The hot August sun beats down as a group of farmers stand in cotton, soybean and corn fields in south-central Kansas, looking at the remaining cover-crop residue and condition of the crops that desperately need rain.
The farmers, who are on a tour led by the Kansas Soil Health Alliance, traipse through cover-crop fields, digging up plants, examining the crop residue and soil to find signs of moisture and organic activity. It becomes more of a challenge when the temperature is topping 100°F, and the area hasn't seen rainfall in more than a month.
But, those in the group who are farming dryland on fields with cover crops typically feel confident their crops will last longer than their neighbors' fields without the covers.
Austin Schweizer has integrated cover crops partly to hold down the soil but also capture moisture. The Sterling, Kansas, farmer says the sandy soils in the area are a challenge, especially if you can't lean on irrigation. He describes some of the fields around his farm as a "desert" and points to ridges that aren't natural but were created by the dunes during the Dust Bowl.
His neighbors see the cover-crops strategy as giving up moisture to cover crops, but Schweizer says rainfalls flow so quickly through the sandy soils, it becomes hard to capture moisture otherwise.
"With the cover crops, we are pumping carbon back into the ground. That's how we get the energy we need," Schweizer says. "The more covers I grow, the more I help the moisture. I have to find a way to use more carbon to hold more water."
Such sandy soils take a long time to build up the organic profile. Standing in a field he took over in 2017, Schweizer says organic matter has gone from 0.3% to more than 1% since he's farmed that ground. "We've moved it, but it's been a slow change," he says.
Even though nobody on the tour is using the term "climate-smart agriculture," and no one is signed up to get a carbon credit for not tilling or using cover crops, both are getting a lot of attention these days. Agriculture is seen as playing a major role to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and other industries are banking on carbon credits supplied by farmers to help meet their environmental objectives.
Where is it all headed? And, what does it mean for the future of farming as growers contend with more frequent weather extremes while trying to balance efforts to use production practices that boost production and benefit the environment?
DON'T FOCUS ON TERMINOLOGY
While the terms have shifted some from "soil health" to "regenerative agriculture" to "climate-smart agriculture," they are all related, though banking carbon in the soil is one of the key aspects to climate-smart agriculture.
"Ultimately, soil health, water quality, regenerative agriculture -- they all kind of run together," says Kellie Blair, a farmer who co-chaired the group Iowa Smart Agriculture. "So, on our farm, we have cattle, and the manure feeds the soil and then the crop, and the crop feeds the cattle. It's kind of a closed system or circulatory. We're using less commercial inputs, which is good for the climate. Really, our focus is to try new ideas that will increase profitability but protect the climate, the water and the soil."
On the Blairs' farm, they began focusing on monitoring their tiles. At one point, they were leaching 42 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen. With a more diversified crop rotation, reducing tillage and growing cover crops, the nitrate coming out of their tile lines is now under 10 ppm.
"The changes that you make on the farm don't have to be huge," she says. "They can start small and go from there. But, they do need to be intentional."
Many Questions Remain
Jimmy Emmons, a farmer from Dewey County, Oklahoma, says the various terms used today are sometimes confusing to producers.
"We started years ago talking about healthy soils, and then regenerative ag came along, and I really liked it because when you regenerate something, you rebuild it, and you repair it, then you revitalize it," Emmons says. "Right now, everybody is trying to figure out how to capture CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon and store it."
Emmons speaks across the country and internationally to farmers about how soils function and the value of soil health. Just trying to understand the basics of soil is important, and farmers in different climates will have different priorities.
"Water is our limiting factor here," he says of south-central Oklahoma. "I want to capture every drop of water in my soil. In other areas with a lot of water, they sometimes want to get rid of water. But, it's still about the ability of the soil to do that. The worst thing you can do is not plant a cover crop."
Still, Emmons isn't ready to enroll in a private carbon credit program despite multiple companies trying to recruit him. They've come to his farm to take soil samples in some cases. Emmons isn't convinced everyone has figured out how to measure carbon in the soil.
"And, everybody is trying to make a buck. Whether you are trying to trade the carbon or store the carbon on the farm side, as well, I just don't think we're there yet," Emmons says.
ATTENTION ON CARBON
Right now, there are at least a dozen companies enrolling farmers in some sort of carbon program (see "Carbon Markets," on page 30). Some companies are aggressively recruiting producers, while others are testing their own methodologies on exactly how this will work.
"About half of the whole carbon industry right now is educating growers about how it works," says Clay Craighton, an agronomist working with Agoro, a company that offers a carbon program.
There are multiple strategies at work. Even without government mandates, corporate America has challenged itself to lower its carbon footprint, and businesses see agriculture as a way to do that. Within ag, ethanol producers continue looking for new strategies to drive down their carbon scores to sell more ethanol and get carbon credits in regulated markets such as California.
