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Using carbon farming practices to generate agricultural carbon credits has become a real opportunity for farmers to address agronomic problems, reduce on-farm expenses, and increase profitability. And with opportunity comes an influx of options and decisions. To demystify the state of agricultural carbon markets and how farmers can benefit, we gathered experts from many industries—carbon credit buyers, major supply chain brands, agronomists, best-selling authors, the USDA, and farmers—at the Carbon Farming Connection, a 2.5-hour virtual event on January 13, 2022. In case you missed it, here are some key takeaways from the five sessions.
1. Registry-certified carbon credits give buyers confidence, which means higher prices and payments to farmers.
The first session, “Making Sense of Agricultural Carbon Markets” moderated by AgriTalk’s Chip Flory, investigated what motivates carbon credit buyers and sellers in the ag carbon credit market. It all comes down to quality—and the credit registries set the standards for what makes a high-quality credit.
“The registry sets the specs on offset quality for these offset credits. Then you can access those premium buyers that want to pay that price,” said Max DuBuisson, Indigo’s Senior Director of Carbon Policy. “Registry certification is the price of entry at the door. So you get access to more buyers that are willing to pay higher prices than any sort of self-certification or credits generated outside this system.”
One of those buyers, Scott Hammer from Wisconsin-based Charter Next Generation, echoed why carbon credit quality matters. “The most important thing is to have the credits verified and validated through globally recognized methods and companies that are leading the standards in this area,” he said. “Without that, it's the Wild West out there.”
Indiana farmer Chris Lehe sees how high-quality credits set him up to benefit in the upside of carbon markets. “We're not just getting a flat rate to switch to no-till and then there's no potential growth with that. As we sequester more carbon and if the price of carbon increases, we're going to see that benefit and be able to increase our revenue,” he said.
2. Participating in carbon markets pays you to make profitable, data-based agronomic decisions.
Farmers have a lot of questions when it comes to participating in carbon programs and markets, as noted by all the speakers in the session “Carbon Farming: What We’ve Learned So Far.” It’s critical to pick a carbon program who can fully explain your return on investment. Positive carbon farming outcomes include reduced on-farm costs such as fuel and inputs, more productive soil, and a more resilient operation—not to mention the income generated from carbon credits themselves.
“It's not just about monetizing the data downstream or in the carbon markets, but to focus also on how that data helps farmers make better decisions on their farms, that hopefully are also friendly to the environment,” said Molly Toot, GROW Business Leader at Landus.
“It all starts with agronomy and it has to be right for the operation and the field. We're not looking for flash in the pan one year commitments in and out. We really wanna make sure it's sustainable long term and it's good for that operation,” added Casey Onstot, U.S. Commercial Leader for Digital from Corteva.
3. Carbon farming can be profitable farming.
In the session, “Translating the Benefits Beyond Carbon Credits,” experts such as author-business strategist Paul Hawken and Post Airly-co-founder Jennifer McKnight shared how carbon farming has a broad spectrum of benefits, for farmers, consumers, and everyone in between.
“How can we use technology today to improve the crops?” asked Mississippi farmer Jeremy Jack. “We always look at each acre as almost a little mini factory of inputs going in and outputs coming out. How can we lower the amount of inputs and the amount of work that has to be done to the acre to maximize the output of what we do? Because we feed, clothe, and fuel the entire world.”
Midwest-based Indigo agronomist Evan Brehm answers farmers’ questions on carbon farming every day. “A lot of farmers I deal with are in year one, two, and three of their transition, and they're already cutting back on their synthetic fertilizer inputs and experiencing other cost savings.”
In a lot of ways, carbon farming is a return to working in harmony with nature while leveraging the latest innovations in science, data, and technology to understand what is happening in the soil—and getting paid for the increased carbon measured and sequestered in the soil.
“We know in nature that we can have plant relationships of the soil that do not require synthetic inputs. And we also know from many, many farmers that farmers can maintain or even increase their yields and their income by reducing these inputs. And that is where we have to go,” commented Paul Hawken.
Consumer brands are beginning to recognize the immense value in this opportunity. “We are fundamentally driven by the fact that agriculture and how we make food has a big role to play in that overall solution,” says Jennifer McKnight. “At the end of the day, we're owned by Post, so it's a bottom line kind of deal. This fundamentally is good business. We are looking at the market right now, seeing a huge untapped potential. Consumers are expecting more out of their food. So you see the whole industry shifting in this direction.”
4. The government wants to financially incentivize climate-smart agriculture by giving farmers the support they need to implement carbon farming to take advantage of voluntary carbon markets.
Zach Ducheneaux, Administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, provided insights into how the government is supporting farmers and climate-smart agriculture in the session “The Policy Update.”
"This Administration is committed to empowering producers. Our goal is to work directly with all types of producers to provide them with the financial incentives, support, and planning assistance they need to succeed,” said Duchenaux. “We really need to start treating agriculture and food production in this country more like a long-term investment and less like borrowing and lending. You have to give the capital a chance to grow."
The voluntary carbon markets are a viable opportunity regardless of who is in office.
5. For many farmers, participating in a carbon program allows them to be paid for changes they want to make on their farm anyway.
As farmers look to solve agronomic problems and build resilience in their fields, carbon farming practices such as reduced tillage and cover crops present some strong advantages—both in the fields and at the bottom line. What’s more, some landowners are asking their farmers to incorporate these practices for the same reasons. Which makes joining a carbon program a great way to find a partner, get agronomic advice specific to your unique conditions, and offset the initial costs of transitioning.
“The carbon market turned into an extra benefit outside of the benefits that they are experiencing with their soils,” reflected moderator Chip Flory, host of AgriTalk, in the session “Meet the Farmers of the First Carbon Crop,” which featured three farmers who got paid by Carbon by Indigo in September 2021 for their carbon credit data submissions.
For many of the farmers who enrolled in Carbon by Indigo and got paid, they were looking to make these practice changes anyway and saw the clear benefit in getting paid to make those changes.
“We were just trying to figure out what we could do to our farm, to make it more profitable, be able to pass it on to our next generation,” said Indiana farmer Lance Unger on why he started transitioning to carbon farming practices. “Our goal here is be able to make our farm profitable, make it efficient, and be able to have my son or daughter be able to come back and take it over.”
More carbon in the soil makes for more productive soil to pass along to the next generation.
“It's a currency of life. Carbon is a seed of life,” noted North Dakota farmer Paul Overby. “And that creates that whole microbial action that goes on in the soil and builds up the soil structure to hold water.”
Oklahoma farmer Mark Nault has seen this first hand in his soil.
“I look back at what I was doing before, I would say I would classify as chemistry farming. Now it's biology,” said Nault. “Whenever I would plant my seeds, I'd go back behind the drill and check the depth of the seed, make sure I'm in the moisture and all that stuff never would once see an earthworm. Now when I go back and I check the depth of my seeds, when I'm planting my crops, I'm uncovering earth worms. So I've got life underground now that I never had before.”
This article may contain perspectives from one or more third party sources and/or generally applicable information or statements that may not necessarily apply to all operations. A number of variables can affect outcomes on any particular farming operation. Indigo does not guarantee any results with respect to agronomic outcomes, soil health, financial or profitability outcomes, carbon dioxide equivalents sequestered, carbon credits generated or amount or eligibility of payments with respect to any individual landowner or operator. Each participant should carefully consider their own particular situation before adopting any practices and should not rely solely on the information provided in this article.