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Allendale, Barnwell ground zero for new USDA climate program


On a dewy December morning several miles outside of Fairfax, about a dozen of Esther and Bennie Lee Manuels cattle are crunching on white clover feed, saliva dribbling from their mouths. This is the first year the Manuels have used white clover in their cattle feed and is one of several agricultural practices the United States Department of Agriculture is paying them to adopt as part of its new Climate Smart program.

Like many other farmers, the Manuels have historically used synthetic fertilizers to make their pastures rich with nitrogen, an essential ingredient in the chemistry of a cattle farm. However, planting white clover — which brings nitrogen into a pasture’s ecosystem through a process called nitrogen fixation — has allowed the Manuels to buy less synthetic fertilizers. Due to the copious amounts of natural gas used in fertilizer manufacturing, synthetic fertilizers are both financially unpredictable and a major source of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, the three most prominent greenhouse gasses driving Earth’s rapid heating.

Thus is the idea behind the USDA’s $3.1 billion Climate Smart program: pay farmers like the Manuels to adopt agricultural practices that could both reduce the industry’s contributions to the climate crisis and serve as a much-needed investment in small farms. The hope of the program is to create a new market for agricultural commodities made using practices deemed “climate smart.” With the USDA funding the program’s research, marketing and implementation, rural farming communities like Allendale and Barnwell are ground zero for the program.

However, despite the hype, the program has received criticism from scientists and faced local setbacks.

Agriculture & the climate crisis

To farmers in the Allendale-Barnwell region, ecological crises are nothing new. The region’s exploding populations of wild deer and pigs — which were once kept in check by healthy ecosystems — is one of the most immediate threats to the region’s farmers, as previously reported by The People-Sentinel. However, the year-over-year increases in natural disaster frequency and intensity is becoming unavoidable for farmers across the United States.

Agriculture is responsible for only 10 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, the rest of which comes almost entirely from the burning of fossil fuels, according to the Energy Information Administration. However, the USDA finds that as average temperatures continue to climb, heat stress and precipitation variability damages cash crops like corn, peanuts and soy, making farmers and farming communities uniquely threatened by climate change.

Enter the USDA and a $70 million grant for South Carolina Climate Smart programs called “Climate-Smart Grown in SC.” The grant brings together 27 agricultural partners throughout the state, ranging from corporations and lobbying groups to nonprofits and universities. Leading the grant is a partnership between Clemson University and South Carolina State University, both of which have deep connections to South Carolina’s agricultural industry.

For cattle farmers like the Manuels, the Climate Smart program means getting paid to begin rotational grazing and feeding their cattle white clover. For row crop farmers, the Climate Smart program pays them a set amount per acre to make changes like planting cover crops and reducing tilling. For timber farmers, who are a major part of the South Carolina economy, the Climate Smart program will mean payments for controlled fires, brush management and ecosystem restoration.

“One of my favorite things about this program is we're not asking the farmers to go into debt to do this,” said Kelly Flynn, the emerging crops program coordinator at Clemson University, who is on the Climate-Smart Grown in SC coordination team. Since the program’s launch, Flynn has been involved in statewide implementation efforts.

Widely used practices like tilling disrupt and damage the health of soils, which in turn damages both crop health and creates greenhouse gasses, according to Rattan Lal, distinguished university professor of soil science at Ohio State University. No-till agriculture, on the other hand, helps return carbon to soils and improve soil health; Over a 60-year period, Ohio State University has found that no-till agriculture returned 80 percent of lost carbon.

“Agricultural soil have been depleted of their organic carbon content because of cultivation,” Lal said. “No plowing, leaving the crop residue on the ground, growing a cover crop in the offseason, those kinds of practices can lead carbon back into the soil.”

Since having high carbon content in soil improves crop health and increases yields, the USDA hopes that after the five-year program ends, farmers will stick with the practices due to their purported profitability.

“What we anticipate is [after] five years of doing these conservation practices the farmers will continue with the practices after the incentives are gone for the simple fact that they work,” Flynn said. “They do increase soil health, plant adaptability, water infiltration [and] soil temperatures, all of which are practices the farmers need anyway.”

Local implementation

Despite the program’s ambitions and the need for engaging with farmers in any climate change mitigation, the program faces local barriers to the widespread implementation that USDA hopes to achieve.

First-time small farmers like Adrian Priester are excited about the program. On Priester’s 30-acre row crop farm, his father and son have planted cover crops like oats and winter wheat and have not tilled their fields so far. This is their first year as farmers, and Priester is excited.

“It’s a heck of a start for a young farmer like myself,” Priester said. “It gives us a level of hope and responsibility for our land. Everybody has a role to play.”

However, many regional farmers have grown used to their current agricultural practices and may be unwilling to change, said Dawn Snead, manager of Barnwell Farmers Market, who frequently works with local farmers and stays in touch with ongoing USDA programs.

“In our area where we have a lot of older farmers and multigenerational farms, it’s a big step for them to take,” Snead said. “So, they’re just not quite ready yet. I think in our area especially, it’s going to be super slow unless we can reach the younger farmers.”

