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Get paid for soil and water outcomes on your farm

In 2021, the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund (SWOF) enrolled 120,000 acres of land and paid Midwestern farmers an average of $31/ac. for their water quality improvements and carbon sequestration.

Several characteristics set this Fund apart from other programs active in the industry. Unique is its outcomes-based approach, 50% upfront payment, and farmer-friendly mission.

“We created SWOF with input from farmers to support adoption of new conservation practices, wherever they are on that journey. We heard common challenges that we wanted to address including implementation costs, upfront payments, hands-on technical support, and an easy, time efficient contracting process,” says Adam Kiel, SWOF managing director. 

“We ask farmers to produce environmental outcomes by changing the way they farm,” says Kiel. “First, we look at what has been done on their operation, ask them to identify changes they’d be willing to make, then analyze and model those changes to determine the environmental benefits. That drives the payment and can be variable by field and variable by farm.”

The Fund provides a team of agronomic experts for consultations, monitoring and verification, soil and water sampling at no cost to the farmer to help secure those outcomes.

The biggest outcome generator in the SWOF is the combination of cover crops and reduction in tillage, but Kiel recognizes not everyone enrolled will do both or they may choose something different to add.

“The benefit of our program is if a farmer just wants to do one thing that generates a little bit of environmental benefit and a little bit of payment, that's their choice and they can do that,” Kiel says. “If someone wants to go all in and do multiple things, that's their choice as well and they're going to be compensated more.”

The maximum payment offered is around $40 and is typically secured through a change in tillage and an addition or expansion of cover crops.

The financial benefit certainly attracts participants (SWOF pays 50% upfront, 50% after verification) but of course, the practices also reduce erosion, improve soil health, and save on inputs. 

“Of all the programs I looked at, I chose the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund because it seemed easy to administer and I liked having someone to meet with face-to-face to get help. When issues arose, the team was flexible and communicated well. I’ll definitely be re-enrolling and may explore adding more acres,” says Brain Weber, a farmer participant from Iowa.   

Farmers in Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois can enroll in the program before the September 1 deadline.

Find out more about the nuts and bolts of the program below.

How it Works: Eligibility and Application

To enroll, first ensure your land is in an eligible area via the maps on the SWOF website.

If eligible, you can enter field boundary information plus your baseline cropping system and the changes you would make into your application or work with an agronomist on the team who can do it for you.

Once the application is submitted, you will receive a payment estimate based upon the outcomes resulting from the planned changes in cropping systems.

You may accept, reject, or edit your application at this stage. Once accepted, the contract is sent. Once signed, the 50% upfront payment is distributed.

“We know that costs for everything are increasing in agriculture, so getting working capital into farmers’ hands when they sign the contract and before they implement anything is super important,” Kiel says. “Often, the farmer is challenged because they don't have the access to capital for sustainability or conservation practices. We present a solution with that upfront payment.”

Kiel says the process, staring with a farmer expressing interest to completing an application and signing a contract can happen in as little as a week.

How it Works: Contracts

All contract timeframes are set from date of signing to June 1 of the following year. 

The program operates on a rolling basis, so if you want to renew your contract, you can do so when it expires on June 1.

How it Works: Practices and Payments

Under contract, you must implement the practices you committed to. The SWOF team conducts field visits or may ask for documentation for purchases like cover crop seed in order to verify the changes. Then, the second half of the payment is sent.

Practices most widely adopted include cover crops and reduction of tillage, but also, additional crops in a corn-soybean rotation like alfalfa or oats, or fertilizer management. 

“Typically, the conservation practices farmers implement have not just a carbon benefit, but others, including water quality,” says Kiel. “We use different models and tools specifically for water to quantify the nitrogen and phosphorous benefits and put a dollar amount on it, even when they’re the same practices that generate carbon benefits.”

SWOF seeks to be farmer-friendly and transparent in all that they do.

“Online, we provide an outline of our contract, transparency principles, information about how we quantify and monitor changes, what would happen if there's a natural disaster, and more,” Kiel explains.“ We use data to refine our approach, improve our estimations, and we take on the risks we can to make it easy for the farmer.”

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