Oct 24, 2022
USDA Grant to Fund Up To $25 million in Colorado soil health projects

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has finalized the grant agreement to significantly invest in Colorado’s Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources (STAR) program for soil health.

CDA’s STAR program was one of the 70 projects selected for funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Project. This marks an historic investment in Colorado agriculture that will advance farmer- and rancher-led soil and climate solutions.

CDA will receive $25 million to more than double participation in the STAR program across Colorado, expand research on the benefits of regenerative agriculture across eight Intermountain West states, scale the model nationwide and continue building markets for producers deploying climate-smart agricultural practices.

This historic investment for Colorado’s farmers, ranchers, and agricultural communities means a significant influx of funds to help producers absorb the financial risks of adopting new cropping and rangeland practices that advance soil health and climate resilience. This program has always been, and will remain, completely voluntary. The funds will expand the STAR Plus program to work with Colorado’s diverse producers, from small farms to large production scale operations. In addition to expanding the capacity to offer financial and technical support to STAR participants, Colorado’s ambitious soil health pilot program will be scaled up nationwide to establish a trusted market signal that will offer producers new and diverse market opportunities that pay them for their stewardship.

“This unprecedented funding for Colorado agriculture will allow CDA and our partners to put its full force behind the soil health initiatives we’ve been piloting for the past two years,” Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said in a news release. “This major investment from the USDA will allow us to show consumers the strides Colorado farmers and ranchers are making in deploying climate-smart agricultural practices by developing market signals that assure customers of our commitment to combating climate change.”

Farmers and ranchers are experiencing first-hand the impacts of climate change and healthy soils are key to mitigating these effects in agricultural landscapes. Improving soil health can increase carbon sequestration, reduce agricultural runoff, decrease erosion, and support more productive, higher-yielding crops.

The USDA and CDA have been working in partnership to advance agricultural solutions to climate change and the funding of STAR is a direct testament to that.

“This funding illustrates USDA’s commitment to natural resource conservation partnerships,” Clint Evans, Colorado State Conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said in the release. “The STAR program leverages federal dollars, with state and local planning and action to directly benefit soil and other natural resources, as well as agricultural climate-smart efforts.”

STAR was shaped from the ground up by farmers, ranchers, conservation districts and other partners who helped CDA tailor it to work for different crops, range, and different ways of farming and ranching across the state.

“Our community might be behind the times in terms of some farming measures, but we are on the cutting edge in terms of sustainability and it’s all because our traditional practices have been preserved for hundreds of years,” Steven Romero, a rancher and Costilla County Commissioner, who is a board member of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, said in the release. “It’s amazing to see a program like this come to fruition. We as a society are finally putting a dollar amount on sustainability and on the way that people have been practicing for ages.”

The STAR program was built to serve everyone from the smallest producer to the largest, across all production types. This commitment to soil health has also been a key priority for a number of commodity groups across Colorado.

“Farmers have been ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability, as evidenced by the incredible environmental improvements in many areas since 1980,” Nick Colglazier, executive director of the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee, said in the release. “This grant is a great opportunity that will help producers find innovative practices to build our soil’s health, which is the very foundation of what we do, and build resiliency into our agricultural systems.”

The STAR program is an innovative and simple framework that allows farmers and ranchers to evaluate their current production system, identify areas for improved management, document their progress, and share their successes. In Colorado, STAR evaluates 11 different cropping systems and grazing lands for soil health and serves as a complementary tool to the more robust STAR Plus program. STAR Plus is a three-year program that provides financial and technical assistance to producers and is implemented in partnership with local experts from conservation districts.

“We believe that the expansion of this soil health program is an important step to creating a better future for our industry,” Jim Erlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, wrote in a support letter submitted with the CSC grant application. “Recent struggles with a prolonged drought have put tremendous pressure on our groundwater aquifer. Our growers believe this program may help them continue their adoption of cover crop strategies to save water and soil, and build organic matter on their farms.”

The grant funding will also help develop new markets for items produced using regenerative agricultural practices.

CDA will work to develop and implement a strategy to establish the STAR rating as a market signal for buyers and consumers who care about supporting climate-smart ag practices. CDA will also work to directly connect Colorado STAR participants with supply chain partners and to incorporate STAR with the Colorado Proud program, CDA’s highly successful marketing program that Colorado consumers already associate with high quality, locally produced food.

The 2022 growing season was the first year operating the STAR+ pilot program. There are currently 16 conservation districts, three eligible entities, and 130 farmers and ranchers helping shape this program with us as we grow. The program is expected to more than double in the next application period which will cover the 2024 growing season.

CDA’s proposal received 60 letters of support, including from conservation districts, local and national nonprofits, agricultural commodity groups, and food buyers and processors. CDA will work closely with project partners to increase participation in STAR and conduct research that quantifies the benefits of soil health. The program will include research sites in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington in order to understand the carbon, water, and economic benefits of healthy soil practices. Incentive payments through STAR will be targeted toward historically underserved farmer populations.

A list of project partners and their roles:

  • Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) continues its long standing conservation partnership with CDA and will locally administer the CSC Agreement.
  • Colorado State University (CSU) Department of Soil & Crop Sciences will quantify and verify climate outcomes across the program and study the soil heath, soil moisture, and carbon impacts of new practices. Subcontractors include Montana State University, New Mexico State University, Utah State University, University of Idaho and University of Wyoming.
  • CSU Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) and CSU Extension will provide technical assistance to producers enrolled in STAR Plus.
  • CSU Dept of Sociology will study the impacts of variation in STAR program participation on the adoption of soil health practices.
  • Champaign County Soil & Water Conservation District (Illinois), which originated the STAR program, will create STAR National, set up a uniform market signal for STAR, and support expansion of STAR into other western states.
  • Conservation Districts and other eligible entities will enroll farmers and support the adoption of climate-smart practices across Colorado.
  • The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) will facilitate peer-to-peer learning meetings in which farmers and ranchers can share lessons learned and best practices as they implement soil health practices.
  • Colorado Open Lands and the Sangre de Cristo Association of Acequias will facilitate peer-to-peer learning within the Acequia community, and enroll STAR Plus participants.



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