do what we do, but on a much larger scale. 

We have a lot of work to do if we want to make a dent in this climate crisis.