Carbon Into Cash: Farmers are paid to fight climate change | Minnesota News

By NORA G. HERTEL, St. Cloud Times

LITTLE FALLS, Minnesota (AP) – Minnesota agronomist Amy Robak describes emerging carbon markets as the Wild West.

And she’s not the only one to see it that way.

“There is no regulatory bubble around this,” Robak said.

There is still debate about how much carbon farmers can intentionally extract from the air and deposit in the soil, a process called carbon sequestration.

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Robak works this border. It helps farmers change certain practices and measure the impact on their soils as they join a new carbon market supported by partner companies such as Land O’Lakes and General Mills.

Agricultural carbon markets pay farmers to extract greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide, from the air and keep them locked in the ground to fight climate change. Plants do this naturally by photosynthesis; farmers encourage it by limiting their tillage, grazing livestock in cultivated fields, and planting cover crops in the off-season or between row crops.

Companies pay these credits through brokers to offset their carbon pollution, the St. Cloud Times reported.

At the end of August, voluntary carbon market transactions totaled nearly $ 750 million globally for the year, according to an Ecosystem Marketplace Insights report, putting 2021 on track to set a new annual record since launch of the Ecosystem Marketplace in 2005. Greenhouse gas trading Emissions date back to the early 1990s, but have accelerated this year due to a rapid increase in net zero, carbon neutrality and other commitments related to climate change on the part of companies.

Consumers demand more sustainable practices as the effects of climate change are increasingly visible and catastrophic. Countries around the world are working to meet the targets set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and to keep the global temperature increase this century below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels . It’s about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Minnesota, average temperatures have risen from 1 degree Fahrenheit to 3 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the part of the state. Farmers are being recruited here to help tackle climate change by capturing carbon, even as the science and politics of carbon markets are unstable.

At the end of August, Robak walked through a lush field of new shoots of peas, kale, clover and sorghum sudangrass. All are cover crops planted under a pilot program that will pay farmers if their soils show a marked increase in carbon.

Farmers plant different cover crops to add nutrients to the soil, absorb excess nutrients, or produce something their livestock can eat. Radishes, for example, can take up nitrogen from the soil, which is good for water quality.

Robak, Senior Nutrient Management Specialist and Certified Crop Advisor for the Centra Sota Co-op in Little Falls, is helping growers participate in a pilot carbon market. The costs to make the changes are covered by the non-profit association that manages the market, called the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, or ESMC.

“Right now, in the world of carbon markets, everyone seems to have their own offer,” Robak said. “There aren’t really any good regulations around that. There’s no USDA farm program around it, nothing we have in the crop insurance world.

And there is no consensus on how best to assess soil for carbon gains.

“It’s very difficult and expensive to do,” said Danny Cullenward, policy director of CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions. “This means that a lot of these efforts are either trying to deal with the fact that it would be very expensive to carefully measure the results of these efforts or maybe they want to save money and find ways not to measure directly or to measure at a lower cost. “

Big business, governments and environmental groups are willing to bet on agriculture and other working lands, such as forests, to sequester excess carbon that has been released into the atmosphere mainly by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Planting cover crops could sequester 6.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in Minnesota, according to a January report from The Nature Conservancy. Reduced tillage practices and better management of fertilizers and nutrients could reduce emissions by more than 4 million metric tonnes.

“I think we run the risk of really losing credibility in the public eye if these markets fail. Because the hype has been so high, ”said Anna Cates, a soil health specialist for the state of Minnesota. “This is where I see the greatest risk.

Jen Wagner-Lahr enjoys having her family’s Cold Spring farm provide data and information useful for a fledgling carbon market program.

Her husband, Larry Lahr, grows crops and raises around 450 cattle on over 500 acres, and they are enrolled in the ESMC pilot project. They planted their first cover crops this fall. They are already limiting their tillage, a practice touted for keeping more carbon in the soil because there is less disruption to the soil microbiome.

“It really is a unique opportunity in this region. Let a pilot be where we can really contribute to this aspect of verification, ”said Wagner-Lahr.

Her husband likes that there is a financial incentive to “do the right thing”.

“We prefer to apply our practices in a more environmentally friendly way, keeping sustainability in mind,” said Lahr. “It turns out that we can do this without necessarily sacrificing the farm’s ability to make a living. “

Jason Lorenz is another pilot farmer who signed up for the soil improvements that accompany practices related to carbon sequestration and carbon markets. He has used cover crops to some extent for a few years and is seeing improvements on his farm near Little Falls. It has 40 acres registered in the ESMC pilot.

“It makes your soil healthier,” Lorenz said of cover crops. “You take care of the soil, the soil takes care of you. “

Copyright 2021 The Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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