By Cara Urban

Cultivating Farmer Acceptance Is Critical To The Future of Ecosystem Service Markets 

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October 25, 2022

Between the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, the recent round of USDA Climate-Smart Commodities grant awards, and more, the last few months have given the marketplace powerful signals re-centering agriculture as a source for climate benefits. Amid this attention and expectation, we at Trust In Food feel it has never been more critical to start the conversation with our new discussion paper, Ready or Not? Agricultural Carbon Markets and U.S. Farmers, and its most important finding: 90% of farmers surveyed need to see something different from today’s landscape to consider participating in a carbon market.

A deep dive into the nuance and reasoning behind this number is presented in the report. But to make a long story short, our data-driven conclusions suggest a startlingly simple explanation: Participation in carbon markets and other ecosystem services incentive programs is about trust, and there are specific ways that providers can try to earn it.  

When I joined Trust In Food in January 2022, it was with a goal in mind. Since 2018, I had spent years on a team at the forefront of farmer sentiment on climate-smart practices—building coalitions of producer thought leaders and asking for their thoughts on the challenges facing the industry. I spoke personally to dozens of growers and ranchers about barriers that might prevent them from enrolling in new programs or marketplaces. I even made a jump to the other side of the coin, an NGO pursuing ecosystem service payments for agriculture, and spent a six-month research fellowship learning how they viewed the issue. 

What I learned:  Farmers and ecosystem services market providers have completely different perspectives when looking at, and talking about, the problems facing agriculture. Their understanding of what farmers truly consider incentive for starting new practices on their land is equally divided. Farmers see these misunderstandings as reason to mistrust those offerings. But due to the gap between information available and anecdotal understanding of the problem, those of us who reached this conclusion had few sources to objectively justify our viewpoint—and our suggested solutions—to those in a position to address them.  

My mission: To find out who had that data, and use it to help agricultural ecosystem service incentive providers better understand what goes into offerings that farmers will value.  

With Farm Journal’s long history with farmers and unique quantitative research on biggest producer priorities behind it, Trust In Food finally gave me the tools to complete this mission. Farmer leaders agree that the Ready or Not? Agricultural Carbon Markets and U.S. Farmers report represents not only anecdotal stories about producer sentiment, but the experience of a powerhouse agricultural communications team, an expansive one-of-a-kind data library centered 100% around a farmer audience, and so much more.  

With these resources, we found that while technical assistance and financial incentives are necessary to inspire and enable the act of producers changing practices, most assistance or incentive programs do not address Human Dimensions support—the trust-building effort to provide farmers with what they need to take action that “is aligned with their values and identities, is culturally acceptable among their community and meets core needs.” The use of data to identify and understand this missing puzzle piece for farmers is one way carbon market providers can address the gap.  

As Farm Journal’s social purpose division, we at Trust In Food believe that agriculture has the power to change the world, and that opportunities for farmers and ranchers to change operations to meet external sustainability goals must line up with what they see and trust as valuable for their futures—end of story. We see the potential of carbon markets and other sustainability incentives to move the needle on world-changing problems. And we are ready to offer help, and further understanding, to realize that potential.   

To read the full Ready or Not? Agricultural Carbon Markets and U.S. Farmers report or learn more about Trust In Food’s work on carbon, go to www.trustinfood/carboninsights.

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