Workforce Training Prepares Planners to Deliver Holistic Support to Farmers and Ranchers Scaling Climate-Beneficial Agriculture

Partners in Yolo County assess opportunities to increase above and below-ground carbon storage (sequestration) through adopting carbon farming land management practices.

Growing support for and investments in agricultural climate solutions will necessitate building and training a workforce of on-the-ground technical assistance providers equipped with a strong background in agricultural management systems and practices, agroecology, and climate science. To meet this demand and fill a gap in training opportunities, the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI) is scaling its carbon farm planning education and training program in partnership with universities, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and state associations of conservation districts in California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

CCI’s in-depth Carbon Farm Planning training utilizes an online curriculum developed in collaboration with Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences (COMET Team) and NRCS. CCI conducts formal training events with partnering organizations such as Chico State University’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems (CRARS) and offers ongoing support through one-on-one planning guidance, monthly Café Hour webinars, and a shared library of resources and tools. Our “Café Hour” training series provides technical support and continuing education to carbon farm planners, focusing on topics identified by participants. Café Hour workshops are held online via Zoom, greatly facilitating access for participants across the country. Where appropriate, Café Hour trainings are conducted by partnering carbon farm planners and targeted Conservation District, NRCS, and Cooperative Extension staff working on building carbon farming programs across the country. View recordings of past Café Hours here.

Learn More: Investing in Training and Workforce Development for Agricultural Conservation Professionals is a Critical Step in Realizing Agriculture’s Ability to Mitigate the Climate Crisis.

CCI’s training and on-going technical support provided a new perspective for participants like Casey Moninghoff, who was part of the CRARS Technical Service Provider Program: “Before taking this course, I looked at a landscape and just thought that it’s the way that it is, and that’s it. Maybe we can plant more grass or add trees, but the landscape is mostly going to stay the same.” Casey explains, “I’ve had a paradigm shift after taking this course. I now see farming and ranching as a creative practice, with inputs and outputs that can be managed to create the desired effect and to increase the health of the farm, the individual, and the community. The health of all is related and they are all dependent on each other.”

Dr. Jeff Creque, Director of Rangeland and Agroecosystem Management at CCI, says partners and programs are crucial to expanding the capacity of carbon farm planners and uptake of carbon farming by agricultural producers throughout the United States. While demand for the training programs is high, more funding is needed to expand the work across the country. “Nationally, we don’t currently have the basic workforce and skill sets needed to scale this work,” Creque said. “If we can provide technical support to farmers to implement carbon conserving practices, to take a whole farm perspective, to engage in climate beneficial agriculture, we then have the capacity — the boots on the ground, if you will — to do the work.”

Learning On-the-Job and Sharing Carbon Farm Planning Knowledge with Producers

GrizzlyCorps Rural Climate Fellow, Katie Smith, served with the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District and completed CCI’s Carbon Farm Planning training.

By partnering with universities, Conservation Districts, extension services, and other organizations, CCI extends its reach and workforce development efforts and exposes more people to potential work opportunities in climate mitigation. One example is the GrizzlyCorps, an AmeriCorps fellowship that sends recent college graduates into rural communities across California to promote regenerative agri-food systems and fire and forest resilience. Several GrizzlyCorps fellows have gone through CCI’s training, and some have accepted long-term positions with California Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs).

Katie Smith is among the more recent participants in CCI’s carbon farm planning training offered in partnership with Chico State University. As a 2021-2022 GrizzlyCorps Rural Climate Fellow with the Mendocino County RCD, Smith was able to enroll in Chico State University’s new professional Technical Assistance Provider Program. As part of the training, Katie has worked on a number of carbon farm plans with guidance from Lynette Niebrugge, Associate Director of Education and Training at CCI. 

CCI’s and Chico State University’s training program, along with direct producer engagement opportunities through her work with the RCD, provide an invaluable on-the-job experience for Smith. On-farm site visits offer important learning opportunities for Smith, learning firsthand from agricultural producers and more experienced technical service providers: “Often you’re there with a team — folks from the RCD, from CCI or Fibershed, with different backgrounds. So you get this whole wealth of information thrown at you about the land, the practices, and the links to the local farming community,” she says.

Just a year after starting her carbon farm planning training, Smith sees its enormous potential to help producers and others in the agricultural community address the effects of climate change and adapt their practices for the future — and it appeals for a variety of reasons. “The most remarkable thing about carbon farm planning is that it is so easy to tailor it to whomever you’re talking to because you don’t have to talk about it as a carbon drawdown solution,” she says. “You can talk about it as climate resilience, about the fact that you save yourself water and therefore you save yourself money by doing these practices. Or you can really go in and talk about land stewardship and how these are land-based solutions to our climate crisis.”

It’s a much-needed way to help vulnerable communities cultivate a more resilient future, according to Smith. One of her key takeaways about carbon farm planning assistance is: “We’re also supporting rural communities that desperately need support and are a huge part of the solution and are being affected the most severely.”

Building Relationships through Carbon Farm Planning with Producers Who See the Impacts of Climate Change

Ben Weise, Contra Costa RCD, discussing riparian corridor with Kelsey Nichols at McCormack Ranch. Image by Paige Green.

Ben Weise, Agricultural Conservation Manager at the Contra Costa RCD, has used carbon farm planning in his work since he went through a CCI training in 2018. Before that, he shadowed a carbon farming planning effort with the Marin RCD and Marin Carbon Project that provided a foundation for further learning.

Working on carbon farm planning allows Weise to build strong and rewarding relationships with producers. “You can really get to know them when you sit down at a table or walk their farm with them, talk about where they think their problems are or might crop up down the road,” he says, adding that those strong relationships can lead to deeper work in the future. “Then we’ll come back a year later and say, ‘We found this potential funding source,’ or ‘I had this idea when I was out on another farm – what do you think about this?’”

Weise has been pleasantly surprised by the number of producers interested in carbon farm planning because they realize how the climate crisis affects their operations — and what that means for the future. “It’s an unfortunate reality that some folks tend to think that farmers maybe skew a little bit more conservative, they’re not as interested in climate change,” he says. “These guys are out on their fields almost daily; they’re seeing the impacts that are out there.”

While his training experience with carbon farm planning was at first a bit overwhelming — “it was a bit like drinking out of a firehose” — Weise says now it is an inherent part of his work. “I drive around the county looking at sites and just say, ‘Oh, that’d be a great spot for a hedgerow. And this area could really use a windbreak.’ So it’s almost become a bit of second nature.”

Since 2015, CCI has trained 431 conservation professionals nationally and our carbon farm planning framework has been utilized in the development of carbon farm plans on over 184 California farms and ranches with a potential climate benefit of over 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent sequestered over 20 years. Through its partnership with Chico State University’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems Technical Service Provider Program, CCI is committed to training a minimum of 40 agricultural conservation professionals annually in California.