If you’re growing crops or pasturing animals in Idaho you’ve likely heard about a new opportunity to sell carbon credits. You may have been approached directly by a carbon credit company or maybe you have a neighbor who has sold or is selling credits already. Regardless of how you have heard about selling carbon credits, the potential for carbon storage on your own farm exists.
Cover cropping, no-till farming practices, and nitrogen management are the most common practices intended to capture carbon (C02) from the atmosphere and increase carbon levels in your soil profile. Tapping into that potential are the carbon market buyers – those organizations seeking to offset their own emissions through your field’s capacity to store soil carbon.
In a Carbon Markets Tell-All Panel Session at the 2022 Commodity Classic this spring, Nutrien Ag Solutions Senior Sustainability Manager Sally Flis expressed the challenges of implementing a new carbon program. “Carbon markets are a complicated concept that is constantly changing, and the requirements are different depending on the practices you want to implement,” she said of Nutrien’s program, which enrolled 225,00 acres in 2021. “We really try at Nutrien to have this be a whole acre solution and generate the outcomes [growers] want.”
On the same panel discussion, Janette Veazy-Post, Manager at Lamb Farms Dairy, expressed her early skepticism about carbon credit payments. “It seemed kind of silly to me that [companies] were just going to pay us for doing practices that we were already doing.” Across 13,000 acres in New York and Ohio, Lamb Farms has already implemented sustainability practices that include strip tilling, cover cropping, and building anaerobic digesters to support the dairy. After some consideration, Lamb Farms enrolled in the 2021 carbon credit pilot program through Nutrien Ag.
Idaho growers have expressed similar concerns. “I’m a firm believer in the promoted practices, but this isn’t a panacea for climate change, and I think more focus needs to be given to utilizing C02 as a raw material. Early adopters of carbon contracts may benefit, but I’ll risk that to see how the market develops and how things work out,” said “Potlach Joe” Anderson, former Idaho Wheat Commissioner from District 1. “Much of what we’ve already been doing is beneficial for both our farms and the environment.”.
Despite the mixed feelings about carbon sequestration on farms, one Idaho Wheat Commissioner can confirm he’s willing to jump in. “I decided to participate in the Agoro carbon program because it was another market I could take advantage of. I believe that, as growers, we will eventually have to carry these costs through increases to our input prices,” said Cory Kress, District 5 Commissioner. “I’m skeptical of validation methods that rely solely on soil testing as I’ve seen these can be highly variable, but they essentially paid me for implementing practices I was already planning to do on my farm.” Across 8,000 dryland acres of canola, wheat, and peas, Cory says the sign-up bonus helped sway him towards Agoro’s program.
Regardless of one’s opinion of carbon credits, several companies have now entered the carbon space, and most of them have expanded their marketing into Idaho. The Agoro Carbon Alliance, owned by Yara Inc., has recently announced their goal of expanding to one million acres of carbon farming for 2022. The TruTerra LLC Carbon Program, owned by Land O’Lakes, has just announced it will be adding a team of agronomists to support growers in implementing the soil health practices promoted through its carbon capture initiatives; TruTerra reported that their grower payments totaled $4 million in 2021. Indigo Carbon, another one of the early leaders in the carbon credit space, announced in late June of 2022 that it has 20,000 tons of soil carbon credits available to buyers. And the company Nori has, perhaps, one of the most attractive sign-up programs available for growers with a unique payment system that allows four years of grower arrear payments.
Idaho growers could consider carbon sequestration as a completely new farm product they have available for sale. But just like any bushel of wheat, bale of hops, or sack of potatoes, you wouldn’t take your carbon credits to market without verifying you had a quality product. An advisable first step in considering a carbon credit sale would be to visit the United States Department of Agriculture COMET-Farm website, a carbon accounting system developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service at www.comet-farm.com. While all carbon credit buyers are verifying soil organic carbon a little differently, the COMET-Farm accounting tool may provide localized verification of carbon storage based on changing or adding a practice to your operation. In a rapidly developing market that has been described by many as “the wild west”, a little reassurance from a neutral party may be welcome. The COMET-Farm tool is free to use and does not require registration of any kind.
Of course, you’d also be keen to take a close look at that contract. Most require an act of additionality -- adding a carbon sequestration practice that did not exist prior to contract signing -- but all vary in duration. Some programs offer the flexibility to sign up on a per acre basis with no long-term commitment, while others offer 10-year contracts with a one-year grace period for practice implementation. If you’re not a fan of model-based algorithms that rely solely on a projection of carbon storage, you might want to select a carbon contract that relies heavily on direct soil sampling. Most companies are implementing a combination of the two verification methods.
Daunting as new markets seem, consumer sentiment is the fueling engine of carbon credits. Our carbon end-users are companies such as JP Morgan, The North Face, Barclays, Cemex, Delta Airlines, and even Shell Oil – organizations that seek offsets to both attract customers or mitigate their own emissions. Companies pledging to be carbon net-zero by 2050 are responding to consumer preference; they’re signaling down the supply chain that their customers value these attempts to mitigate climate change. Whether or not Idaho farmers choose to participate in these programs is a personal choice, but sales of carbon credits may provide a unique opportunity to highlight agriculture’s role as a solutions-based industry.