Guest author Blake Hurst raises soybeans, corn, and greenhouse crops on his family farm in Tarkio, Missouri.
Nestled among all the other items in the optimistically named Inflation Reduction Act are 369 billion of your dollars to encourage “climate solutions and environmental justice.” I’ll leave it to readers to imagine what environmental justice might look like, but I’m pretty sure that whatever portion of the 369 billion is spent on environmental justice it won’t be enough. More importantly to my farm here in Missouri, the “climate solutions” part of the bill will include just short of 20 billion dollars for existing agriculture conservation programs.
Traditional conservation programs have largely been concerned with protecting soil and water quality, but it is a good bet that most of the new money going into agriculture will be concentrated on carbon sequestration through reduced tillage and cover crops. That is, the funds will be used to keep carbon in the soil using two techniques: minimizing the turnover of the soil and planting non-commercial vegetation like clover, which keeps the soil covered between harvest and planting.
The Problem with Cover Crops
We’ve been farming without tillage for nearly 30 years, but we have not yet adopted cover crops on our farm. We’ve experimented with them and decided, so far, that the environmental benefits we see do not cover the increased costs and risk associated with the practice. That’s a decision I’m not totally comfortable with and re-examine often. The problem is that cover crops use moisture during the growing season, moisture that can be the difference between a good crop and a disaster here in the drier regions of the western corn belt.
Some farmers have already enrolled in private programs that pay for sequestering carbon, as some companies use the sequestering to offset their emissions of carbon dioxide. The new federal money will no doubt supercharge the money flowing toward farmers from folks looking to buy indulgences for their carbon use.
There are a few problems with the private programs. First, the payments are only a fraction of the annual cost of planting and then killing the cover crops when the planting of commercial crops begins . Secondly, carbon sequestration is not a short-term process, so signing a contract to sequester carbon is a multi-year commitment to farm in a certain way. From the landowner’s perspective, carbon contracts are an easement on our property and payments fall far short of what I would need to justify giving up that much control over my farm.
Finally, there is the elephant in the room, which is the supreme difficulty of actually knowing whether any of this stuff works.
Measuring carbon sequestration on each farm accurately is more expensive than the value of the carbon credits earned! To reduce the cost, carbon credits are generated using complicated models that estimate the farm’s sequestration so far, models that are not easy to construct and demand a huge amount of information about the farms involved.
Scientists Aren’t Sure That Carbon Sequestration on Farms Will Work
Did I mention that scientists aren’t even sure if we can change carbon retention by farming practices? Early studies concentrated on the first few inches of topsoil, and pretty consistently found that cover crops and reduced tillage increased carbon in the soil they monitored. Later studies included carbon samples from deeper in the soil structure and found that no-till and cover crops wake up microbes lower in the soil, microbes which became very busy reversing all of the gains made in the shallower regions of the soil profile. (See: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/carbon-sequestration-farms-actually-working-fight-climate-change.) Studies continue, and I’m fairly confident that the scientific consensus will find some long-term benefits for carbon retention from these farming practices, but we can’t really make that claim with scientific certainty.
Incidentally, none of the private carbon trading programs pays for practices that the farmer is already doing. Which makes sense, I suppose, since farmers like us are already no-tilling, and whatever carbon benefits that accrue from that have already happened. But, should we decide to pursue carbon contracts, we have a strong incentive to break out the plow for a couple of years before we sign up. Since carbon payments are based on improvements in sequestration, if you’ve been doing the equivalent already, you won’t reap much reward. Farmers waiting for higher carbon credit prices will be reluctant to adopt practices that would lessen their prospective payments even though they would have erosion and water quality benefits in the interim.
When I mentioned this to a representative of one of the companies that are pioneering this industry, she informed me that they would use satellite photography to monitor scofflaws. Just as well, because, as a no-till farmer, my plow is rusting in a fence row somewhere.
Cover crops and reduced tillage pay benefits for the farmers who use them by improving soil health, saving fuel, and, over time, protecting the productivity of the soil. Society has an interest in these practices because we all benefit from improved water quality and more productive farms.
But the benefits of carbon sequestration are decidedly more diffuse. It has occurred to me that the authors of this legislation are engaged in a bit of creative marketing, dressing up traditional conservation practices in sexy new carbon sequestration clothes. Perhaps we can further increase carbon payments if we make the case that soil conservation improves environmental justice.
Image at top: Blake Hurst checks depth of corn seed. Photos courtesy of Blake Hurst.