ORIENT, Ohio (AP) – The rye and rapeseed that Rick Clifton grew in central Ohio was doing just fine – until his tractor thundered over the flat, fertile landscape, spraying him with herbicide.
These crops were not meant to be eaten, but to occupy the soil between the Clifton soybean harvest last fall and planting this spring. Yet, thanks to their environmental value, he will always make money with them.
Farmers are increasingly growing off-season grains and grasses to prevent erosion and improve soils. Now they are gaining currency as weapons against climate change.
Experts believe that keeping the ground covered year round rather than bare in winter is one of the practices that could reduce emissions of gases that warm the planet while boosting the agricultural economy, if used much more widely.
“For too long, we haven’t used the most important word in dealing with the climate crisis: jobs, jobs, jobs,” said President Joe Biden said in his April speech to Congress. One example, he added: “Farmers are planting cover crops to reduce carbon dioxide in the air and get paid to do so.”
Clifton, 66, started growing cover crops several years ago to improve yields of corn, soybeans and wheat. Then he read on Indigo Agriculture, a company that helps businesses and organizations purchase credits for carbon bottled in agricultural fields. He signed a contract that could pay about $ 175,000 over five years for greenhouse gas storage on his 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares).
“If you can get something green out of the soil all year round, you feed the microbes in the soil and it’s a lot healthier,” he said, visiting a barn loaded with growing and harvesting equipment. . “And if somebody wants to pay you to do that, it seems to me like you’re stupid not to.”
Agriculture generates about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States: methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, carbon dioxide from machinery.
All industries are under pressure to reduce emissions, mainly by switching to renewable energies.
But agriculture has something that most others don’t: the ability to pull carbon dioxide, the most prevalent climate-warming gas, out of the atmosphere and store it. Plants use it in photosynthesis, their food-making process.
Besides cover crops, promising techniques for carbon storage include reducing or eliminating tillage and returning marginal cropland to plains or woodlands, said Adam Chambers, a quality scientist from the air from the US Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Agriculture will not be “the only solution, but I see it as a solid plank in a comprehensive agenda to tackle climate change over the next several decades,” said David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington.
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that agricultural soils could absorb 250 million metric tonnes (276 million tonnes) of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year, which would offset 5% of U.S. emissions.
A certain caution against overselling the potential of agricultural land. Steven Hall, an ecologist at Iowa State University, explains that at certain depths in the soil, microbes convert the carbon absorbed by cover crops into gas that returns to the atmosphere.
“It may make sense to pay farmers to do this,” he said. “But I would go a little more wary of the fact that we will get maximum performance on all farms.”
The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help farmers make ecological changes. Since 2005, these actions have increased the prevention of greenhouse gas emissions eightfold, according to the NRCS.
The last 2017 Census of Agriculture in the United States found that more farmers were switching from conventional tillage, a major source of carbon pollution, to reduced or no-till practices. It also saw a 50% increase in cover crop over five years.
But the 15.4 million acres (6.2 million hectares) planted as cover crops was only 6.7 percent of the land suitable for this.
Biden ordered the Agriculture Department to develop a plan to make these practices so common that the U.S. agriculture industry would become the first in the world to achieve net zero emissions.
Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged larger payments to remove marginal land from agricultural production to make way for carbon-absorbing grasses, trees and wetlands. He announced $ 330 million for local climate partnerships and $ 25 million to test new ideas.
Supporters say that unless the actions are mandatory, which farmers strongly oppose, more financial incentives will be needed.
The Department of Agriculture consults with industry groups on the operation of Commodity Credit Corp. $ 30 billion, which helps keep farm incomes and prices stable, to establish a “carbon bank” that could inject more funds.
Republican lawmakers believe that financing carbon storage should be left to rapidly developing private markets.
Indigo Agriculture is among the newcomers selling farmland carbon credits to buyers who want smaller environmental footprints. Thousands of growers with a total of 2.7 million acres (1.09 million hectares) have signed up with Indigo to receive payments for greenhouse gas storage, said Chris Harbourt, head of its carbon program.
Agronomists at the Boston-based company help growers adopt the techniques. It uses farm management data, soil sampling, and modeling software to calculate credits, based on the volumes of gas sucked underground or prevented from being generated.
IBM, JP Morgan Chase and Barclays are among the buyers of Indigo credits. Farmers currently receive $ 15 for every metric tonne ($ 15 per 1.1 tonne) of carbon with payments over several years.
The extra money is nice but not a bargain, said Lance Unger, who recently listed 7,500 acres (3,035 hectares) near Carlisle, Indiana. Most importantly, the carbon sequestration steps also mean higher yields and profitability on land teeming with organic nutrients, the third-generation farmer said.
“I want to improve our farm for the fourth generation,” said Unger, 33, strolling through corn stubble in a field he now cultivates more lightly than before. It also uses cover crops and more efficient fertilization, which reduces nitrous oxide emissions.
However, some farmers are reluctant to change the habits that have taken root over generations. Others wonder if carbon markets will work.
Waiting for US Senate and House bills would help farmers get started and perform third-party inspections to verify improvements. Senior Senate Sponsor, Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said attitudes had changed since she unsuccessfully proposed a similar program in 2009.
“Farmers have been hit in the head by one weather disaster after another. They know the climate is changing, ”the Democrat said.
The measures have bipartisan sponsorship and support from industry groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation. The Environmental Defense Fund is one of the green organizations that support it.
But an opposing coalition made up of other environmentalists and smallholder farm groups say credit markets allow polluting companies to outsource carbon reduction instead of fixing their own habits.
Critics told Congress that farmers who adopt the new land management practices may abandon them later. “Without adequate measurement tools or guarantees of permanence, quantifying soil carbon for use in a carbon market becomes a guessing game and does not guarantee real greenhouse gas reductions,” they said.
Bruno Basso, a soil and plant specialist at Michigan State University, said farmers likely won’t go back to their old ways after seeing how the changes benefit their land. Carbon storage methods and technology to assess their performance are improving, he added.
The NRCS and Colorado State University continue to refine a online system that calculates carbon stored and greenhouse gases avoided through conservation efforts. It is based on factors such as location, soil types, tillage practices, nutrient applications, and crop cultivation.
Such complex analysis of the data lends credibility to eco-friendly agriculture, once widely associated with “quirky farmers,” said Keith Paustian, Colorado State Soil and Crop Specialist.
“It sounds utopian to some extent, but what’s best for the planet can also be what’s best for farmers and society,” he said.
Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @johnflesher
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.