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In many ways, today’s agricultural carbon markets are a lot like a frontier. We all have heard stories and assumptions about what's out there, but really they've just been stories and assumptions so far. At the third installment of Carbon Farming Connection, a virtual, educational event which I hosted on August 10, 2022, we got to hear from some of the early innovators, the settlers, the pioneers who have actually gone out into the frontier. They've crested that first mountain, and they're able to take a look out farther to tell us what's out there, to clarify our assumptions, to get us accurate information about the future of carbon markets. But they also told us about their experience as some of the first pioneers on that trail and provided guidance on what others can look for or do to make their journey as effective and as simple as possible.
“A dose of skepticism is healthy,” said AgriTalk host Chip Flory, who moderated an all-star line up of experts, from farmers to agronomists to economists, in the first session entitled “Carbon Farming and Markets: Misconceptions, Falsehoods, and Outright Errors.” “We should be challenging the leaders in the industry to provide the evidence that farmers need to be comfortable to participate in carbon markets.”
Here are six takeaways from the event. To watch the entire 90-minute session, click here.
Is carbon farming profitable?
Before farmers invest in practices, they understandably want to make sure there will be a return on that investment. The American Farmland Trust has conducted case studies to learn more about the profitability of carbon farming for farmers. What these studies have shown is a return anywhere from seven percent to 550 percent — that’s up to $5 per $1 invested in practices that support carbon farming.
“For row crop farmers that’s $4 to $59 per acre per year return on investment,” added Bianca Moebius-Clune, PhD, Climate Initiative Director, American Farmland Trust.
Practices that encourage carbon sequestration create healthy soils that can hold more carbon. These practices include introducing cover crops and reducing tillage. It is important for farmers to find the right mix of these practices that work for each field. Researching, networking, and working with the right professionals can increase the benefits farmers see.
“There are all kinds of farmers out there operating all kinds of farms. It’s critical to work with the right consultants,” said Alejandro Plastina, PhD, market economist at Iowa State University (ISU) and farm business management for ISU extension.
See what you could earn with carbon farming by using this carbon calculator.
Do crops benefit from soil carbon?
Carbon farming practices support building healthier soil for crops. Carbon is critical for plant growth. Plants sequester carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and bring it into the soil. This improves the soil — including the water usage, nutrient uptake and availability, and microbial makeup of the soil.
Tom Cannon, Oklahoma farmer and Indigo Research Partner, agrees. He sees the ability to sell carbon credits as an additional benefit on top of the increase in soil health and crop resilience and yield.
“What most people don’t realize is that nitrogen isn’t our number one nutrient — our number one nutrient is carbon by far,” said Cannon. “So let’s increase that organic matter; let’s fix the water cycle. And then, if you get the additional ability to sell carbon credits on top of that, it’s a great deal.”
Does carbon farming work where I farm?
Soil health principles work on every type of soil. That said, every farm, every field is different. When it comes to carbon farming, there are different practices for farmers to use and determine what works best on their fields.
“Practices are not a one-size-fits-all type of scenario,” said Jake Linneman, Indigo Ag agronomist. “You don’t want to throw your farm in at 100 percent. You want to go small so you can pay more attention to the practice you’re implementing and learn what you can from that area. If you like what you’re seeing, you can start applying it a little bit more across the farm.”
The key is to start with a simple strategy, and expand from there. “In some areas one certain practice might not work, but there might be three or four other practices that do. So you have to be specific to your area, and you really have to continue to learn,” says Cannon, who has been using carbon farming practices since the late 1990s.
Moebius-Clune agrees that starting simple then scaling up with what works is key to seeing the on-farm benefits from carbon farming practices—and finding a support network.
“That’s how farmers can have that success,” she added. “Also tapping into their networks helps. There are so many innovators out there who are doing fantastic stuff on their operations and can help others be successful.”
What makes a high-value, high-quality carbon credit?
Many companies that are investing in carbon credits want only high-quality, high-value carbon credits. A lot of information and verification needs to go into making sure that credits are backed up by data and practices.
“Quality is value, and carbon buyers want to know where these credits are coming from. They want to know they’re real credits,” said Amy Smith, data specialist, Landus GROW Solutions Center. “Producing real, third-party-verified, registry-issued carbon credits is a very robust task. Carbon buyers are not willing to pay top dollar for anything less than quality.”
Getting the right data into the carbon credit platform—and working with a platform that knows how to make this as simple as possible for farmers—makes credits valuable for buyers and as streamlined as possible for farmers. This data makes carbon credits more valuable to the companies buying them.
“Because of science and technology, we are making something that’s verified, that has been run through a registry and actually does have a stamp of approval,” said Todd Weitekamp, Carbon by Indigo customer success lead.
Who wants carbon credits?
The demand for carbon credits has stemmed from the growing consumer demand for products that are sustainably or responsibly produced. This means companies need to have a neutral carbon footprint, and purchasing carbon credits is one way they are able to do this.
“The demand for these carbon credits is huge,” said Weitekamp. “Consumer and investor demand is really spurring this sector of agriculture along.”
The desire for a carbon neutral footprint isn’t limited to one industry or one type of business. Companies, organizations, and businesses across the spectrum want to meet their customers’ demands. This means the market for carbon credits is large and on-track for continued growth.
Why should I sign up for a carbon program now?
The carbon market is a growing market. But it does have a learning curve to get started — for example, farmers need to select a program, determine and implement management practices, and collect the correct data.
“If you don’t sign up now, you're leaving money on the table,” said Clint Orr, an Indiana farmer who participates in carbon farming. “The possibility that this market could go much, much higher is certainly there. You’ll be better positioned to take advantage of that if you already have your program, knowledge base, and data in place.”
“Even if you spend, let's say, two or two and a half days at the desk,” Orr says. “Then you look at that carbon payment, your hourly rate is higher than any attorney's rate that I know about.”
This information comes from an Indigo Ag webinar Carbon Farming Connection. To view the entire webinar, click here.