Farm Carbon And Biofuels

Focus of carbon sequestration and farming are more practical than global climate talks.

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Keith Alverson and his dad, Ron, had their South Dakota farm used as a test site to measure carbon sequestration for corn production. They found they had sequestered enough carbon in the soil to show the farm was not only carbon neutral but sequestered enough carbon that equated to offsetting the emissions of 370 cars, Image by Chris Clayton

Ohio corn farmer Fred Yoder returned recently from a frustrating week in Poland listening to foreign ministers and others talk about what they think farmers globally must do to address climate change.

As chairman of the North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, Yoder took part in a workshop as part of the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations, described in climate talks as “COP24.”

Yoder had expected a discussion about the pillars of climate-smart agriculture, which highlight increasing production sustainably, adaptation and resilience, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But, the talks took off in a different direction, and, Yoder was taken aback by views that modern agriculture is broken and needs to be radically altered.

“During the workshop, they had a huge room with all of these different countries miked up, and, I couldn’t believe how many people came with positions not to our liking,” Yoder says. “It’s very anti animal protein, and, they want to go to a plant-based diet. They had an agenda, and, that’s the problem. It’s not so much just about reducing greenhouse gases but being anti animal agriculture.”

Yoder finally got his chance to talk after hearing from people who want everyone to stop raising meat, champion only grass-fed production or overhaul production of commodity crops. Talk arose about reducing meat consumption 40% or putting a tax on meat globally.

First, Yoder notes how few actual farmers were involved in the 24th Conference of the Parties on climate change.

“I was kind of off-the-cuff, but, whatever program they come up with, if they don’t have farmers, whatever they come up with is dead in the water,” Yoder says. “So, I’m thinking to myself, if we hadn’t been there, silence is considered approval. The people supportive of mainstream agriculture were silent except for us.”

Yoder questions whether the COP24 in Poland was the best way for him to spend his time, especially when he still had some corn in the field, because Ohio had been extraordinarily wet during the late fall. But, Yoder believes U.S. farmers need a seat at the table in the global debate over agriculture and climate change. He’s just not sure the talks are that practical.

“It just galled me they had the view that industrial agriculture is the root of all of our problems,” he says. “It’s simply not fair. I don’t farm anything like I did 20 years ago. I’m more efficient and sustainable than I’ve ever been.”

Yoder says farmers might one day get a price for the value of carbon and a scientific measure for what can be sequestered or reduced. “I’m still looking for the pony in the pile,” he says.

CARBON COUNTING

While Yoder might be frustrated about the international politics of food and climate change, more attention is being paid right now to the role of farm practices in reducing the carbon footprint of biofuels.

Members of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association (SDCGA)have been researching just how much carbon farmers in the Northern Plains can store while growing corn. The effort began roughly a decade ago as SDCGA’s leadership began to build the case that ethanol can show a lower carbon footprint because of practices on the farm. Because California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) scores greater value to fuels with lower carbon values, there are potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for ethanol plants that can demonstrate lower carbon footprints.

“If you look at carbon, the supply chain and the end users, everyone is looking at this,” says Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. “From our perspective, we’re trying to figure out the numbers and what the carbon footprint in South Dakota looks like.”

Currently, California’s LCFS does not take into account farm practices to reduce the carbon footprint of ethanol, but, that door could swing open for farmers in the future. So, the South Dakota Corn Growers got a peer-reviewed study, later reviewed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, looking at corn production practices and carbon storage.

“We have to figure out how to measure carbon life cycles on the farms,” Richardson says. “There is significant work going on in this space. I know, for us, this is one of our biggest research efforts, because we believe there is an opportunity.”

The American Coalition for Ethanol produced a white paper recently on properly measuring the low-carbon benefits of corn ethanol. The paper analyzed life cycle modeling to ideally build more consensus for expanding corn-based ethanol production and use beyond the obligations of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The report cites several recent lab studies seeking to encourage the Department of Energy, EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to update data on emissions for corn and ethanol production. The studies include data on nitrous oxide emissions, nitrogen retention, input use and corn transportation.

South Dakota’s water balance helps, because the state doesn’t have excessive runoff that affects the nitrogen balance, Richardson explains. Practices such as no-till and ridge-till production in the state grew out of ways to help address water-pressure issues.

“We don’t have excess water; we’re usually short on water, so, we use all of the nitrogen,” she says. “It doesn’t leave, typically. There are some situations, but, typically, it doesn’t leave. We are storing carbon even in conventional till because of all the organic matter we’re putting back on the field.”

This is a unique opportunity for the western Corn Belt, Richardson says. “We want to lead this effort,” she continues, pointing to ways linking low-carbon farm production to precision agriculture. South Dakota State University recently announced the creation of a precision agricultural center and major at the university.

Originally, a small South Dakota ethanol plant made an application to the California Air Resources Board to look at the production practices of farmers delivering to the ethanol plant. The data was there, but, it was just one small ethanol plant involved, and, the effort got lost in the protocol and the time it would take by CARB to approve such a low-carbon pathway. The research, though, continues.

“I do believe there is an opportunity for corn-based ethanol because of the farmers’ production practices that we can get into that market at a much higher blend level,” Richardson says.

California has a cap-and-trade program, which has given carbon-credit pathways for rice growers in parts of the country, as well as wheat growers in the northwest Palouse region. More groups are looking at the cap-and-trade pathway, but, the value for corn farmers is in the liquid-fuel market, Richardson says.

“A $100 carbon price [per ton] is worth about $80 an acre in South Dakota,” she says. “That would mean part of the benefit goes to the ethanol plant, and, part of the benefit goes to the farmer.”

Such work would further create opportunities for farmers if other states also created their own low-carbon fuel standards.

MEASURING SEQUESTRATION BENEFITS

As part of the South Dakota carbon-sequestration study, the group Applied Ecological Services was hired to study carbon sequestration on the farm of Ron and Keith Alverson, near Chester, South Dakota.

Applied Ecological Services found that the Alversons’ farm has been storing about 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per acre going back over the past 32 years. Not only is the farm operation carbon neutral, but, it’s carbon negative. The Alverson farm sequesters enough carbon dioxide to offset all greenhouse gases tied to the farm, along with the emissions from 370 cars.

The Alversons use a ridge-till system that creates high seedbeds, making it more high and dry when spring weather is still cool and moist. The practice makes it effective for growing high-residue continuous corn. The organic matter in the soil has grown from an average of 3.2% to 4.5 to 5% levels.

The National Corn Growers Association has 140 farms in its Soil Health Partnership. It has a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant looking at farm practices that sequester carbon.

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Chris Clayton