By Ethan Sirles
Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) is collaborating with Mt. Folly Enterprises in its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities project—a $5-million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to move the region toward climate-friendly agriculture. Mt. Folly Enterprises is led by CEO Ben Pasley, an EKU graduate from the class of 2013.
The USDA estimates the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities projects, which were announced in 2022, will result in 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent being removed from the atmosphere throughout the course of the projects. The USDA compares the impact of the projects to taking over 12 million gas-powered passenger vehicles off the road for a year. Additionally, the projects will offer test cases to demonstrate the best climate-smart practices in different farming contexts across the nation, and will help USDA and others wrestle with the question of how to compensate farmers for practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Mt. Folly, which is in Winchester, Kentucky, focuses on growing and processing beef, distilled spirits and CBD in the Commonwealth.
According to EKU Agriculture Professor Dr. John Settimi, the goal of the Mt. Folly project is to help approximately 100 small- to medium-sized farms in the Ohio River Valley region implement climate-smart practices and create a new “food chain” that shifts supply chains toward more local control, investment and economic benefit.
“Cattle that are initially raised in Kentucky are usually shipped out to western states, then they're shipped to the midwest for slaughter, and finally they're shipped back here to be sold,” said Settimi. “Right now, they're driving all these animals all over the country. We’re trying to reduce that food chain so it'll be just here in this region so that you'll be getting more local food.”
To kick-start the process of creating a farmer network that can support this local food chain, Mt. Folly plans to use its USDA grant to provide $10,000 producer incentives to help farms begin implementing climate-smart practices, which work to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“EKU is proud to be part of the effort to find and implement climate-smart agriculture practices,” said EKU President David McFaddin. “We’re leading the way for innovation in agriculture to ensure a healthier and more sustainable state, region and country.”
EKU’s role in the partnership will be verifying the farms are using the proper methods needed to be considered climate-smart.
“Our job here is to monitor and verify that producers are actually doing what they're supposed to do to get credit,” said Settimi. “We want to make sure farms aren’t just getting the money and then not doing what they’re supposed to do to reduce carbon.”
There are several practices that have been approved by the USDA to help reduce carbon. According to Settimi, the Mt. Folly project will be focusing mainly on 10 of the approved methods because they are the most useful in the Ohio River Valley.
“There's a whole list of practices that have been approved by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which is a subdivision of the USDA,” said Settimi. “They've got a wide variety of possible practices you could implement depending on what kind of operation you're running.”
The first method Settimi mentioned is prescribed grazing, which focuses on letting cattle graze only in specific areas while letting grass recover in others, then moving the cattle to other grazing areas when necessary.
He also mentioned introducing cover crops. These are crops that are planted during the winter, while most other crops die off, to continue photosynthesizing throughout harsher months and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the same time.
The other approved methods that Settimi said would be applicable to the Ohio River Valley region include incorporating compost and biochar, planting legumes, and silvopasture. Each of these practices helps improve soil to keep cattle fed and crops growing.
The Mt. Folly project and the other USDA partnerships are initially set to last five years. Over that time, Settimi and EKU agriculture graduate assistants will be monitoring the farms in the region and measuring how much carbon is being captured.
EKU’s agriculture program focuses on preparing graduates for modern challenges within the agricultural world, like climate-conscious practices. Graduates from the agriculture program have gone on to work in agriculture education, livestock operations and management, government agencies and more.