To push along the speed of local implementation, extension agents from Clemson University and South Carolina State University have been hosting seminars with local farmers like McArthur Williams. On Williams’ 152-acre farm, which has shrunk from 275 acres over the years, adopting a no till practice and planting cover crops is new to him.

“[No till] was new to me,” Williams said. “I had always thought you till the ground to get the nutrients to come up.”

Ralph Noble, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Consumer Science at South Carolina State University, has been involved in outreach for the program and helped the Manuels get started. Noble said getting young farmers involved with Climate Smart agricultural practices has been a key part of implementation strategy.

“This generation now is paying attention to climate smart things, it’s paying attention to [the] environment and how people get treated,” Noble said, noting that he has found work-life balance and purpose to be higher priorities for young farmers than money.

Making the connection between the increasing number of extreme weather events in the Southeast and human activities like agriculture has been a key aspect of education, according to Noble.

“We had to start with education [and] letting them know what this is about with big tornadoes coming in and storms that we’ve never seen before and what the cause of it is,” Noble said. “They understand that they play a role in how it’s going to be for their kids. [We’ve been] connecting Climate Smart with them and their family history.”

However, despite extension workers and USDA agents on the ground in rural communities to promote the program, local awareness of the program is just beginning. Several farmers The People-Sentinel spoke to were unaware of what the program was or expressed a lack of interest in making changes.

The grant is also paying for research teams to study the efficiency of the program’s practices. However, Flynn said, this research should have been done before attempting to make changes to agriculture practices.

For these reasons, implementation of the Climate Smart program should have begun “like 30 years ago,” according to Flynn. “No single project is going to solve any of these issues but I do think it’s impressive that the U.S. government has put three billion dollars into this, finally. It’s like an admission [that] ‘maybe we haven’t done it right.’”


The program has a number of vulnerabilities that extension agents and the USDA have acknowledged. Additionally, several scientists The People-Sentinel spoke to criticized the overall structure of the program and its lack of broader changes that are needed to reduce the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa, said the United States’ current subsidies for harmful agriculture causes unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. The USDA and the Climate Smart program have avoided making changes to the sector that could prevent further atmospheric heating.

“You're paying farmers to do something that pollutes and then you're paying farmers to reduce the effect of what you have paid them to do,” Secchi said, pointing to an apparent paradox within the Climate Smart program. “It doesn’t make any sense. It's very hard for the farmers to do the right thing, because [the USDA] is essentially paying them to do things that are not going to be effective.”

Since 1995, the United States has spent $116 billion on subsidies for corn and $59 billion subsidizing livestock, both of which are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these subsidies end up in the hands of large agricultural companies, further exacerbating inequality between small and large farmers, according to a 2021 World Resources Institute report. Changing current agricultural subsidies to incentivize agricultural processes that restore soil health and disincentivize deforestation, the report says, will have a major effect on reducing the sector’s emissions.

Additionally, by focusing specifically on changing the practices of individual crops, Secchi said, the program does not consider the entire emissions of a farm.

“They don't want to fundamentally change the system,” Secchi said. “They need to look at overall emissions, not just what the cover crops do. If you’re using a herbicide for the cover crop or if you’re having to do another machinery pass to plant the cover crop, those all add to the [greenhouse gas] footprint.”

Secchi’s concern has proven correct locally; After planting rye as his cover crop, Williams is planning to make additional passes with his equipment to clear the fields of grasses. Additionally, Williams is buying new equipment to begin the program.

Secchi attributed the lack of larger, necessary changes to the agricultural system to corporate capture of the USDA and Congress by large agricultural corporations and lobbyists. Politicians — including those in South Carolina — have taken thousands of dollars from meat corporations, the farm insurance industry and other agricultural special interest groups in recent elections, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. Prior to becoming U.S. agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack was a former dairy lobbyist.

Reducing emissions of methane — which is 80 times more powerful at heating the atmosphere than carbon dioxide — is also a necessary step for climate change mitigation. However, Noble said reducing methane emissions from livestock is not a priority for the program.

“Methane we’re not going to be able to control,” Noble said in reference to cattle farming. “We’re trying to do what’s practical for farmers to start this. We’re hoping that in due time there’s going to be markets that say, ‘If your cattle were raised on their climate smart practices, you can go to different sale you can make more money.’”

Monitoring and measuring the reductions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions on a farm-by-farm basis is another issue the program faces, according to Secchi and Charles Rice, distinguished professor of agronomy at Kansas State University.

“Incentivizing farmers to reduce their emissions is a good thing,” said Rice. “The key question is how are they going to measure, monitor and verify those reductions?”

Despite the program’s apparent shortcomings and its complex stipulations, legacy farmers like the Manuels and Williams are willing to make changes.

“Every year you try to do something different,” Bennie Lee Manuel said. “Sometimes you gotta do it a little ahead of time in order to get the benefit. I’ll take the chance and see what this do.”

These changes require education and conversations about greenhouse gasses, land use and agricultural practices that Williams said are happening among local farmers he knows. But, Williams said, it requires listening to each other.

“For a lot of people, you gotta be educated in things you haven’t ever done before,” Williams said. “They own the land but they don’t understand the procedures. … I’m trying to hear how other people think about things and understand where they coming from.”