Iowa soybean field with cover crops

SWOF grows through farmer-led efforts

March 11, 2024 | Brock Johnston

Farmer-led efforts are rapidly scaling the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund.

In a time of shrinking soybean margins and increased market competition, farmers are placing a growing emphasis on partnership to drive value and enhance the environment for future generations.

The result? An opportunity that positions farmers as leaders of a climate solution, providing financial incentives for the environmental benefits produced on acres across the Midwest and beyond — and it’s growing fast.

Farmer ambition, combined with public funding and growing corporate commitments to reduce the environmental impact of their supply chains, has rocketed the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund® (SWOF) toward explosive growth in recent years.

Managed by AgOutcomes, a subsidiary of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), SWOF leverages markets for ecosystem services like carbon, water and biodiversity. This is done through partnerships that allow farmers to operate profitably and sustainably while helping beneficiaries — often food and beverage companies — achieve their sustainability goals.

Growing impact

In September of 2022, SWOF was awarded approximately $95 million through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative. This funding, combined with approximately $60 million in corporate commitments from the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other household names, allowed SWOF to quickly scale and expand opportunities to farmers across 12 Midwest states in 2023. These funds are used for farmer enrollment and technical assistance, and help SWOF measure, report and verify environmental outcomes.

In addition to the organization’s Climate-Smart work, SWOF has continued to add and expand other partnerships.

In 2023, SWOF enrolled over 300,000 acres of farmland across 14 states, including Iowa. From these efforts, SWOF provided more than $10 million in direct payments to farmers for their positive environmental outcomes.

Joe Winchell, a field program lead with SWOF, says a variety of factors are leading to the program’s growth and continued interest from farmers.

“We’re the only organization in our field that’s associated with a commodity organization. That really sticks out to people — especially farmers — knowing that we’re here to specifically serve their needs.”

Producers in all of Iowa’s 99 counties are eligible to enroll acres in the program. With few other factors limiting farmer participation, SWOF participants must propose and be willing to adopt at least one new conservation practice to enroll acres. SWOF is not prescriptive about the conservation practice(s) a farmer chooses to implement. Typically, farmers are utilizing cover crops, no-till, reduced tillage or extended crop rotations.

Farmer payments are uniquely based on the environmental outcomes produced from their practice changes, rather than a flat acre rate for specific practice implemented. And, because SWOF provides compensation to farmers for water quality improvements in addition to carbon (CO2e) outcomes, they often pay farmers more when compared to other outcome-based programs.

“In Iowa, we’ve seen huge program growth in the last few years,” says Winchell. “SWOF now has three field program representatives across the state, which gives us a larger footprint and more resources on the ground to help farmers.”

Partnered approach

Environmental outcomes generated by farmers participating in SWOF are transferred to partners seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality and increase overall agricultural sustainability within key supply sheds, watersheds or geographic areas.

“We have a great group of partners whose business operations utilize the crops produced by farmers with acres enrolled in SWOF,” says Winchell. “Their supply chains — selling or manufacturing products — are often derived from many of the commodities grown on Iowa farms.”

These items are used to produce the food products and beverages we consume every day, including soy oil and derivatives like lecithin, high fructose corn syrup and meal derived from corn, dairy products and much more.

This “inset” approach allows SWOF’s corporate partners to support positive environmental outcomes from farmer's within their supply chains, instead of buying outcomes from a project or industry they don’t operate in — also known as “offsetting”.

For Riley Schnell, an ISA farmer-member and SWOF participant from Sully, maximizing his operation’s profitability and stewardship goals are working hand-in-hand.

“This is very important for me. My grandfather is passing this farm on to me. We started farming together 50/50 two years ago as I prepared to take over. This next year will be my first-time running things completely on my own.”

Schnell, who recently took over managing his family’s farm from his grandfather Rolland, a former ISA president, began collaborating with SWOF in 2021 to implement cover crops. Since then, he’s expanded efforts in the program to include reduced tillage on the remainder of his acres and utilizes a corn, rye and soybean relay cropping rotation.

In 2023, Schnell generated 838 metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions and removals from the atmosphere and prevented 16,555 lbs. of nitrogen and 903 lbs. of phosphorus from leaving his fields.

“I’m still a young farmer. I’m only in my third year with this, but I would say just try it. Have the courage to try it, even if it’s only on a couple acres like we did.”

And with a goal of one million enrolled acres in 2025, SWOF is well positioned to partner with a growing number of Iowa farmers like Riley to advance a climate solution. Enrollment for 2024 is now open in Iowa.

To learn more, visit

How the enrollment and payment process works

Step 1:

Access the web portal to create an account, map field boundaries and enter baseline and future cropping system information. SWOF representatives are available to assist with this process.

Step 2:

Review the proposed payment offering emailed to you within a few days after data submission and decide if you wish to continue and participate.

Step 3:

E-sign the one-year contract and confirm your SWOF participation. Payments are made in two installments: 50% is paid prior to verification, and 50% is paid afterward.

Step 4:

Receive technical assistance from SWOF field program representatives as needed to implement conservation practices.

Step 5:

Receive the remaining 50% of payment after your farm’s environmental outcomes are measured and verified. In 2023, participating farmers received an average payment of $33 per acre.