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(Not) Plowing to net zero carbon emissions

As a farmer and ethanol services director at EcoEngineers in Des Moines, Iowa, Mark Heckman expects that farmers who can show that they are lowering the carbon footprint of producing corn for ethanol will soon be able to reap the full benefits of making that change.

There are models that can calculate the amount of carbon that can be sequestered on the farm, Heckman says, and many companies are piloting ways to create the pathways that document the reduction in carbon emissions. Today, states like California are evaluating those models, although California does not currently use them to determine an ethanol plant’s carbon intensity (CI) score on a broad scale.

“We are hoping that, with the new farm bill and new fuels program, those new pathways will be included,” Heckman says. “Canada also seems to be on the right path in its new legislation.”

Some farmers are currently reaping some of the rewards from reducing the CI of ethanol production, Heckman notes, because the ethanol plants have farmer-shareholders. As those farmer-owned plants reduce their CI scores, the more profits plants earn from selling their lower-carbon ethanol at a premium and the more return farmer-shareholders receive in dividends.

Those higher, premium ethanol prices are achieved because ethanol produced with lower-carbon inputs can earn a higher price in markets like California, where the state’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) assigns a carbon intensity (CI) score based, in part, on how much carbon was emitted to grow the corn. Measures that ethanol plants take to reduce carbon emissions when it processes corn into ethanol also play a large role in setting its CI score.
Leading the Team

Heckman leads the EcoEngineers’ team in providing services to ethanol plants as they seek to maximize the value of ethanol in highly regulated fuel markets, including the United States, Brazil, and Canada. These state and federal government regulations governing carbon emissions have a direct impact on ethanol plant revenue. As ethanol services director at EcoEngineers, Heckman says his task is to discover the needs of the ethanol industry and propose solutions that reduce ethanol’s carbon footprint and increase its value.

“More often than not, ethanol’s carbon footprint depends on agriculture’s ability to supply the industry with low-carbon corn, its overwhelmingly dominant feedstock,” he says.

Heckman’s farming interests include a family-owned operation in Muscatine County with his siblings and mother. The farm started as a 60-acre enterprise in the 70s and now encompasses 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans. Two hog buildings supply manure as a sustainable fertilizer along with no-till farming practices and cover crops. Heckman also runs what he calls a “boutique” cow-calf and cattle-feeding operation started by his son that markets beef as the customer wants it through a local locker and sale barn.

“We’re trying to do more with fewer inputs,” Heckman says. “Our farm’s yields are stable and increasing through our sustainable practices.” 

Before joining EcoEngineers, Heckman spent 30 years in the commodity risk management business and in procuring commodities for the corn wet milling and feed industry.

Low-carbon Commitment

Heckman noted that members of the Renewable Fuels Association have made a commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 70% or more by 2030. How can the ethanol industry reduce its carbon footprint and lessen its carbon intensity? “One way is to replace fossil natural gas with renewable natural gas (RNG) made from plant matter and dairy or swine manure,” Heckman says.

Another way an ethanol plant can cut its CI is to buy corn that has been produced using sustainable management practices that cut on-farm carbon emissions. Those on-farm practices include employing no-till, planting cover crops, and enhancing soil sequestration of carbon. Emerging sustainable practices include using biochar and other low-CI fertilizers in place of petroleum-based fertilizers. Heckman says he spends a good part of his time advocating for farmers who adopt sustainable practices to be included in regulated fuel markets.

Heckman cites a study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, which looked at farms using different farming practices. A summary of the Argonne Lab’s analysis shows that farms in the same region may produce vastly different results when it comes to the CI intensity of crop production.

The Argonne Lab’s conclusion was that policies need to be put in place that will hasten the trends to lower on-farm CI and enhance the adoption rate of practices like no-till and cover crops. Employing measures that can accurately track a farm’s CI “will create incentives for the entire agriculture input sector to innovate around lower CI,” the Argonne analysis concluded. “This policy could drive broad innovation in agriculture including providers of genetically modified crops, input manufacturers, bioengineers working on N-fixing organisms, data platforms, and precision agriculture sensors.”

Policy-making Goal

Heckman says shifting from high carbon-emitting farming practices to practices that lessen carbon emissions on the farm should be a goal sought by policymakers. “That means incentivizing farmers to lower their CI,” he says.

By adopting farming practices that lead to a lower CI, as Heckman has on his farm, farmers can benefit from yield stability, he said, and even increase their farm’s yields as carbon is sequestered in the soil. The ethanol industry can benefit from corn produced in a low-carbon manner that will allow it to claim a premium price through carbon offsets when selling its ethanol, he adds.

“The point of this is: we have the ability to create more real-time reporting based on models that are in place to represent what the CI is at the farm-level, which can be used by the ethanol industry,” Heckman says. “We’ve even got the technology to break that CI score down even more to be more site specific on a given farm.”

Heckman foresees a future when ethanol plants will, someday, be able to aggregate and validate supply chain information to regulators that encourages increased use of practices known to reduce the on-farm carbon intensity of agriculture. The problem now is that the different carbon modeling methods, like the one used by California, don’t account for the fact that different farms, even different fields within the same farm, can produce corn with widely varying CI scores.

“If I were to model my farm and the different parts of my farm that use different tillage and cropping practices, those differences in CI can be tracked,” Heckman says. “Ethanol plants can buy crops based on verified site-specific reports of CI scores.”

That kind of supply chain technology means ethanol plants can engage with farmers based on the farm’s CI score instead of on a CI score that has been assigned to a state or even a region, as California’s LCFS is. 

The goal of a farm-based CI score should be to set a value on the amount of carbon sequestered or emissions reduced at the farm level so farmers can get paid for the environmental benefits they provide, Heckman states.

“We are still waiting for the policies to be finalized so farmers can benefit from lowering their carbon footprint, but we think they will be in the near future. People in the ethanol industry are trying to leave things better than they found them. That’s the driving force for me and the ethanol industry. Together, we really can do great things.”

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