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Project will measure carbon on idled U.S. cropland

A $10 million project will sample, measure, and monitor the amount of soil carbon in environmentally fragile cropland idled as part of the Conservation Reserve, said the USDA on Tuesday. Earlier this year, the agency said it would harness the reserve to mitigate climate change by paying landowners to implement climate-smart practices, such as tree planting and wetlands restoration, on the land.

Administrator Zach Ducheneaux of the Farm Service Agency, which oversees the Conservation Reserve, said data from the project would help identify practices “to achieve continued climate wins across environmentally sensitive lands while strengthening our modeling and conservation planning resources for all producers.”

Three sets of researchers will conduct carbon sampling on three categories of land — perennial grasses, trees, and wetlands — at about 1,000 sites in the reserve. Michigan State University will check soil carbon levels for various types of grasses; Ducks Unlimited and its partners will check carbon stocks in wetlands; and Mississippi State University and Alabama A&M University will collect soil and atmospheric data related to trees.

Landowners are paid an annual rent for setting aside cropland in the Conservation Reserve Program for 10 years or longer. The 2018 farm policy law set maximum enrollment in the CRP at 27 million acres, an increase of 3 million acres, but lowered payment rates for the land. Enrollment fell to 20.6 million acres this summer. The USDA said 5.3 million acres would be enrolled this fall.

Last week, the USDA said it would integrate climate mitigation into how it operates its programs. The so-called adaptation plan calls for increased research into climate-smart practices, building resilience in soils, and forest health. The Biden administration says it will pursue voluntary, incentive-based methods to encourage participation.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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