Factoring In Carbon � From Soil Health to Carbon Markets

Dec 02, 2021

Factoring In Carbon � From Soil Health to Carbon Markets
If you are looking for an indication of your soils potential to support yields in a sustainable manner look no further than carbon.  Soil carbon is the fuel source for soil microbes, and microbial activity greatly impacts soil function.  Nutrient cycling is directly driven by soil microbes.  Microbes also indirectly impact air and water movement, including infiltration and retention, and along with weather and roots play a role in determining soil aggregation and structure development.  All of these factors contribute to soil health.
There is that saying that every journey starts with the first step.  Measuring soil carbon and microbial activity around carbon cycling is an important first step in your soil health journey.  A test for soil organic matter (OM) simply tells you the proportion of soil that is OM.  OM is positively correlated with aggregate stability and soil structure, soil water infiltration and retention, and microbial biomass, diversity and activity.
Agricultural soils generally have an OM of 2-5%, and it varies by soil type and management practices.  An OM of 5% would be a reasonable minimum target if you’re trying to increase your soil levels. If you have been conducting regular soil testing of your fields, changes in organic matter over time can be explored, and this change is likely more informative than the actual field OM.  If historical OM levels have increased and it’s due to practice changes, you would likely benefit from implementing those same practice changes over more acreage.  If historical OM levels are decreasing this is a sign there may be trouble ahead without making some changes.
It is also possible to directly test for microbial activity, by measuring the CO2 production from the soil.  Since nutrient cycling and biochemical processes are driven by microbial activity, CO2 production is a reflection of microbial respiration.  Higher respiration is an indication of larger, more active microbial communities as there is an abundant carbon food supply.
Once the farm carbon baseline is known, practice changes can be implemented to increase the soil OM.  Tillage can break up soil structure, speed the decomposition and loss of organic matter, increase the threat of erosion, destroy the habitat of helpful organisms and cause compaction.  Reducing or eliminating tillage minimizes these adverse effects on the soil.  Another way to protect the soil surface from erosion and increase soil OM is to plant a cover crop.  Cover crops add biomass to the soil (especially below the soil surface), and extending the time when living roots are present in the soil creates a habitat for microorganisms like fungi that contribute to the soil biology.  Diversity in cover crops can accentuate these benefits.
Changing farming practices comes at a cost, and if they include purchasing new equipment the cost can be significant.  Cost share programs available through county Land Conservation Departments, local watershed groups, or NRCS can help ease the economic challenges associated with practice changes.  Some local groups also have equipment like interseeders you can use or rent for very reasonable rates.  Country Visions agronomists can help you identify what resources are available in your area.
Perhaps you are wondering how carbon markets fit into this scenario.  In the early 2000’s there was a lot of talk about carbon but a viable marketplace did not evolve.  Since the 2015 signing of the Paris Agreement by 197 countries the idea of carbon markets has regained traction with over 250 market players worldwide.  The Agreement aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.  Agriculture is at the center of this conversation as we (the entire world) can’t reduce our way out of this through conventional mitigation (e. g. scrubbers on smoke stacks).  We have to actually remove carbon from the air and store it in the soil.  The U.S. corn belt has been identified as one of the best places on Earth to do this and it is thought minimum carbon sequestration rates of 1 ton carbon/acre/year can be achieved.
Carbon markets allow companies, communities and others to compensate landowners and managers to protect, restore or mitigate impacts to ecosystems.  Currently, money is the driver as all markets in the U. S. are voluntary and society driven.  Payment is made on the measurable reduction of GHG emissions from an activity or project in one location that is used to compensate for emissions elsewhere.  “Credits” are typically measured in metric tonnes (2205 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and are typically based on outcomes verified at the field level, not tied directly to specific practices.  Depending on the program, you may not be able to get paid for any sustainable practices you have already implemented.
To participate in carbon markets collecting and sharing a lot of farm data will be necessary.  Be ready to provide several years of field history and continue going forward.  Growers with a nutrient management plan will have a good start with this.  Data accuracy is important, including correct field boundary, swath width etc.  The market doesn’t just want a written record but a digital record of who was there, when and with what equipment throughout the entire season.  Machine metrics typically haven’t been measured in the past, but likely to become the norm.  You’ll want to have a way to collect data from several devices and store it in one place, not on multiple USB drives.  Freedom to easily move the data to another provider over time is another thing to consider.  If reading this just gave you a headache carbon markets are probably not a good fit for you.
There is lots of talk about payments of $15-20/ton CO2e, but they range from $3-$40.  While this may be the price that the credit is sold for on the market the generator of the credit will receive less after fees are paid.  Since contracts are very detailed and terms can be 10 to 20 years in length make sure you read and understand your contract including payment terms and penalties.  How is it determined how much carbon you retain and what if you don’t sequester as much as anticipated?  Are there specific terms or exit clauses?  What if you want to discontinue the project before your contract ends?
If you’re considering implementing new practices that conserve GHG you may be financially better off waiting a year or two until the markets are more developed so you can cash in on your changes.  One estimate is that carbon prices need to be $40-80/ ton CO2e to reduce emissions to the standards of the Paris Agreement in a cost-effective way.  That price increases to $50-100/ ton CO2e by 2030.  Carbon prices alone are not currently high enough to cover the cost of switching practices.
Whether you’re considering changes to increase your soil health or take advantage of carbon markets here are some things to keep in mind.
·       What changes do I need/want to make to participate?
·       What is the cost of the changes and is it economically sustainable?
·       How much time and effort are needed?  What historical documentation?
·       Can I use my data for other programs?  Is it still my data?
·       If I’ve already implemented sustainable practices; will I still get paid?
As you are now aware, there is significant overlap between practices used to improve soil health and reduce GHG/ sequester carbon.  This allows for opportunities to stack programs.  Cost share programs related to cover crops and soil health can be used to offset some of the implementation costs. And further layering can be done by participating in ecosystems markets.  While each field can only be enrolled in a single carbon program, in many cases you can stack carbon credits with water quality credits.
Whether you decide to dig into the carbon levels on your farm to improve the soil health or sustainability of your farm, or you want to explore how you can use carbon markets to increase farm profitability, Country Visions has a team of agronomists to help guide you  Whether considering minimal tillage, no-till, or cover crops, identify what you want for an outcome then look at what changes need to be made for equipment, chemistry, and species of cover crops.  For maximum payback, adopt practices that interest you for reasons in addition to the carbon potential.  Use your agronomist as a sounding board as you’re identifying goals and creating an action plan.  Consider whether there is a best order in which to implement the practices.  For example, if you have poorly drained fields install a tile drainage system before you move to no-till so you don’t have to smooth out fields after tiling.  A great way to pick up some tips is to ask growers with experience what they wish they had done differently.  Lastly, look at carbon credit or cost share programs that will pay you for your new system or ideas.  This backwards approach will help ensure any programs you work within meet your goals, not someone else’s.

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