Combatting climate change means reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A promising path to that goal is a practice called carbon farming, which aims to sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil and vegetation.
Farmers and agriculturists bolster their traditional operations with new carbon-centric practices, such as reducing tillage and planting cover crops, to keep carbon trapped in soil and improve soil health.
According to the Carbon Cycle Institute, a California environmental organization, “Carbon farming is a whole system approach to optimizing carbon capture on working landscapes by implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in plant material and/or soil organic matter.”
Challenges with carbon farming range from its impermanence to its low- or no-tilling practices. However, countries, including Australia, United States, and Germany, are experimenting with this approach.
Principles of Carbon Farming
Carbon farming aims at (1) reducing (and eliminating) carbon emissions caused by certain production-oriented farming practices, and (2) increasing agro-ecological restoration and conservation.
To this effect, the Carbon Cycle Institute recommends an extensive list of carbon farming practices, following the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) list of conservation practices.
For instance, during the off-season, carbon farmers plant cover crops, such as legumes, to cover soil rather than for a future harvest. Combining trees and crops on the same land enables trees to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, while restoring wetlands can also collect large amounts of carbon in plants and soil.
Combining trees and crops on the same land enables trees to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, while restoring wetlands can also collect large amounts of carbon in plants and soil.
California’s Alameda County pioneered carbon farming practices applicable to home gardens and urban landscapes. Its public agency, StopWaste, promotes feeding the soil with compost, which encourages root growth and improved soil health.
Good for the Environment
Carbon farming practices are “vital for the long-term health and productivity of agriculture in California,” says Trevor Probert, Program Services Specialist at StopWaste.
For example, the carbon farming practice of no-tilling or reduced-tilling helps agricultural soil recover from the damage caused by over-tilling. Over-tilling leads to carbon emissions, sub-soil compaction, and damaged soil structure over time. No-tilling rebuilds soil structure and aggregation, a key component of soil health.
In addition, carbon farming improves soil and water conservation, biodiversity, earthworm activity, and ecosystem health. “There can also be improved air and water quality and more efficient use of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers,” Probert adds.
StopWaste partners with the Ryals Lab from the University of California, Merced, to conduct carbon farming research. The research examines the connection between compost and fluxes in GHGs and soil carbon to explore the application of compost and how this contributes to the environment. Compost application is one of many carbon farming practices.
The organization has been researching rangeland property in the Altamont Hills in Livermore, with the Alameda County Resource Conservation District being a major supporter of that project. “We are just beginning research with some cities in Alameda County looking at urban landscapes, including managed turf fields used for recreation and sports,” says Probert.
Within California, state and federal grants are available to help offset the cost for farmers and ranchers to switch to carbon farming practices, Probert says.
For ranchers, carbon farming can improve foliage for grazing, which leads to larger, healthier cattle. “Improved soil health can enhance product quality and nutrient density,” Probert adds. Sometimes, it may even lead to a premium price for their products.
“Improved soil health can enhance product quality and nutrient density,” Probert adds.
Can carbon farming be integrated into carbon credit markets?
“At this time, I’m not sure how increases in soil carbon will be involved” in any such thing in California, says Probert. “There needs to be more research.”
However, Massachusetts-based, agricultural technology company Indigo Ag has developed a program to enable farmers to produce carbon credits by making qualifying practice changes on their farms.
“Farmers who enroll in the Carbon by Indigo program can produce carbon credits based on the GHGs sequestered as a result of new practices implemented on their fields,” says a spokesperson for Indigo Ag. “These credits are then sold to corporations for high-quality, nature-based solutions to meet their sustainability targets.”
“Farmers who enroll in the Carbon by Indigo program can produce carbon credits based on the GHGs sequestered as a result of new practices implemented on their fields[.] These credits are then sold to corporations for high-quality, nature-based solutions to meet their sustainability targets.”
Credits are generated based on documentation provided by the farmer and soil samples taken from a subset of fields in the program. “Indigo Ag is the only company producing verified, registry-issued soil carbon credits at scale, rewarding farmers for adopting sustainable farming practices that benefit the environment and their operations,” the spokesperson states.
The Carbon by Indigo program includes removals and reduction of CO2 and other GHGs. “The credits are measured, verified, and issued under the most rigorous scientific standards, making them the highest quality agricultural carbon credits available on the voluntary market,” the spokesperson continues.
Disadvantages of Carbon Farming
The switch from production-oriented farming to carbon farming practices has startup and opportunity costs. Often, technical skills need to be learned or relearned. New equipment may be required, and there can be regional or economic challenges associated with certain practices. For example, one challenge facing California is how to help make compost more available to farmers and ranchers.
Another challenge is that farmers and ranchers may be risk-averse to changing how they operate their businesses. However, with the changing climate and increasing prices of fertilizer and water in California, Probert says, “We hope we will see folks encouraged to try something new.”
Other critics note that carbon farming is easily “undone” if the soils are disturbed, even accidentally, and there are limits to how much of the element can be kept in soil. Moreover, farmers who already use recommended sustainability practices on their land may see little benefit to implement carbon farming.
Steps to Starting a Carbon Farm
Many pathways are available for farmers and ranchers to become carbon farmers. In some cases, even before these farming practices were labeled as such, small family farms and ranches already used many of these practices. “Indigenous communities and land stewards utilized many of these practices way before scientists ever began researching them,” Probert says.
Technical assistance is available at the Carbon Cycle Institute, local Resource Conservation Districts and NRCS.
There are also grants, including the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program to help people start carbon farming. Tools like COMET Planner can help farmers plan their practices and estimate their benefits to the environment and their livelihoods.
More Research Needed
“Carbon farming not only mitigates climate change but also improves soil health, increases biodiversity, and enhances agricultural productivity,” says Probert. “On the other hand, carbon farming can require significant land use changes and compete with other land uses, such as food production or conservation.”
More answers are needed. In California, for example, researchers are asking about the state’s long-term outlook for increased drought climate events. For instance, will less water impact carbon farming’s potential? “Soils are also incredibly complex, and we need more research to understand how carbon farming practices affect diverse agro-ecological settings,” says Probert.
Also, beneficial soil organisms enjoy a balanced carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, so carbon farming introduces more of the element to agricultural soils. Will available nitrogen play a limiting factor in carbon farming’s potential? “California is emerging as a hub for this type of research,” says Probert.
*Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past 10 years, Natasha has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives. Natasha has also been interviewed as an insight provider for research institutes and conferences.
Interview with Trevor Probert, Program Services Specialist at StopWaste, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority in the US.
Interview with Indigo Ag spokesperson