How do you measure carbon?

Reading the book Mindset by Carol Dweck transformed the way Tom Oswald thought about farming. 

“One of the chapters talked about the difference between what we do and how we do it,” says the Cleghorn, Iowa, farmer. “For thousands of years, we’ve planted crops that harvest sunlight and use water to make something of value that people want or need.”

How farmers do it, though, echoes continuous change. “Sometimes, you have baby-step progress, and then you have leaps,” he says. “There is just some incredible stuff coming, and I think we have proven that we can do more with a less negative environmental footprint.”

Meet Carbon Markets

Carbon market backers place a new spin on the what we do and how we do it mind-set. It mimics the what-we-do crop production mantra, although carbon is a different crop than conventional ones such as corn, soybeans, and small grains. 

It also mirrors the how-we-do-it mantra in that carbon markets reflect continuous agricultural change. Carbon doesn’t result from planting seeds as with conventional crops. Instead, carbon markets aim at sequestering and limiting greenhouses gases that include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.

Carbon markets seek to offset greenhouse emissions by paying industries, such as agriculture, to sequester or limit them. 

“A lot of Fortune 500 companies have made carbon-negative pledges to investors and Wall Street,” says Jim Hedges, vice president of seed for WinField United. “As those promises are made and they want to fulfill them, it creates a lot of demand for carbon.”

Some farmers may already be able to access carbon payments with little change, such as those who sequester greenhouse gases via no-till and seeding cover crops, says Aaron Sindelar, conservation agronomist for Central Valley Ag Cooperative in Nebraska. However, switching to these practices requires some transition time and also some risk.

“It’s a pretty big commitment for conventional tillage growers who are asked to switch to no-till,” says Sindelar.

Carbon markets don’t necessarily shut these farmers out, for payments can be made based on changes in nitrogen (N) management. Tools such as use of N stabilizers or other enhanced nutrient management practices are ways to help a farmer’s bottom line and also help obtain a payment while slicing greenhouse gas emissions, says Sindelar.

Measurement Questions 

Still, questions linger. 

“Everything I do in farming has a unit measurement,” says Oswald. “Cash rent, dollars per acre. Land value, dollars per acre. Fertilizer, dollars per ton. Seed, dollars per unit.”

Carbon? Not so much. 

“The million and maybe even the billion-dollar question I share with others is how are we going to measure it?” says Meagan Kaiser, a farmer and chief operating officer of Perry Agricultural Laboratory, Bowling Green, Missouri. “The scariest part as a farmer is that we have the big lofty goals about carbon without having a reliable way to repeatably measure the same sample and get the same answer each time.”

So far, that’s not occurring. The margin of error is at least a plus or minus 0.1% in current carbon sampling, Kaiser says. For a 12-inch-deep soil sample, that translates to a margin of error of 2 tons of carbon per acre. 

“Some companies pay around $20 per ton for carbon,” Kaiser says. “The margin of error could change a payment $40 per acre. That isn’t close enough, especially with measurements taken only every five or 10 years.”

This could jeopardize the credibility of carbon markets, she adds.

“If we say we are sequestering all this carbon and 10 years down the road our greenhouse gas emission report card is the same, it will be farmers who will be blamed,” she says. “We have to make sure what we are doing is real, and not just get caught up in the moment.” 

Improvements

Improvements in carbon measurement will take time, just as practices such as no-till, strip-till, and cover crops take time for farmers to adopt and adapt them for their farms,” Oswald says. 

However, new practices must pay their way, he adds. “For me, there’s evidence that soils seem to get better the less they are pounded with tillage,” he notes.

Farmers will similarly scrutinize practices that sequester carbon or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Payments need to be based on concrete measurements, adds Oswald. 

“Show me real numbers and show me the money,” Oswald says. 

Carbon market payments also need to be tailored for practices adopted on individual farms, agree Oswald and Kaiser. 

Improved soil health benefits aren’t always limited to reduced tillage, Kaiser adds. 

She’s encountered cases where farmers have no-tilled and planted cover crops for a decade, but soil organic matter has not increased relative to the neighboring conventional tillage. 

“We have come so far with precision management tailored to specific farm conditions, goals, and desired management practices, that it is counterintuitive to now say that all farmers must adopt the same practices regardless of other factors,” Kaiser says. 

Sequestering greenhouse gases isn’t just limited to agronomic practices.

“It’s also about fossil fuel usage for our farm equipment,” Kaiser says. “One way we have tried to lessen our carbon footprint and reduce emissions is by fueling our farm equipment with soybean biodiesel. By reducing our emissions, we can make a big impact using a product we already help develop.

“The moral of that story is that we have to be careful when we’re putting out the list of tools to build carbon,” she adds. “As farmers, we all think that there are a lot of people who want to trade our carbon, but we want to make sure we are making a difference.”

Connections

A disconnect exists between innovative start-up companies and farmers who will use their technology.

“It’s a missed opportunity because these ag tech start-ups are critical to a farmer’s profitability,” says Keith Tapp, former chairman of the United Soybean Board (USB) who farms near Sebree, Kentucky.

Help is on the way, though. USB has partnered with the The Yield Lab Institute, Syngenta, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and the ICL Group in the Soy Innovation Challenge. Seven finalists were selected from nearly 90 worldwide applicants. The four listed below were winners of the cash prizes: 

Regrow (formerly FluroSat). This firm provides full crop-cycle analytics for sustainable and profitable agriculture. 

Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC). ESMC is launching a national ecosystem services market to provide farmers with compensation for the economic and social benefits from their land stewardship practices. 

Soil Metrics. This firm provides software services for farmers to understand current greenhouse gas emissions and evaluate options for reducing them. 

Genesis Feed Technologies. The start-up’s platform increases the market value of U.S. soybeans across the supply chain by revealing the economic impact of their high-quality nutritional profile.

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