The McKnight Foundation Midwest Climate & Energy program focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at scale, as quickly as possible in the Midwest. In the last year, the program has been expanding support for climate solutions on natural and working lands—our rangelands, farms, and forestlands—that support life and livelihoods, recognizing that we need to partner with stewards of these lands to safeguard the places that many call home.
“From devastating storms and flooding to record heat waves and droughts, farmers are experiencing firsthand the threat of climate change.”– TONYA ALLEN, PRESIDENT
“From devastating storms and flooding to record heat waves and droughts, farmers are experiencing firsthand the threat of climate change,” said McKnight president Tonya Allen. “We need to act quickly and systematically to make it easier for farmers to advance climate solutions on the ground, which will make their operations and their livelihoods more resilient while also creating healthy soil, clean water, and a thriving economy.”
McKnight’s working lands strategy centers farmers as the leaders of climate solutions in co-creating climate-resilient and just food systems. How? By protecting natural areas like forests and grasslands that absorb and store carbon, decreasing emissions in farm operations, and scaling up agricultural practices that support the climate, like reducing tillage, leaving crop residues on fields, growing cover crops, diversifying plantings, adding agroforestry, and integrating livestock.
“Agriculture is the backbone of our rural economies, and the eight Midwest states where McKnight works account for 33 percent of U.S. emissions from agriculture,” said Sarah Christiansen, Midwest Climate & Energy program director. “Our region and our farmers can lead the nation by putting millions of acres of farmland to work as climate solutions, bringing even greater long-term prosperity to the Heartland.”
“Our region and our farmers can lead the nation by putting millions of acres of farmland to work as climate solutions, bringing even greater long-term prosperity to the Heartland.”– SARAH CHRISTIANSEN, PROGRAM DIRECTOR
Support This Quarter for Farmer-Centered Climate Solutions
In its second-quarter 2022 grantmaking, McKnight awarded $575,000 toward this goal through its Midwest Climate & Energy program. The recipient organizations are helping farmers implement climate-smart farming practices and advancing policy frameworks for how agriculture can mitigate climate change. Overall, McKnight awarded 63 grants totaling approximately $15 million in the quarter (see our grants database for the full list of approved grants).
“The partners we’re featuring this quarter are working to seed and grow the number of farmers in Minnesota and Iowa implementing climate-smart farming practices to mitigate emissions and sequester carbon. Farmers know productive and profitable operations can go hand-in-hand with protecting natural resources, building healthy soil, and protecting water quality,” said Tenzin Dolkar, Midwest Climate & Energy program officer.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is responsible for protecting the food supply, protecting natural resources, and cultivating the agricultural economy. A $100,000 grant from McKnight over the next year will support the agency in creating a new Climate Smart Farms Project within the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). Through the project, farmers can receive a minimum of $1,000 a year for up to five years to assess and apply climate-focused conservation practices, such as managing nitrogen fertilizer and manure to reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions, minimizing tillage, grazing livestock, and planting perennial crops to sequester carbon. The project will also provide one-on-one technical assistance to help producers assess which management options best align with new carbon market programs.
“Because of our changing climate, farmers are experiencing more frequent bouts of drought, heavier rain events, extreme temperature swings, and more invasive pests and plants. Farmers are at the frontlines of climate change impact and now, through the Climate Smart Farms Project, they can play a pivotal role in combating them by implementing proven practices that build soil health, protect water resources, and increase farm profitability,” said Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.
The University of Minnesota’s Department of Applied Economics is nationally recognized for its research, undergraduate and graduate teaching, and extension programs. Over the next year, with $75,000 of support from McKnight, they will research farmers’ economic behavior to understand barriers and incentives for adopting practices that improve soil health and make their operations more resilient to the changing climate. Additionally, they will interview Soil and Water Conservation District staff—who work directly with landowners to improve and protect soil, water, and natural resources, and have direct impact on farmers’ practices—to gain a deeper understanding of their implementation challenges and opportunities.
“By delving into the perceptions of farmers and conservation district staff, we can produce specific recommendations of how to improve the design, uptake, and efficacy of state programs like the Climate Smart Farms Project and, consequently, farm sustainability outcomes on the ground,” said Derric Pennington, Senior Sustainability Scientist with the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.
Conservation Districts of Iowa serves as one voice for Iowa’s 100 county Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) to support local efforts and advance state goals for natural resources. They know firsthand that many Iowa farmers are aware of the benefits of practices such as no-till and cover crop use but are reluctant to try them, fearing failure in their annual crops and facing peer pressure from other farmers who do not believe that these practices can be profitable. To overcome these barriers, McKnight granted the Conservation Districts of Iowa $100,000 over the next year to pilot a mentorship program for producers to learn about climate-smart agricultural methods and to adopt conservation practices on their land—educating and organizing farmers to lead on climate.
“We aim to create a national movement, starting here in Iowa, geared toward market-recognized and market-rewarded regenerative farming practices to support carbon reduction in farming,” said John Whitaker, Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa.
Building on McKnight’s Agriculture Work for People and Planet
These important projects are a snapshot of McKnight’s current efforts to advance climate solutions on natural and working lands in the Midwest, and we’re just starting to dig in. While this work may be new to the Climate program, it is not new to McKnight. Through our International program we support farmer-centered agroecological research in 10 counties in South America and Africa to achieve equitable and sustainable food systems in the face of global hunger and climate change. Further, McKnight funded soil and water quality work for nearly three decades through the former Mississippi River program.
Welcoming New Staff Members
This quarter, we welcomed two new members to the president’s office. As our new chief of staff, Cedrick Baker will align enterprise-level work to advance our mission. Tamara Wallace joined McKnight as executive assistant to Tonya Allen and provides administrative leadership on all matters pertaining to the president.
We also welcomed new accountants Jamal Abukar and Justin O’Carrick, program team administrators Pono Asuncion and Brew Davis, investments administrative assistant Heidi Lundgren, guest services and administrative associate David Schlosser, and IT systems engineer Seth Gagnon.
We are celebrating Na Eng, who was McKnight’s communications director for seven years. On April 22, we bid her a warm farewell, and wish her the best as she continues to use strategic communications as a powerful tool for social impact at People for the American Way.
McKnight is currently accepting job applications for Communications Director, as well as Midwest Climate & Energy Program Officer and Senior Program Officer. Learn more and apply.