Farmers Venture Into the Carbon-Sequestration Market
The New Cash Crop
James and Deaver Traywick are head high -- and then some -- in a late-spring field of broom-bristle-thick cover crops on their farm, near Cope, South Carolina. They are just days from planting the acres to cotton and will have to flatten a mix of rye, crimson clover and tillage radish to do so. In the process, they'll have to penetrate that thick fibrous mat to place the seed less than 1 inch deep.
The father and son will get more back this year than just improved soil health and weed suppression for their efforts; they'll receive additional income for planting multiple cover crops. The Traywicks are part of a growing number of farmers participating in the still-evolving carbon-sequestration market. In essence, corporations are willing to pay farmers to implement practices like cover crops and no-till while fine-tuning nutrient management.
Those practices help hold more carbon in the soil that otherwise would be carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. By doing so, the Traywicks help offset the emissions generated by those other industries.
"The additionality is what we're being paid for," says son, Deaver, "moving from a single cover crop to multiple species. The soil microbe activity is supposed to thrive on that multispecies mix that you lose with only one cover crop."
DOING SOMETHING NEW
Conservation tillage and cover crops are very familiar to the Traywicks; they've been using both for 40 years. What's different this year and last is that they've added crimson clover and tillage radish to the oft-used rye. Those additions on 800 acres of their 1,300-acre farm is why agriculture technology company Indigo Ag -- which has set up a program designed to help farmers tap into the emerging carbon market -- is facilitating their payments based on the carbon credits they generate.
The Traywicks are a tiny piece of a big effort. In 2020, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were estimated at 5.22 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide -- down from 6.7 billion metric tons in 2018. The reduction is due to less fossil fuel combustion in addition to sequestration efforts already taken. Agriculture is responsible for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. The Traywicks will be paid based on the number of carbon credits they store in their soil versus prior to the multiple cover crops.
A carbon credit is equivalent to 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide gas (2,205 pounds) that is not emitted into the earth's atmosphere.
Kari Hernandez, Indigo Ag's global head of carbon operations and offer marketing, says the company sells carbon credits to businesses such as The North Face, JPMorgan Chase and New Belgium Brewing. Indigo pays $40 per carbon credit generated, with farmers receiving 75% and Indigo 25% to cover administrative and other costs. She says she believes the payments could grow to $80 per credit by the end of the decade for the highest-quality credits.
By mid-2021, Indigo began generating its first credits based on developed soil carbon accounting protocols. Indigo officials expected growers to generate between 0.3 to 1 credit per acre in their first year and increase credit production over time.
In June 2022, Indigo sold its first soil carbon credits as emissions offsets, verified and issued by the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit registry and carbon credit standard setter in California.
AGRICULTURE'S EFFORTS ARE KEY
Simply cutting future emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere isn't enough to hold off potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. So-called "negative emissions technologies," such as carbon sequestration, are needed to remove carbon already in the atmosphere to keep warming below the critical 2°C (35.6°F), according to a 2018 academies report.
That's where farmers come in.
At the time of this writing, the Traywicks were unsure what they would be paid but believed their compensation -- because they are only adding cover crops to an operation that is already using conservation tillage -- would be $5 per acre.
"Our payments will never be what they might be in Illinois, because the carbon-sequestration capability of their soils is so much greater," Deaver Traywick says. "This isn't game-changing money by any means but does offset the cover-crop costs a bit." The father-son duo has also used various federal programs to receive cost-sharing money for cover crops and other conservation measures.
By mid-March 2022, the Traywicks had finished doing the paperwork -- documenting their input purchases and practices in 2021 -- to be certified with Indigo Ag.
THE CARBON HARVEST
A separate issue with most carbon-sequestration programs is that farmers such as the Traywicks don't get credit for years' worth of past conservation practices. Indigo Ag offers farmers a one-year look-back. The Traywicks, for instance, signed up in 2020 and will be paid going forward but will also get credit for what they were doing in 2019.
Agriculture, directly and indirectly, produces about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world, points out Rattan Lal, distinguished professor of soil science and founding director of the CFAES Rattan Lal Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, at Ohio State University. But, Lal also says farming and forestry can sequester the equivalent of one-fourth of all global current carbon dioxide emissions using soil-conservation measures.
"A system that would pay farmers $25 per acre per year to use cover crops and conservation is pro-nature, pro-farmer and pro-agriculture," he says. Lal was awarded the 2020 World Food Prize for developing and mainstreaming a soil-centric approach to increasing food production that restores and conserves natural resources, and mitigates climate change.
