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Corn farmers captured, stored carbon before it was cool, industry leader says

Farmers and ethanol plants can benefit from reducing carbon use.

Corn farmers and the ethanol plants that buy corn from those producers can both benefit from reducing carbon use on the farm.

After years of research into the data about farming’s contribution to carbon emissions, that’s the conclusion reached by Ron Alverson, a South Dakota corn farmer and ethanol plant director, who spoke Wednesday at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo (FEW), which wraps up today at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

For years, Alverson has been conducting and reviewing research into the ability of farmers to capture and store carbon. His research raises questions about the accuracy of the lifecycle emission models of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have been assigned to corn ethanol by regulators who enforce the statutes governing renewable fuels. 

Researchers have penalized ethanol made from corn because they don’t understand how corn farming practices have increased and enhanced the sequestration of carbon in the soil. Alverson has frequently presented his findings to regulators at the California Air Resources Board, who manage that state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and to other environmental regulators such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Policy makers need to be made aware of these latest scientific findings that show how corn farmers are helping store more carbon on the farm, Alverson concluded, if government measures such as the Renewable Fuel Standard and California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard are going to reflect real-world conditions and reward farmers for playing an effective role in reducing carbon emissions.

Kind of a Hobby

Alverson has called his research into soil carbon data a kind of a hobby that he’s undertaken in the hope that it will change biofuels policy to more accurately reflect the fact that corn ethanol is a low-carbon fuel. His work stems from a lifetime of farming in South Dakota, where he started near Chester, with his father and brother in 1974 after he earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and soil science from South Dakota State University in Brookings.

He was a founding member and past president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and served on the board of the National Corn Growers Association. He is a member of the South Dakota State University Foundation Board of Trustees and is a director and founder of Dakota Ethanol.

Alverson’s son, Keith, has taken active management of the 2,700-acre family farm, which employs a crop rotation of three years of corn followed by one year of soybeans. Although Ron Alverson describes himself as “a retired corn farmer,” he told Successful Farming before his presentation at FEW, that he still helps out on the farm “when Keith asks me to.”

What Farmers Can Do

In his presentation Wednesday, Alverson said corn farmers can promote low-carbon corn production by:

  • Using low -carbon biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, and renewable natural gas in their farm tractors, sprayers, combines, and trucks. 
  • Implementing precision nitrogen fertilizer management by using the “4Rs,” Alverson said, which includes the right placement, right time, right rate, and right form, to improve nitrogen use efficiency and reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) GHG emissions.
  • Reducing tillage intensity to build soil organic matter and sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil. Alverson noted that this on-farm method of capturing and storing carbon in the soil is currently not accounted for in the GHG accounting methods used to gauge farming’s and ethanol production’s carbon footprint.
  • Using cover crops to increase the annual photosynthesis of atmospheric carbon dioxide that can be fixed in plant biomass, which results in carbon sequestration in the soil.
  • Utilizing manure to reduce fertilizer inputs and build soil organic matter and carbon stocks.

Alverson noted that different nitrogen fertilizers have been shown to have different impacts on the emissions of GHGs. “If we take better care of our nitrogen fertilizer applications, we can cut our carbon intensity in half,” he stated.

Tillage practices also are critical to cutting corn production’s carbon footprint. No-till is better than reduced tillage and reduced tillage is better than conventional tillage, Alverson said, because the more crop residues that are left on the soil surface, the more earthworms and soil microbes can incorporate the residues into the soil organic matter. 

Since 2013, Alverson said, data shows that because of the increased use of no-till and reduced tillage practices on many farms in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota, the amount of organic matter and the carbon stored by the organic matter has increased steadily.

Alverson has talked many times to the regulators at the California Air Resources Board, the Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the methods they use to account for carbon usage on the farm and about how the models that are used to regulate renewable fuels are shortchanging corn farmers and corn ethanol plants.

Regulators need to adjust the models to give farmers the credit they deserve for sequestering carbon, Alverson said. Eventually, farmers will be able to verify their own carbon intensity scores for their individual farms and market their corn based on that score. If farmers can show they have a lower carbon footprint when they grow corn for ethanol, they should receive a higher price because the ethanol will bring a higher price in a low-carbon marketplace such as California.

There are ongoing studies in South Dakota, he noted, in which farmers are gathering data on their carbon scores so, hopefully, they will be able to cash in on a lower carbon intensity score in the future.

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