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An Assessment of Programs that Incentivize Ecosystem Services across the Northeast

Nature and working landscapes produce valuable direct and indirect benefits for people known as ecosystem services. Those benefits are diverse and span regulating (i.e. air quality, wildlife habitat), material (i.e. food, fiber), and non-material (i.e. mental health benefits) contributions.

In North America, our working landscapes are places where people farm, ranch, and manage forest in rural, urban, and suburban areas. People that work those lands, or producers, often make choices that aim to balance maximizing product and profit with maintaining that land’s health and its ecosystem services. Sustainable agriculture and land management practices are one way to help balance those goals. Finding practices that are both sustainable and profitable isn’t always easy though. Shifting towards more sustainable practices can require significant effort and resources. One way to offset the burdens of implementing sustainable agriculture and land management practices is by giving producers access to incentive programs. Incentive programs can provide producers with the direct support (i.e. cash payments or cost-share agreements) or indirect support (i.e. training or access to technologies) necessary for implementing certain practices. We know that these programs exist in the Northeast, but until recently the number and scope of those programs was not known.

In 2021, the Association of Northeast Extension Directors (NEED) and the Northeast Regional Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors (NERA), in partnership with the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development (NERCRD), funded a research project that identified the range of incentive programs available for Northeast producers to engage in sustainable agriculture and land management practices that provide ecosystem services.

Nearly 1,300 programs were identified!

Altogether, these programs target four primary kinds of working landscapes: 1) farming, food, and agriculture; 2) working forests and woodlands; 3) fisheries, aquaculture, and shellfish; and 4) non-industrial supporting landscapes. Many of the programs operate within and across the Northeast and are offered by all types of government agencies, private corporations, and public-private partnerships. Most programs are available to producers, but many others are available to supporting organizations like municipal governments, Extension, technical service providers, and research groups. Overall, there were far more indirect incentive programs, like technical education, than direct incentive programs, like grants, cost-share agreements, available to producers.

The full research report and searchable spreadsheet detailing all available programs across the Northeast is available on NEED’s website. Read the report and explore the spreadsheet to find programs that are relevant and available to you. The results of this assessment showcase the ample opportunity producers have when it comes to being rewarded for enacting sustainable agriculture and land management practices across working landscapes.

It also raises several important reflections and questions:

  1. There are +1300 programs – each with their own logistical and administrative guidelines. This means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to bottlenecks in program enrollment and/or in implementation of practices which impacts the provision of ecosystem services.
  2. The large variety of program types and goals makes it difficult to measure overall collective success of the programs and their impacts on ecosystem services.
  3. There are limited opportunities to provide input and drive changes to programs to make them more relevant to producers.
  4. It is important to think about which ecosystem services and producer industries should be incentivized (especially if that means that one type of ecosystem service or producer is prioritized over another).
  5. It is not clear that incentive programs alone will provide the support producers need to create and maintain businesses that are profitable, sustainable, and maximize ecosystem services.

Supporting the inherent value that ecosystem services provide working lands is key to increasing the climate resiliency of farms and forests. In turn, this helps secure farm viability, profitability, and longevity throughout rural and urban communities. By making these resources available, NEED, NERA, and NERCRD hope that the research report and searchable spreadsheet help 1.) producers know about (and take advantage of) available programs, and 2.) policy makers think critically about what resources are available to producer, how to increase access to them, and what needs to be done to make them relevant for the next generation.  

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