The $25-per-acre number isn't random but a fairly accurate measurement of the carbon sequestering capability of many farm soils and normal farm operations. Lal says a typical farm can sequester 300 pounds per acre of carbon (1,100 pounds per acre of carbon dioxide), and many Midwestern farms are capable of even more, up to 500 pounds per acre of carbon (1,800 pounds per acre of carbon dioxide).
In practice, this level of carbon sequestration does involve work. Fortunately, the Traywicks are experienced conservationists, though the hefty mass created by three cover crops is a challenge. They have used a Great Plains Turbo-Chopper to chop and flatten most of the covers. In fields previously planted to cotton, they sometimes use an Amadas Cotton Stalk Puller/Chopper, as well. This year, they purchased a crimper-roller to flatten cover crops in the same pass that strip-tills then plants the crop.
WORTH THE TROUBLE?
"Both the turbo-chopper and the cotton stalk puller-chopper leave residue in 10- to 12-inch pieces," Deaver Traywick says. In 2021, they used a fertilizer spreader to distribute cover-crop seed on top of the ground and had 600 acres of seed flown on in 2020. The fertilizer spreader is the method of choice. "That we are able to do that and get a good cover crop up [emerged] makes it a lot less labor intensive and costly," he says. As it was, weather and time constraints prevented the Traywicks from planting three covers on 500 of their 1,300 acres.
The amount of extra work to plant into a mass of cover crops in the spring is daunting, explains Trey Hill, of Harborview Farms, Rock Hall, Maryland. Hill was one of the first to sign on with Seattle-based Nori's market in 2019 and was paid $115,000 for sequestering 8,000 tons of carbon in his soil via use of no-till and cover crops.
"Planting soybeans into cover crops that are 5 feet tall, then waiting five weeks to see if your beans come through is difficult and stressful," he says. "I've been miserable every May for 10 years."
That's how long Hill has been using cover crops and conservation tillage. Nori tapped him to help set the bar for its carbon-sequestration metrics based on what he's already been doing on the 10,000-acre operation. Hill's detailed farm records -- using Corteva Agriscience's Granular -- helped Nori track and quantify the progress of his conservation efforts. As a result, Hill got credit for what he's been doing the past five years. He is the exception to the rule thus far.
Like most farmers entering into carbon-sequestration agreements, Hill must agree to continue the practices for a certain time frame. In Hill's case, that's at least 10 years. He empathizes with anyone not already doing these practices who is considering the switch.
"The additionality makes it tough," Hill says, "and there's not much money in it yet. I don't think $15 per acre is going to make people change the way they farm. I don't have a lot of landlords that are excited to sign a 10-year deal with me."
Indigo Ag works with third-party companies like Climate Action Reserve and Verra to generate certified agricultural carbon credits using soil carbon accounting protocols. The protocols provide guidance on how to quantify, monitor, report and verify practices that enhance carbon sequestration. The process does not necessarily involve the annual expense of soil tests on individual farms to measure carbon. Rather, Deaver Traywick explains, growers with similar soils in similar geographies are pooled together, and the value of certain practices are set for that pool.
The benefits of the Traywicks' system and additional cover crops include increased moisture infiltration and retention, weed suppression, erosion control, increased organic matter and microbial activity in the soil, he points out.
"Taken together with the carbon credits," Deaver Traywick says, "we believe the benefits pay for a multispecies cover crop."
While the Traywicks' system may work -- profitabilitywise as well as enhancing conservation -- at the farm level, there are a lot of changes that need to happen to move the needle on a global scale and climate change.
"If fossil fuels are not replaced in the long-term," Ohio State's Lal says, "if their use keeps going up every year as it is now, there is no way agriculture can offset everything humans are producing."
As of 2019, he says human-related activities annually emitted about 10 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. Another 1.5 gigatons are emitted due to world deforestation. To get a sense of the size of these numbers, 1 gigaton (1 billion tons) is equivalent to the mass of all land mammals on earth (excluding humans). Carbon sequestration in agriculture and forestry could offset one-fourth of that 11.5 gigaton total, or about 2.8 gigatons of carbon.
If fossil fuels are completely replaced by other energy sources, and enough carbon sequestration takes place, the average global temperature can be kept within 2°C (35.6°F)of what it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. "Agriculture is the solution as long as fossil fuel is replaced," Lal adds.
The Traywicks will remain on the same course of conservation regardless of ongoing carbon-sequestration efforts. "We have a bit of a passion for being different," says James Traywick. The benefits of cover crops in terms of soil infiltration have been obvious. "After 3 to 4 inches of rain, these fields with covers don't have ponds. We were doing these things before there was a carbon-sequestration market, and we'll keep doing them."
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