Giving farmers cash for storing carbon can help pay for a switch to regenerative agriculture – and help commodity companies meet their own goals, said Grassroots Carbon’s Miller.
“Companies aren’t just trying to reduce their carbon footprint anymore,” she added.
“They’re looking at going carbon-neutral, carbon-negative and working toward regenerative (agriculture).”
Still, the effect of such shifts on climate change remains unclear, said Chay of Carbon Plan.
With many contracts for storing soil carbon lasting just 20 years, for example, carbon sequestered on farmland today could be released in the future, she warned.
“If you’re allowing low-quality offset credits and that’s influencing (corporate) planning in the short, medium and long term, we have a real problem regarding being honest about what we’re achieving,” she said.
NEW ECONOMIC STRUCTURE
For now, many farmers across the United States are believed to be taking a wait-and-see attitude on soil carbon markets – especially smaller-scale producers.
An October report from the Farm Journal – a trade magazine – found that of 500 farmers surveyed, 97% said they would not get involved under current conditions, although nearly a third expressed interest and said they were monitoring developments.
One obstacle is the low current value of soil carbon, often around $15 to $20 per ton, said Ben Hushon, an agronomist and partner at the Mill chain of agricultural products stores, one company that has worked with farmers to experiment with soil carbon markets.
That price translates to income of around $15 to $30 per acre, according to an estimate from Duke University.
By comparison, an acre of corn was worth more than $900 last year, while soybeans were $650 per acre, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
There is already rising tension over who should receive soil carbon storage payments – landowners or farmers – given that many farmers are only renting the land they work, Hushon said.
But the most frustrating aspect for many farmers, he said, is that those already growing using sustainable practices often are not rewarded, with corporations purchasing soil carbon credits mainly interested in trying to change farm practices.
“That’s resulted in disappointment, frustration and anger,” Hushon added.
Still, the incentives are working for Loy Sneary and his son, who raise cattle on 7,000 acres near Bay City, Texas.
They recently shifted their operations to move their herds frequently and let used pastures sit for months before the animals return.
The pair have already seen the regrowth of native grasses with deeper carbon-holding roots, Sneary said – and they have halted the use of herbicides on the land.
“The more we move the cattle, the faster the soil will heal and the more carbon we’ll sequester,” he added.
While the new approach took upfront investment, Sneary said carbon storage payments he is receiving will let him pay off his costs by the second year.
Neighbors initially thought he was “crazy”, he admitted.
But “now we have a lot of folks saying, ‘Maybe we should take a second look at this’ – especially now that we’re getting a payment for it,” he said.