"There's a general acceptance now that ag can be part of the solution, obviously, or they wouldn't have been throwing money at us like that," says Ron Alverson, a South Dakota farmer who has worked with the ethanol industry on carbon scores. "If climate-smart agriculture can reduce the carbon intensity of corn production, what does that translate into for every acre out there?"
Visiting an Iowa farm in mid-August, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack described the $19.5 billion in funding for climate-smart agricultural practices included in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as "transformational" and "the largest investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl."
Vilsack added, "This is an extraordinary opportunity for us to embrace climate-smart agriculture and invest in it with these resources."
Collectively, crops and livestock account for about 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Since coming into office, President Joe Biden has focused on incentives to move the economy, including agriculture, toward "net-zero" emissions by 2050.
Vilsack and USDA also surprised the industry in mid-September when the department took its $1 billion climate-smart pilot program and tripled it in size to $3.5 billion in USDA funding. USDA rolled out $2.8 billion in 70 initial grants under the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities.
To note, DTN (parent company of Progressive Farmer) is part of a $95-million grant with a coalition of groups called Farmers for Soil Health (FSH), a project that will work to increase cover crops and conservation tillage in 20 states that produce more than 85% of the country's corn and soybean crops. Part of the goal is to help double cover-crop acreage nationally.
The Farmers for Soil Health news release stated, "FSH will also work with data insights and publishing company DTN to develop a digital platform that will use satellite imagery, allowing farmers to receive an 'eco-score' for corn and soybeans produced with cover crops and conservation tillage. This platform will facilitate the marketing of crops to parties interested in securing a documented source of sustainably produced corn and soybeans."
Overall, the goal for USDA's pilot projects is to help farmers receive premiums for their crops or livestock based on their conservation practices.
USDA's focus on climate-smart agriculture has multiple goals to drive down greenhouse gas emissions with farming practices that build resiliency in the soil and, ultimately, reduce nutrient pollution in rivers and streams.
"You're going to see more productive soil and cleaner water as a result of embracing climate-smart agriculture," says Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary of Farm Production and Conservation. "What we are focused on is those practices that are going to benefit the climate, but a bunch of these practices also benefit productivity, they benefit water quality, all kinds of other things. There's an alignment between good agronomic practices and good climate practices. So, we're trying to take advantage of that."
REDUCING FERTILIZER NEEDS
Climate-smart agriculture goes beyond no-till practices, cover crops or grazing management. Technology and equipment used to make the most efficient use of fertilizer and chemicals -- precision agriculture -- will also need to play a key role, especially if agriculture is going to drive down nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertilizer.
Companies are enrolling farmers in different ways to reduce nitrogen applications. Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), for instance, worked with PepsiCo Inc. and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research this fall to enroll 120 farmers in a program specifically to work on strategies that use cover crops to reduce nitrogen use. The program includes compensating farmers if they lose yield because of cutting back on nitrogen.
"Pepsi's goal is to see how they can help farmers who grow corn for their supply chain for high-fructose corn syrup dial back nitrogen to help cut greenhouse gas emissions," says Sarah Carlson, PFI senior program manager.
Separately, the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund is paying farmers for strategies that prevent nitrogen and phosphorus from entering waterways.
Brad McDonald, a farmer in eastern Iowa, enrolled his farm in a pilot program created by CIBO Technologies in order to better understand the process of signing up for a program. McDonald says if farmers are going to implement soil-health practices, they might as well get paid for it. His main goal, however, isn't just the carbon payment.
"The carrot that I'm really chasing here is to decrease my chemical fertilizer use over time," McDonald says. "So, we've seen it time and time again -- a 40% reduction in chemical needs, a 25% reduction in fertilizer needs over time. Once you get the biology working for you, it just makes everything so much easier."
THE ADDITIONALITY PROBLEM
The difference between practicing climate-smart agriculture and carbon programs often comes down to how carbon-credit companies treat early adopters, or legacy growers. Looking at no-till alone, there are thousands of farmers who have converted to pure no-till practices going back decades. In turn, they've banked a lot of carbon in their soils. But, companies buying credits want additional carbon banked -- "additionality" beyond what has already been achieved.
"We've looked at a lot of the private programs, but we're ineligible for anything because we don't have an additional practice change, essentially," says Keith Alverson, who farms with his father, Ron, in South Dakota. "What options we've received or been eligible for haven't been attractive as far as the economics over it. We've struggled to make the economics work on cover crops if it costs you $40 [to plant] and you get $6 back."
