A Green Funder Reboots With a Unique Program on Sustainable Grazing

cattle grazing in montana. photo: Hannah Lorsch/shutterstock

cattle grazing in montana. photo: Hannah Lorsch/shutterstock

According to the USDA, privately owned range and pasture land—producing grasses and shrubs that feed livestock and wildlife—cover about 27 percent of the total acreage of the continental United States. They make up the largest category of private land use, more than forests and crops. 

A huge portion of land management is in the hands of ranchers and farmers, and there are real environmental consequences based on how land is used for grazing. Grazing land management impacts water quality, food production, fish and wildlife, flooding and drought, and carbon sequestration—healthy soils lock in large reservoirs of carbon. That means, yes, livestock grazing is a climate change issue. 

Yet while there are some funders—such as Packard, the 11th Hour Project and Tom Steyer’s Tomkat Foundation—that are interested in issues of agriculture and climate change, sustainable grazing isn’t a huge priority in green philanthropy. Perhaps that's why the Cedar Tree Foundation, a Boston-based funder that gave nearly $5 million in 2015, has focused on the issue as part of its rejiggered giving strategy.  

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The foundation unveiled the new program this year, which hones its longstanding sustainable agriculture program, and is giving out grants between $100,000 and $200,000 per year, over three years. The Sustainable Grazing for Soil Health Initiative focuses on the upper Midwest and the Northeast of the United States and “supports the expansion of regenerative grazing practices as a strategy to improve soil health and address the threat of climate change.”

Cedar Tree is a family foundation started by pediatrician and entrepreneur David Smith. Smith, who died of cancer in 1999, developed through his very early biotech startup a vaccine for bacteria that cause spinal meningitis, leading to a sharp reduction in cases among young children. He was also an active conservationist, and today, his family and a small staff carry on that legacy through the foundation. 

It’s a relatively small funder, with assets around $98 million, but one that’s been active in Massachusetts and in a few key fields nationally. From 1999 to 2016, it had two main program areas that are still its basic wheelhouse—environmental health and sustainable agriculture. The foundation also runs an ongoing fellowship program, supporting early career scientists working in conservation. 

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During its 2016 revamp, the environmental health program was relaunched as the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative. That program funds work to reduce children’s exposure to toxic chemicals in their environments, focusing on children because of the higher level of risk. While the foundation is not choosy about the solutions, it does identify working with corporations to reduce their impacts as something it funds. 

And at the same time, the sustainable agriculture program relaunched as the Sustainable Grazing Initiative. Previously, it gave to a larger spread of issues, like sustainable farming and connecting urban populations with local, healthy food. The new program is focused on that one component of agriculture, albeit one with a lot of potential impacts. 

While picking a niche makes a lot of sense for a smaller foundation working nationally in a big field, Cedar Tree has a couple of release valves built in for additional funding opportunities. For example, it’s open to funding past interests, including environmental education, with a professional development grantmaking program that’s accepting proposals now. 

Finally, there’s a program, or at least an opening for conversation about other environmental issues, called its “Environmental Idea Center.” Foundations with small staffs like Cedar Tree often keep the door pretty tightly closed. It’s nice to see a funder keep it cracked, and as Cedar Tree’s website points out, new programmatic interests could still emerge.

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