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Indigo Ag Announces the Terraton Initiative That Pays Farmers for Carbon Sequestration

Payments for participating farmers will vary depending on factors like soil type and climate, but they may translate into an estimated $30 to $60 per acre.

Indigo Ag is launching The Terraton Initiative, an effort to sequester in soils 1 trillion tons (1 terraton) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The plan aims to eventually pay farmers in this program $15 to $20 per ton of carbon that they sequester using tools like no-till and cover crops. Payments could tally an estimated $30 to $60 per acre, with the actual amount depending on soil type and the region’s climate, says David Perry, Indigo Ag chief executive officer. 

“In April, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached an 800,000-year high,” says Perry. Currently, 415 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide exist in the atmosphere. Around 280 ppm was present in the preindustrial atmosphere. This translates into 135 ppm of carbon dioxide that was not in the atmosphere 250 years ago – 1 trillion tons. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is a factor in fueling climate change that keys extreme weather swings.  

Perry says soils farmed in a regenerative manner can help sequester this carbon dioxide.

“Prior to land being cultivated for crops over 3.6 billion acres, soils on average contained 3% carbon. Now, that average is 1%,” says Perry. “If we took every cultivated acre on Earth and increased the carbon (content) from 1% to 3%, that also is 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. The size of the potential solution is equivalent to the size of the problem.”

Climate Change Skepticism

Many farmers are skeptical of manmade climate change: 67% of 4,778 corn producers surveyed in a 2014 Purdue University study said they believed climate change was occurring, but only 8% pinpointed human activities as the main cause. One-quarter of surveyed producers said they believed climate change was caused mostly by natural shifts in the environment, and 31% said there was not enough evidence to determine whether climate change was happening or not.

The scientific consensus, though, did not agree. More than 90% of the 173 scientists and climatologists surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with more than 50% attributing climate change primarily to human activities. An additional 30% said they believed climate change was due to a combination of human activities and natural causes.

Climate change or not, farmers are enduring weather extremes that are impacting the way they farm. Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames, Iowa, examined central Iowa spring precipitation over two time frames. Workable field days in April through mid-May decreased 3.5 days in 1995 to 2010, compared with a 1979-to-1994 time frame. 

“The stress that puts on producers with fewer workable field days is tremendous,” he says.

Payments Change the Conversation

Perry acknowledges the resistance toward climate change in the farming community. 

“We try to make it nonpartisan, nonpolitical,” says Perry. “We talk a lot about (the increase in atmospheric) carbon dioxide because that is a scientific fact. Then we talk about (the benefits of) capturing carbon dioxide and putting it in the soil, which is also a scientific fact. Then we talk about compensating farmers for practices that sequester carbon, which tends to change the conversation. You don’t actually have to be a believer in climate change to think that changing your practices can improve soil health, and that getting paid for it as a good idea.” 

He says five practices proven to sequester carbon and enrich soils include: 

  1. Cover crops. Besides protecting the soil from erosion, cover crops can enhance soil microbial populations and build soil carbon as they decay. 
  2. Incorporation of livestock. Grazing and manure deposited by livestock can help build soil carbon. 
  3. No-till farming. “When the soil is plowed, carbon is released into the atmosphere,” says Perry. “So, not tilling it keeps it in the soil.” 
  4. Diverse crop rotation. “A variety of crops in the soil can help build soil carbon,” he says.
  5. Commercial input reduction. Reducing commercial inputs like herbicides and fertilizers can help preserve beneficial soil life that helps build soil carbon

Perry acknowledges many questions remain regarding soil health practices.

“There is no reliable source of information in how to plant a cover crop, where do we plant them, how do we terminate them, and where we need to invest in new equipment,” he says. 

That’s where the The Terraton Initiative – which Perry describes as the world’s largest atmospheric carbon sequestration experiment – comes in. Indigo Ag expects to work with 10,000 farmers in this trial and will track findings for at least 10 years. 

“We are collaborating with institutions like the Soil Health Institute and the Rodale Institute,” he says.  We will then provide the information to other researchers.”

To increase visibility, Indigo Ag is launching programs like The Terraton Challenge to encourage technological innovation in the soil health and carbon sequestration area. The Carbon Cup will also increase farmer competition and innovation, he says. It will recognize soil carbon-building achievements by farmers akin to what corn yield contests have done for the National Corn Growers Association, Perry notes. 

Payments

Indigo Ag is launching Indigo Carbon, a carbon market that will provide the money to farmers to implement soil health practices. To fund this, Perry says Indigo Ag will looks for potential funding sources including:

  • Businesses that aim to be carbon neutral that are searching for ways to offset their carbon emissions. “Those companies have to buy carbon credits to accomplish that,” says Perry. 
  • Companies that make products with sustainability claims that tout a product’s decreased carbon footprint. 
  • Not-for-profit organizations that are searching for ways to blunt the negative impacts of climate change. 
  • Consumers who want to offset their own carbon footprint and will pay for products that do this. 

Establishing metrics to determine exactly what is a healthy soil has been challenging. Perry says Indigo Ag is looking at improved ways to measure soil carbon on which to hinge payments. 

“Measuring the carbon in the soil is much easier,” he says. 

“If the Terraton Initiative achieves its promise, we believe it will enrich agricultural soils with 1 trillion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” says Perry. “It will improve the profitability of farmers. There will be healthier rural communities. It will also make farms more resilient to extreme weather by increasing water permeability of soils.”

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