Measuring the Impact of Climate-Smart Projects
by Meri Lillia Mullins on 03/May/23
How can you measure and evaluate the impact of climate-smart agriculture projects? Soil testing technologies can play a critical role.
Climate change is no longer a distant danger. It is here now. The effects are already influencing the timing and methods of farmers supplying food for our communities. Higher temperatures and more extreme drought events are causing lower crop yields, poorer nutrient density, and higher water demand. This is having a negative effect on farmers' livelihoods and their ability to keep their farms running.
In California's Central Valley, changes in precipitation patterns are leading to water scarcity and increased reliance on irrigation. This impacts the production of crops like almonds, citrus, and grapes, which are major drivers of the local farming economy. The Midwest's Corn Belt is particularly vulnerable to these climate impacts, facing intense droughts and wet periods. The productivity of corn and soybean crops has decreased. This has had an impact on local markets. Furthermore, it has caused a ripple effect on industries such as livestock and biofuel production.
The Great Plains are experiencing longer and more severe droughts. These droughts are reducing crop yields, and causing soil erosion and water scarcity. Wheat, a major crop in the region, is particularly sensitive to water stress. In the Southeast, hurricanes and tropical storms are occurring more often and with greater intensity. This is causing damage to crops, soil erosion, and flooding. Additionally, warmer temperatures and higher humidity levels are increasing the likelihood of crop diseases and pests. This impacts the production of crops like cotton, peanuts, and tobacco.
With the increasing unpredictability of rainfall patterns and rising temperatures, farmers and agriculture organizations are searching for innovative ways to adapt to this new reality. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been at the forefront of supporting climate-smart initiatives and recently announced funding for 141 projects under the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative.
While implementing these initiatives is a great step forward, measuring their impact is critical to ensure their effectiveness. In this blog, we will explore the role of soil testing technologies in measuring the impact of climate-smart agriculture and how they can help organizations optimize their sustainability efforts.
What is climate-smart agriculture (CSA), and why is it important?
Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is a management approach that looks at agriculture through a systems lens. CSA implements management practices that take all participants and variables into account, including the farmers responsible for land care, farm budgets, temperature, and rainfall patterns.
The soil cycle and water cycle are major variables in a farm system. The soil cycle comprises chemical, physical, and biological dimensions like the interactions of fungi, bacteria, and other micro and macrofauna. The water cycle includes rainfall patterns from evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, runoff, infiltration, and groundwater flow. Each cycle is interconnected with one another to cultivate a healthy and thriving farm. Soil biology is important for a soil's available water-holding capacity, and organic matter is efficient at holding water. Water infiltration and nutrient cycling are important for growing crops.
How can soil testing technologies measure the impact of climate-smart agriculture?
A holistic approach to soil health is vital in CSA, considering the role of the soil microbiome in agriculture. Farmers can use soil biology data from a soil sample to inform their management practices. This helps to increase yields, work more efficiently, and save time and money while improving soil health.
For example, management practices such as alley cropping, windbreaks, silvopasture, mulching, and growing cover crops can help conserve water and improve soil structure. But how can we measure and verify their effectiveness per location, crop type, and soil type?
Biome Makers is evaluating the effects of management practices on the soil microbiome. This is done by measuring soil over several areas and time points using a trial design. Biome Makers use functional genomics to compute several factors. These include microbe community functionality and macronutrient pathways, capacity for stress adaptation and resistance, and soilborne pathogen risk.
Soil testing technologies are essential for climate-smart agriculture. They provide farmers with important data on their soil's microbial health. The role of soil microbiomes in CSA is to increase our understanding of the microbiological level. This ensures that soil chemistry and physics are in line. Farmers can use soil data to determine the desired level. If the results are not satisfactory, they can identify the different organisms in the soil to manage it better. This will ensure an efficient farm system.
How could biological soil testing help CSA project managers improve their Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) processes?
Biological soil testing can be a valuable tool for climate-smart agriculture project managers to improve their Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) processes in several ways.
- Provide reliable soil health data: the abundance and diversity of beneficial microorganisms, whether fungi and bacteria work in balance, blocked nutrient pathways, hormone production, stress adaptation, and disease risks.
- Evaluate the impact of climate-smart practices: alley cropping, silvopasture, conservation tillage, cover cropping, biological inputs, crop rotation, etc. Compare soil health measurements before and after implementing certain practices. Project managers can use this comparison to determine the effectiveness of the practices. Effectiveness is measured by ensuring long-term viability and improving ecosystem services.
- Monitor progress towards soil health targets: Regularly measure soil health indicators. Project managers can assess whether they are on track to achieve their targets and adjust plans as needed.