Instead, the Alversons are focusing on the limited tillage and the large volumes of crop residue from corn production that have built up organic matter in their soils over time.
They are part of an early Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) involving South Dakota State University, the American Coalition for Ethanol, Dakota Ethanol plant and the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. The project received a $7.5-million grant with a goal to develop a template for states such as California that have low-carbon fuel standards to audit and verify the carbon sequestration practices of farmers delivering corn to ethanol plants.
Right now, the RCPP grant shows that signing up for USDA's climate-smart programs could be more profitable than the voluntary carbon market. The RCPP grant will pay farmers in the program as much as $50 an acre to switch to no-till. Using the 4Rs of applying nitrogen fertilizer -- right source, right rate, right time, right place -- can pay $40 an acre. Adding cover crops can pay as high as $50 an acre.
A lower carbon score for an ethanol plant from a state such as California can translate into hundreds of millions of dollars for those ethanol producers. "That's potentially a lot of money across the Midwest," Ron Alverson points out. "What we're hoping for is a state or regional low-carbon fuel standard will develop in the Midwest -- something that will ensure you get paid for how you farm if you are a low-carbon farm."
Private carbon credits and USDA's climate-smart focus continue the long-term strategy of using voluntary practices to achieve environmental outcomes. The Environmental Working Group, for instance, looked at USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and found a lot of the "enhancement" practices do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the biggest complaints is the lack of measurement and metrics of what is being sequestered.
"All of these offsets are based on soil organic matter," says Silvia Secchi, a professor of geographical and sustainable sciences at the University of Iowa. "A lot of the focus is on the kind of activities and practices in the Corn Belt where we already have high soil organic carbon, and so it's hard to increase it. The choice of metric is problematic, but the other thing is that it doesn't really reflect the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture."
Much work is still going into measuring the potential of soil organic carbon to mitigate climate change. Rattan Lal, a distinguished soil science professor at Ohio State University and a 2020 World Food Prize laureate, is now leading a new $20-million global research project with a long list of university, corporate and agricultural collaborators to detail strategies that capture carbon in the soil and improve the rate at which carbon dioxide is captured by plants.
"This project will provide the needed tools and data to help farms across the United States and around the world reach their full potential as a carbon sink and be part of the solution to combating climate change and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN," Lal stated in announcing the project.
Secchi is skeptical about the permanence of soil carbon sequestration, as some producers get payments for no-till production on their soybeans one year, then they will till the soil for the next corn crop. She takes the opposite stance from farmers who want to get paid for their no-till history.
"In a lot of these cases, farmers are going to get paid for a practice they are already doing, even if it is not a permanent sequestration tool, leaving aside the issue of whether there is actually carbon being sequestered in this way," Secchi says. "And, then if a farmer has a three-year, six-year contract and on year seven when the payment ends, the farmer is not going to reenroll, is he going to till again? So, it's not a permanent solution."
BENEFITS BEYOND THE CARBON PAYMENT
Tom Cannon is a farmer and rancher near Blackwell, Oklahoma, who got involved with Indigo Ag's carbon program because he was a research partner with Indigo on the company's biological products.
Cannon says his soils are fragile, and the topsoil is shallow, so he constantly looks for strategies to make the farm more resilient. He also finds it rewarding -- almost on a spiritual level -- to help farmers and work on climate change at the same time.
"Climate-smart agriculture to me is what is that climate in the soil? What is the climate below the surface, and is it beneficial to the biology that drives the system? Whenever I think about soil health and the climate down there, it's a pretty good term. But, most people don't see it that way," Cannon says.
He hears a lot of criticisms about carbon programs from the lack of recognition over legacy practices to the company's share of the payments. Indigo, for instance, takes a 25% cut, which Cannon compares to a 75/25 cost-share.
"I just don't understand why people are so negative about it," he adds. "If you can get some payments while accomplishing everything else I'm really passionate about, then why not?"
While a carbon program may not credit past soil-health practices, Cannon says legacy farmers are already way ahead when it comes to achieving lasting improvements in their soil. "I would absolutely love to put 100% of my acres into a program, but I would never go out and disk my ground just so I can get a carbon payment," he points out. "I would never do that, because the greatest value in these practices is the resiliency in your soil, the yields in your soil and profitability. But, it would have been nice if this program was already in effect back when I started."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
-- PFI's Sarah Carlson talks to DTN about Practical Farmers of Iowa's work with PepsiCo to enroll farmers in a cover-crop program to reduce nitrogen use. Watch the DTN video: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
-- Eastern Iowa farmer Brad McDonald talks to DTN about signing up with CIBO's test pilot program. Watch the DTN video: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
-- Follow Chris Clayton on DTN at https://www.dtnpf.com/… or follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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