Carbon farming – part 1

By Hannah Grip, Longmont chapter

Many of the solutions put forth to address climate change and increasing CO2 levels involve limiting future emissions. Whether it’s carbon fee and dividend or incentives for clean energy, the end goal is the same: put less carbon into the atmosphere.

But what about the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere?

Carbon farming is one answer to this question. Through a variety of agricultural practices, farmers have the power to increase the carbon stored in the land beneath their crops.

Dan Matsch of Eco-Cycle in Boulder explained to me that carbon farming, often referred to as regenerative agriculture, is all about building back soil, following decades of degradation from conventional farming practices.

Plants consume CO2 from the air, and with water and light, the magic of photosynthesis occurs. According to Kiss the Earth, an excellent documentary on regenerative agriculture, nearly 40% of the CO2 that plants consume passes through the roots and to the soil beneath. The soil microbes use the CO2 the plants pass down to them and, in turn, pass important minerals into the plant.

Farmers who practice regenerative agriculture are able to boost the amount of carbon stored in soil through a variety of agricultural practices, including applying compost, practicing low- or no-till planting, alley cropping, cover cropping, well-managed animal grazing and more.

Many practices under the umbrella of carbon farming or regenerative agriculture are about keeping carbon stored in the soil there, preventing erosion and desertification. For example, when a farmer tills a plot of land, cutting grooves into the earth can cause carbon stored in the soil to be released back into the atmosphere. To address this, farmers can use alley cropping that involves planting rows of taller windbreak crops in a plot of farmland, and cover cropping also reduces erosion. Again, the aim is to continuously build back more and healthier topsoil. That healthy topsoil can sequester more carbon.

Healthier soils also grow more abundant and more nutritious crops in the long run.

As incredible as this all sounds, we might wonder why everyone isn’t carbon farming.

Simply put, it can be prohibitively expensive for farmers, who already deal with thin margins and who might not own the land they farm, to implement new practices that might not yield a return on the investment for years.

So it’s become a question of incentives. 

Some believe that carbon marketplaces are the solution.

Carbon markets like Bayer, Nori, Indigo Ag, and others allow farmers who are implementing carbon farming practices to sell carbon credits to net emitters — primarily businesses who have made net-zero promises. Among businesses that have purchased carbon credits on Indigo Ag are North Face, Fat Tire, Ralph Lauren, Shopify, and JP Morgan Chase.

One carbon credit corresponds to one ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. For context, in 2019, humans added 35 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, according to MIT’s Climate Portal. An average 22 MPG car emits 5 tons of CO2 per year.

Because it’s not feasible to take soil samples at every point on a plot of farmland, carbon markets rely on models to estimate carbon totals, and those estimated carbon totals dictate the number of credits. 

But there are concerns about the accuracy of these calculations of carbon content in soil. The climate data website carbon(plan) conducts research and makes recommendations about the protocols used to estimate soil carbon content. They note that soil carbon protocols were born out of conflicts of interest; for example, Indigo Ag was involved in the creation of their own market’s protocols, and that “[t]he protocol doesn’t even require independent verifiers to collect independent soil samples or reproduce projects’ modeled climate benefits.”

The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which passed the Senate in June last year, includes provisions for the USDA to set up a certification program for carbon markets. CCL has been involved in lobbying for this legislation. The Growing Climate Solutions Act would allow the USDA to become an independent and trustworthy arbiter of these markets and to help farmers navigate these marketplaces.

Carbon markets aren’t the only way to incentivize carbon farming. The University of California at Berkeley policy brief to Mad Agriculture assesses additional policies, including tax credits and grants, to encourage and support farmers in adopting carbon farming practices. Grants allow up-front funding for farmers to change their practices, in contrast with other incentives, like carbon marketplaces and tax incentives, that only pay out later and place huge initial investment burdens on the farmers. The U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service has funding available for farmers to adopt these practices.

Matsch of Eco-Cycle also believes that shifts in consumer values and purchasing habits can incentivize farmers to adopt carbon farming practices.

In Longmont, for example, McCauley Family Farms and Ollin Farms both use regenerative agricultural practices and run CSAs, or community-supported agriculture, an arrangement where consumers can buy food directly from local farmers.

In addition to voting with your dollar, CCLers can talk to farmers in their area and learn where local and county-wide agricultural grants are going. Building political will for carbon farming/regenerative agriculture will complement our work building political will for carbon fee and dividend.

Take action:

  • Buy from local farmers who use regenerative farming practices.

  • Lobby local agriculture grant decision makers: ask them to prioritize supporting regenerative farms in your area.