- Enhance MRV reporting: Project managers can provide stakeholders with a better understanding of their climate-smart agriculture initiatives. They can do this by including robust soil biology data that can be used to enhance MRV reporting. This data gives stakeholders a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of these initiatives.
What are some examples of using soil technology in the field?
Soil testing can provide valuable information. It can reveal blocked nutrient cycling pathways, disease risks, and the types of microbial communities present in the soil. These insights can be used to make informed decisions about fertilizer applications and other management practices.
One of the primary benefits of soil testing technologies is the ability to evaluate the unexpected disparity between soil fertility test results and plant tissue test results. In this scenario, a grower may see high potassium levels in their soil fertility tests, but their plant tissue tests reveal potassium deficiencies in their crop.
A BeCrop® Test can reveal the culprit, which might be deficient levels of plant growth-promoting microbes that cycle and unlock nutrients, converting them from plant-unavailable forms to forms that are available for plant assimilation.
Another example is the ability to evaluate the potential for soil microbes to sequester carbon. Biome Makers can measure the levels of microbes involved in carbon fixation, organic matter release (decomposition), and soil carbon loss via processes like aerobic respiration and methanogenesis.
Nitrogen Use Efficiency
Nitrogen is a critical nutrient in agriculture. Still, much of the industry's greenhouse gas footprint comes from the energy-intensive process of nitrogen fertilizer production and the loss of nitrogen from the soil as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
Soil biology testing evaluates the levels of microbes that convert nitrogen between various organic and inorganic forms, rendering it more readily available to plants and minimizing nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide loss.
One 5th generation Nebraskan corn and soybean farmer completed a BeCrop® Test before the growing season to target certain areas that needed improvement. He was able to customize his fertilizer program, reduce his nitrogen application by 20%, and incorporate biological inputs, resulting in record bushels/acre!
Soil microbes also play a critical role in plant resistance to disease. Certain bacteria and fungi function as biocontrol agents, suppressing soilborne pathogens. Some beneficial microbes can also produce plant growth regulators, phytohormones, and other metabolites that promote plant tolerance to stress.
In some cases, these beneficial microbes play a more impactful role in influencing the impacts of soilborne disease than the levels of the soilborne pathogens themselves. This is because a more heavily stressed plant is significantly more vulnerable to disease infection than one equipped with microbially produced plant growth regulators and stress tolerance-promoting metabolites.
One Napa Valley vineyard grower was able to tailor his crop protection practices to the soil's needs. Overall, the vineyard increased farm sustainability and gained a huge advantage from BeCrop® Test with ROI: +170%.
The relationship between soil biology and yield is also an important consideration. By sampling high and low-yield fields to compare the results, soil biology testing can identify the biological factors that differentiate the productivity of these fields. By diagnosing these “biological bottlenecks” to yield, farmers can adopt management practices that effectively narrow the gap between their low and high-yielding acres.
How do I get started with biological soil testing to measure the impact of my CSA projects?
Using biological soil testing to measure the impact of climate-smart agriculture projects involves taking soil samples, submitting them to a reputable lab for analysis, and receiving the results. The results can be used to identify areas of the farm that need attention, determine the optimal amount and timing of fertilizer applications, and monitor the changes over time from different management practices that may affect soil health.
Project managers can start with biological soil testing by following these steps:
- Finding a reputable lab: Look for a lab with experience and expertise in biological soil testing. Do you need guidance on which lab might be the best for you? Reach out, and we will be happy to help.
- Selecting the appropriate tests: You should identify the specific needs of the project and select the appropriate tests. Different tests are available for different purposes. For example, tests can measure microbial diversity, nutrient cycling pathways, pathogen pressure, and hormone production. Some tests may also measure nutrient levels or soil structure.
- Developing a testing plan: Determine how often soil testing should be done and create a plan for sampling and submitting the samples to the lab.
- Interpreting the results: The lab will provide a report of the results, which can be used to identify areas of the farm that need attention. The results can be compared to previous tests to monitor changes over time.
Check out our Complete Guide to Soil Testing for more information on the different types of tests.
Understanding site-specific soil biology is critical to achieving climate-smart agriculture. Soil testing technologies, such as those offered by Biome Makers, can provide farmers with insights into the health of their soil and microbiome, enabling them to make better decisions for their crops while also minimizing their environmental impact.
BeCrop® Test is a complementary tool for chemical fertility and plant tissue tests. Each test provides different insights into the nutrient dynamics between plants, soil microbes, and inorganic soil particles. By utilizing all three tests together, farmers can maximize their understanding of soil health and make more informed management decisions for their crops.
Overall, adopting soil testing technologies is crucial to achieving climate-smart agriculture. By better understanding the health of their soil microbiome, farmers can adopt practices that improve their bottom line while supporting the overall ecosystem's health.