For Earth Week, we’ve rounded up the latest interviews in our Paths to Profitability series, which features farmers from across the country and the questions they asked themselves when starting on a path to more profitable farming operations.
The three farmers included here – Lance, Paul, and Chris – also have started to earn new revenue with the acres they’ve enrolled in Carbon by Indigo.
Where: Sullivan County, Indiana
New Practices: Tillage reduction, increased cover crops
Year 1 Carbon Payment: $26,232
When Lance Unger and his family started out with cover crops five years ago, they didn’t have a goal of building carbon stocks and earning carbon credits or dramatically cutting input costs. They just wanted to make their soil more fertile.
“There’s no quick fix for some fields that we’ve got,” Lance says, acknowledging how many of his farm’s 8,000 acres are made up of completely different soil types, from beach sand to black muck, which struggle to maintain organic matter and soil structure. But with the use of first cover crops and then reduced tillage years later, Unger Farms, slowly but surely, is seeing “positive responses” for their increase in soil health.
That includes more consistent productivity for some acres, especially where they’re using cover crops. The covers have helped with controlling weeds, maintaining soil moisture, and holding nutrients in the soil, Lance notes. “We weren't trying to cut costs,” he says, referring to the additional cost of purchasing a diverse blend of cover crop seeds, “but yet it's helping us be able to grow better crops. The higher the yields we can get with basically the same type of fertilizer rate, all we're doing is just lowering our cost of production and making us more efficient.”
Even with the optimism that comes with surprise success, Lance and his family are still taking their soil health experiments slowly, only trying out “one to two new things every year.” That way, they have the time and space to fully understand the benefits, drawbacks, and still unanswered questions each new farming practice or technique brings to the table. “It's not something that we can change overnight. If we have a goal and can see what's working for us, we can get there eventually.”
Where: Brookston, Indiana
New practices: No-till, cover crops
Year 1 Carbon Payment: $12,799
When their landowner asked for 860 acres of popcorn, soybean, and dent corn production to begin a transition from conventional tillage to no-till, Chris Lehe and his father, uncle, and cousin who farm together in Indiana had a major new risk on their hands. Conventional tillage had been the surefire way they farmed for decades. As Chris put it: “When you know something works and you still got bills to pay, trying a new practice you’re not familiar with can be daunting.”
The Lehes started looking for other revenue opportunities to help them manage this financial risk. With an ear to the ground, they started to hear more and more agricultural carbon markets and how farmers could create carbon credits from using land management practices like cover crops, diverse crop rotations, input reduction, and reduced tillage. If they were already making the switch to no-till, why not give this carbon credit thing a shot?
While the Lehes saw a yield drag in the first couple of years after switching to no-till, they’re now finding production on par with their conventional system, about 200 bushels per acre for corn. “Now that we're seeing some of the same yields that we're used to with our conventional tillage, we do have the benefit of not having to run the chisel plow or the finisher,” Chris says. The Lehes also, at the request of their landowner, started bringing on cover crops, a simple oats and radish mix, to continue bolstering their soil health.
Chris prefers the Carbon program’s system for paying based on carbon sequestered, rather than strictly practice change, because the potential for revenue with Indigo far exceeds everything else. He says, “As the market increases, our revenue is going to be able to keep up, because we're not just getting paid for our practice change. We're actually getting paid for what we're accomplishing.”
Where: Pierce County, North Dakota
New practices: Cover crops, new cash crop rotation
Year 1 Carbon Payment: $1,000
When his father retired from farming for good in 2005, Paul Overby and his wife Diane found themselves with too much ground to cover. The North Dakota farming couple were raising field peas, canola, flax, oats, wheat, soybean, and sunflowers on 1,300 acres, a demanding number of crop types and acres to handle with only one large, four-wheel drive tractor. Paul started looking into ways to cut expenses, including labor, time, and fuel, while also building soil health – an “ethic” of preserving the cultivated land Paul had picked up from his father. That’s when Paul found no-till farming.
In the short-term, no-till offered obvious labor and time savings, since every field would require far fewer passes than they would receive in a conventional tillage model. Paul attended the Manitoba North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmer Association meetings to learn more about how to invest in equipment and what getting started looked like. He read up on research from Dr. Kris Nichols, who talked about the growth of arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi in healthy soil and the important role that microorganism plays in soil structure. There was a lot to learn and many exciting opportunities before the Overbys.
Implementing no-till was, of course, only the start, as Paul and Diane found that this major shift in how they farmed meant there were new challenges to solve, like having excess moisture in the soil where they were used to focusing on conserving moisture. That’s what led the Overbys to bring on more farming practices for regenerating their soil, including cover crops in 2011.
“We're looking at that soil building process, building organic matter so that we can then have that mineralization process and providing nitrogen to our crops along with the other nutrients in the soil, and making those more readily available to our crops,” Paul says, while also controlling for agronomic challenges that arose without needing more chemicals or inputs.
Even after 16 years of no-till, Paul says his soil continues to store more carbon and build greater organic matter. “We have some soils that are at six plus percent soil organic matter and we have others that are three. We have some room to grow. I think Indigo is going to be the leader on this,” Paul says, referring to the fast-growing voluntary market in agriculture for carbon credits.
Each farm operator is advised to independently consider any potential risks and benefits of any decisions relating to their operation. Indigo does not make any representations, warranties or guarantees as to any agronomic, financial or market outcomes. Terms, conditions and limitations apply to participation and enrollment in Carbon by Indigo- see program agreement for details.