Farmers Seek More Climate Tools, Credit

Agriculture Looks for 'Frontier' Technology to Further Reduce Soil Emissions

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Agriculture's biggest opportunity to reduce emissions is through soil management. (DTN file photo by Jim Patrico)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Washington, Iowa, farmer Mitchell Hora's farm has for decades employed conservation practices aimed and reducing its carbon footprint.

Exactly how effective it has been is somewhat of a mystery.

Hora, co-founder and chief executive officer of Continuum Ag, operates a 700-acre farm producing corn, soybeans, cereal rye, malt, barley and mustard. He said his farm has employed numerous conservation practices, but he still doesn't have a grip on how much carbon his operation has sequestered.

"Conservation tillage has been part of our culture really for a long time," he said during the Agri-Pulse Food and Ag policy summit last week.

"We started no-tilling corn in 1978. We've been 100% no-till soybeans ever since 1986, and we've been 100% cover crop now for going on six years. But the problem today is that the tools that are needed to sequester that carbon or the tools needed to quantify that carbon sequestration, are not necessarily scalable. They're not necessarily feasible for a producer like myself to go out and to test the carbon that I am sequestering in my soil."

Hora said work needs to be done on identifying the leading indicators of net-stable carbon sequestration. In addition, he said farms that already have employed conservation practices can improve upon those practices.

"We can still do better, we can still manage our fertility better still get more depth to our cover crops, we've done a lot of that," he said.

SOIL MANAGEMENT

The numbers show agriculture can be most effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in three areas: soil management, soil fermentation and manure management.

John Newton, chief economist for Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said technology needs to evolve and research needs to flourish.

Though agriculture represents just 10% of overall GHG emissions in the U.S. at 650 million metric tons, the sector has room to cut. Soil management -- which includes the nitrogen fertilizer application -- represents 55% of total GHG emissions in ag, Newton said. Changes in soil management, such as reducing fertilizer applications, can bring those emission totals down from crop production.

"So we have a tremendous opportunity to do more through the management of forests through the management of our cropland through settlements to trap even more carbon in the soil, but it also highlights the huge importance in the need for increased agricultural research," he said.

"We need to develop the frontier technology so that we can capture 10 times this amount of carbon in the soil. We can achieve our climate goals by changing what's on the plate slightly, but it's not going to get us all the way there."

P.J. Haynie III, chairman of the board for the National Black Growers Council, and wheat, barley, rapeseed corn and soybean farmer in Reedville, Virginia, https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/…, said farmers across the country who are embracing their roles in climate should be recognized.

"I think that companies that are coming into this space know we need investment," he said.

"You know we need support, but we need to make sure that the farmers who are the ones who are taking on all the risks, who are doing all the effort to support our soil health are rewarded for their work," he said.

"Most producers know the product rotation that they're in. They know the crops that they raise. We don't need too many people telling us how to farm, and we need to make sure that the people that are in the board rooms making the decisions about production agriculture have enough dirt on their boots to really have good conversation."

AG EMISSIONS INCREASE SINCE 1990

Agricultural emissions have increased by about 12% since 1990, Newton said. When it comes to land use and forestry, however, emissions have dropped by about 8% in the past 31 years.

"We're actually capturing less carbon in the soil today than what we were 30 years ago," he said.

"So, there's an opportunity to expand those sectors, increase the adoption of climate-smart practices and capture even more carbon in the soil."

On the other hand, Newton said farmers are producing more using the same amount of inputs. So, sidelining more farm acreage doesn't make sense, he said.

"We're raising more crops more livestock than ever before. We have record milk production," Newton said.

"We produce 15 billion bushels of corn; that's probably 80% more than what we produced 1990. We're producing more beef more pork more poultry than ever before. So, set-aside programs are not the solution. And if set-aside programs aren't the solution then what is?"

Newton said conservation programs in the farm bill are a good place to focus attention.

"Especially on working-lands programs we can put more cover crops in the ground, we can help pay for different conservation tillage practices, we can help on pest management, help on nutrient management," he said.

"We have to recognize those early adopters, that's a key economic component. So, through these reduced tillage practices they're already minimizing their disturbance to the soil, helping to preserve soil quality improve water quality. So, we need to find a way to compensate those early adopters, and then also take into consideration any additional practices that they may do and what type of carbon capture."

Though producers can recover cover-crop planting costs over time, Newton said "It's a significant upfront investment for the producer to make to adopt some of these practices."

For example, in 2017 U.S. farmers planted about 15 million cover crop acres, or about 4% of U.S. cropland, he said.

In 2019, nearly 20 million acres filed for prevent plant because of a wet season.

"The administration allowed cover-crop ground to be eligible for an MFP (Market Facilitation Program) payment," Newton said.

"And when we saw that we saw increased use of cover crops dramatically in 2019. So that shows you that if you provide the right economic incentives, we can increase our adoption of climate-smart practices."

When it comes to manure management, Newton said there are 232 anaerobic digesters in operation across the country. Manure management as a whole represents about 80 million metric tons of U.S. agricultural emissions.

"Our digesters only took out 4 million metric tons of direct reduction," he said.

"So that's about 5% of the methane emissions that are destroyed, using anaerobic digesters. How do we get those digesters adopted more widescale? The cost of a digester is tremendous.

"The key to all of this is to make sure that the farm and farm economic sustainability goes hand in hand with climate sustainability and achieving our climate goals."

A.G. Kawamura, owner and partner of Orange County (California) Produce, LLC, and co-chair of Solutions from the Land, said farmers need more tools instead of "prescriptive" approaches through regulation.

"I'm a 40-year-plus farmer and I can't believe the improvements on my farm and the improved technologies and ways of doing things that we've been able to put in place in the course of my single lifetime," he said.

"And you know that the entire world is moving forward this idea that agriculture is broken. That might sound good and might generate cash for those who can peddle that kind of fear, but no we're busy doing the job that we have to get done, and we're getting better at it."

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley