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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture visits Arkansas to promote Winrock partnership and historic USDA investments to expand climate-smart agriculture

Breylan Portwood, a young Black farmer from Brinkley, Ark., seemed surprised when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked if he would mind standing to be recognized. The secretary was in the middle of a panel discussion about a set of ambitious new USDA-funded climate-smart agriculture and markets projects soon to be started in Arkansas and other states.

Portwood, 22, grows rice, corn and soybeans on a 500-acre farm he runs while working on an agriculture business management degree at Arkansas State University. He stood politely as the secretary explained why he sees young, committed farmers like Portwood – whose farm he had visited earlier in the morning ─ as essential both to the future of agriculture in the U.S. and to the global fight against climate change.

“I’m very eager to get into new practices with my farm. I’m already doing no till practices with intentions of doing row rice with multiple inlet irrigation for the 2023 season,” Portwood said later. “With row rice irrigation, I don’t have to flood the whole field. When my fields are flooded they’re releasing a lot more methane.” No till farming reduces the need for soil disturbance, keeps carbon in the soil, and enriches biodiversity, helping to reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases.

“I’d like to keep doing it,” he said.

Breylan Portwood, 22, was recognized by Secretary Vilsack for climate-smart farming. Photo by Katie Childs for Winrock International.

Secretary Vilsack was in the Arkansas Delta region to meet and encourage conservation-minded farmers like Portwood to do just that – and to promote sweeping, inclusive new opportunities for farmers across the U.S., including underserved producers, to access technical support and new markets for climate-smart commodities. USDA’s award to Winrock’s American Carbon Registry (ACR) was among the first of what USDA has described as a series of historic investments aimed at substantially expanding markets for climate-smart commodities produced in the U.S. The goal of the USDA funding awarded to Winrock and other projects is to leverage the greenhouse gas (GHG) benefits of climate-smart commodity production “to provide direct, meaningful benefits to production agriculture in Arkansas and across the country, including for small and underserved producers,” according to USDA’s press release.

Earlier in the year, Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA had set aside $1 billion for its Climate-Smart Commodities program. Due to high interest, the Biden-Harris administration increased funding to more than $3 billion, with projects from the second pool to be announced later in the year. USDA said the funding will help transform America’s food system to focus on more resilient local and regional food production and fairer markets for producers; it also will help remove systemic barriers faced by underserved farmers, who traditionally have less access to technical assistance, cost share and market linkage opportunities.

Supported by Winrock’s Ecosystem Services team and the Wallace Center, ACR and partners including the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) and Arkansas-based Riceland Foods will soon launch the $20 million USDA funded-project, “Growing Value for Producers Through Increased Access to Markets for Climate Smart Commodities.” The five-year project will support rice farmers and ranchers in Arkansas, Missouri and Tribal Lands across the U.S. to increase adoption of climate smart practices and capitalize on them by certifying and monetizing their climate results in commodity markets.  

Winrock Board Chair Jude Kearney, an Arkansas native whose sharecropper parents grew cotton and soybeans for decades while raising a large family in Gould, Ark., met with representatives of two other USDA-funded climate-smart projects, and local farmers during an hour-long panel discussion moderated by Secretary Vilsack. Kearney and Joyjit Deb Roy, Winrock’s executive vice president of global programs and development, shared information about the goals and approach of Winrock’s new ACR-led project with the secretary and an audience of about 100 farmers, USDA officials, environmental advocates, university representatives and others. The event, arranged by USDA, was hosted by Isbell Farms, a 3,000-acre, multi-generational family rice farm in England, Ark. known as a pioneer of conservation farming in the Delta region.

“This particular project … highlights so much of what we do well,” Kearney told Secretary Vilsack, noting ACR’s expertise in global carbon markets and Winrock’s experience in agriculture and international development.  He later added the importance of emphasizing science- and technology-based approaches like those used in the new Winrock project to reach more farmers, especially young farmers.

Deb Roy provided additional details about Winrock’s approach during the panel.

“We’ll be developing a pilot for farmer-friendly systems to generate producer-owned agricultural greenhouse gas certificates of verified climate results that can be traded … on a public registry,” he said. “This will enable corporate buyers to achieve and substantiate supply chain and net zero climate claims. {The project] will also offer financial assistance, which will vary between $25 to $40 per acre per year … to incentivize farmers to adopt climate-smart practices.”

The new platform, called the ACR Agriculture Registry for Climate Smart Commodities, is similar to current carbon market registries, although the assets generated will not be carbon offset credits. Instead, producers will generate agriculture GHG Certificates, a unique type of agricultural environmental asset representing one metric ton of carbon dioxide-equivalent mitigated or sequestered as the result of climate-smart practice implemented in a given year. 

In addition to the IAC and Riceland, Winrock is partnering in the USDA-funded project with Arva Intelligence and Blue Raster. The IAC has, over the past 30 years, become recognized as the most respected voice within the Indian community and government circles on agricultural policies and programs in Indian country. Riceland Foods, a producer-owned cooperative and the world’s largest marketer of rice, has served local communities for over 100 years. Arva Intelligence and Blue Raster will focus on digital monitoring, reporting, and verification of data; they also will provide specialized support in the design, development, and use of the new ACR Agriculture Registry.

From left: Jude Kearney, Winrock Board Chair; U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; and Joyjit Deb Roy, Winrock Executive Vice President of Global Programs & Development.

Earlier in the discussion, Secretary Vilsack touched on the bottom-line importance of incentives, markets, and new income opportunities for farmers considering exploring or expanding climate-smart approaches like those that Portwood, whose farm he had visited earlier, are already using.

Farmers and ranchers want to contribute more to fight climate change, the secretary said. But when USDA asked how they could best help, they said: “You can’t ask us to … increase our input costs at a time when they’re rising and get some societal benefit out of it and expect us to be able to do it,” Secretary Vilsack said. Farmers said: “Help us create partnerships. And make sure that we do a good job of verifying and reporting and quantifying the results of all this so we can tell our customers that indeed, this is a climate-smart product that has been produced. So we listened.”

Related Projects


Winrock has long recognized the threat posed by climate change. ACR, founded in 1996 and operated by Winrock, is dedicated to the belief that markets are the most effective tools to tackle climate change. As such, ACR has developed transparent and science-based methodologies to incentivize carbon reductions in agriculture, transportation and other industries. ACR is also a partner in assuring that California’s landmark Cap-and-Trade Program can manage, verify and credit carbon offsets effectively.

Wallace Center

The Wallace Center supports entrepreneurs and communities as they build a new, 21st century food system that is healthier for people, the environment and the economy. The demand for locally produced food is strong, growing and often outstrips the ability of small farmers to keep up. Through research, education and technical assistance, The Wallace Center…

Growing Value for Producers Through Increased Access to Markets for Climate Smart Commodities

Winrock’s Growing Value for Producers Through Increased Access to Markets for Climate Smart Commodities project will create and implement a farmer-friendly system that: This project  will incentivize producers to adopt Natural Resources Conservation Service or equivalent practices on 50,000 new acres not currently receiving NRCS payments (for the same practice, on the same plot), increasing […]