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Looking for another crop? Try carbon
Looking for that elusive third crop to help you expand beyond the sea of soybeans and corn many Midwestern farmers now grow?
The answer may lie below your feet. Locus Agricultural Solutions (Locus AG) and Nori are partnering to pay farmers for sequestering atmospheric carbon in the soil. Under the CarbonNow program that’s currently being piloted, farmers are to be paid according to a metric called a Nori carbon removal ton (NRT). This metric represents 1 ton of a carbon dioxide-equivalent heat-trapping gas that farmers remove from the atmosphere into the soil through regenerative practices. Regenerative practices include ones like no-till, cover crops, and additions of compost, green manure, or animal manure.
“We all know that putting carbon in soil is a good thing for productivity, but it also sets the stage for growers to serve on the front lines battling climate change and getting paid to do it,” says Paul Zorner, Locus AG chief agronomist.
Locus AG is a firm that produces probiotics for crops.
“It turns out that the microbiome in a crop’s root system is just as important to the crop as the gut microbiome is in humans,” says Zorner. One of Locus AG’s products is Rhizolizer, a product that company officials say is a high-potency and cost-effective soil amendment. Benefits of adding it to crops like corn include increased crop root mass and improved crop fertilizer efficiency.
There’s another perk, says Zorner.
“We have clearly measured that there’s a new powerful kind of crop microbiome complex that works to transfer large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil,” he says. He says that Rhizolizer can supercharge the amount of carbon that soil health tools like cover crops, minimum tillage, and compost sequester.
Irrigators can add Rhizolizer to crops under fertigation with center pivots, micro sprinklers, or drip irrigation. On crops like dryland corn, farmers can add Rhizolizer at planting as an in-furrow treatment for around $15 per acre this year. One catch – it can’t be used with 28% or 32% nitrogen products. “Those are very, very hard on the microbes,” he says.
Zorner adds that Rhizolizer can supercharge the process by helping plants to sequester an additional 5 tons of carbon per acre.
Nori’s role in the agreement is to create a new carbon marketplace, says Christophe Jospe, Nori chief development officer. Nori administers a carbon sequestration marketplace that collects data that measures the atmospheric carbon farmers sequester through regenerative practices.
“We help those farmers make claims that independent third parties can verify,” says Jospe. “When those claims come back positive, we issue the NRT payments.”
Nori uses the COMET-Farm carbon and greenhouse gas accounting system supported by the NRCS and developed by the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University. This approach establishes a conservative estimate for creating standardized carbon baselines, say company officials.
Farmers need to pay a $3,000 to $5,000 verification fee to a third-party source, says Jospe. This firm assesses a number of factors to ensure compliance for an international greenhouse gas market.
“The verification costs ran about 25¢ to 50¢ an acre for one of the farmers in our pilot program,” says Jospe. “With a $15-per-acre payment, he’s netting $14.50 (per acre) and above.”
NRT payments will vary among farms, Jospe says. “We have had some growers in our pilot program come in at 1.6 tons per acre (annually),” he says. “We have had others come in at .3 tons per acre. Soils react differently (to regenerative practices). There are some soils that will do better, some will do worse (for sequestering carbon).”
After 2020, future payments may be more or less than $15 per ton, depending on market conditions.
There’s a March 15 initial deadline coming up. Company officials say since Nori’s marketplace is new, a March 15 deadline will reward early enrollees (farmers who have been using at least one regenerative ag practice in the last 10 years) by offering them $15 cash + a Nori Removal Token (tradeable in the future) for every acre ton sequestered from past regenerative agriculture practices. After March 15, growers who enroll in the program this year will only receive the Nori Removal Token (tradeable in the future with a floor of $15 in 2020).
Locus AG Program Options
When working with Locus AG, farmers can participate in the program one of two ways, say company officials. Locus AG will manage the data requirement costs for either option.
1. Farmers pay all program costs and keep all benefits. Costs include:
- Rhizolizer treatments (at a CarbonNOW discount rate of $15 per acre)
- Verification costs ($3,000 to $5,000)
- Soil sampling that measures the amount of carbon sequestered by Rhizolizer treatments
2. Locus AG will treat farmer acres for free in exchange for carbon credits generated by the program, up to the cost of the product used. Farmers pay the cost of verifying current practices, while Locus AG covers all other costs.
Locus AG officials say farmers will benefit from free product and retain the upside (carbon credit generation) beyond what Locus AG is owed.
“We have talked forever as an industry and as a society about how putting carbon into soil is a good thing,” says Zorner. “We’re just now waking up to the fact that not only is it a benefit to the grower, but it’s also probably the most important tool that society has in terms of the drawdown of carbon out of the atmosphere. Oftentimes, people look at agriculture as part of the problem. In reality, growers are the most effective tool we have in managing climate change and for putting carbon into the soil where it belongs. We can pay growers for that service.”