Minnesota Farmers: Profiting from the Carbon Bank, Fighting Climate Change?

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The United States is betting big on the role farmers can play in mitigating climate change.

President Joe Biden has said he wants American farmers to be the first in the world to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions. How they might achieve this goal is not yet clear – but one idea that is getting a lot of attention is paying farmers to store carbon in the soil.

This is called the carbon bank, and some see it as a way to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While the concept has been around for decades, it still finds a place in agricultural-dense states like Minnesota.

“It’s definitely a change in management. And it definitely requires more management,” said AJ Krusemark, who operates a farm with his wife and parents near the town of Trimont in southern Minnesota.

The idea is that by changing agricultural practices, carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere, converted and stored as soil carbon. Farmers can then earn credits for the carbon they store, and businesses can offset the pollution they cause by purchasing those credits.

The Krusemark family was already engaged in the type of agriculture focused on developing healthier soils, including many of the same practices that make them eligible for carbon credit sales.

“Our goal is to be as regenerative as possible in our farming practices,” he said.

Krusemark is an engineer by training. He returned to the farm eight years ago and began to learn about regenerative agriculture, a set of practices that, in part, increase the amount of carbon in the soil.

“I spend a lot of time reading, especially in the winter when we’re a little slower,” he said.

Regenerative agriculture is based on four fundamental principles: Limit soil disturbances; keep the soil covered throughout the growing season by planting cover crops; to graze cattle on the land; and planting a more diverse mix of crops.

Soybeans grown by direct sowing in a cereal rye cover crop on the Krusemark farm near Trimont.

Photo courtesy of AJ Krusemark

Krusemark plants cover crops to keep roots in the soil after cash crop harvest. It doesn’t plow the ground so much. Cattle periodically graze his fields, and he added peas to the traditional corn and soybean crop rotation.

These changes allowed Krusemarks to be paid for carbon credits through Truterra, a subsidiary of Minnesota-based agricultural giant Land O’Lakes.

Look back, look ahead

Companies that pay farmers to store carbon take several different approaches to calculating a farm’s carbon storage. Some look back, others look ahead. Either way, it is an imprecise science, based on calculations and estimations.

Truterra currently bases the price of its credits on the last five years of a farm’s practice. It calculates the projected impacts of certain agricultural practices on the land and pays farmers accordingly.

The company argues that this ‘retrospective’ approach will result in a better carbon storage program, as essential farming practices – which often require costly conversion when farmers abandon more traditional practices – are already established and farmers are more likely to maintain the practices.

Truterra is one of the many startups in the carbon bank. Other carbon banking companies pay farmers for future farming practices, requiring them to engage in regenerative approaches over a period of time.

Truterra President Jason Weller said he sees a lot of interest in his company’s program.

Microsoft was the first buyer of Truterra credits, buying 100,000 tonnes of carbon earlier this year. Truterra will not say how many farmers or how many acres of land are enrolled in the program.

But, said Weller, farmers won’t participate just for the money. It’s not enough.

“What we are proposing today is $ 20 a tonne for carbon,” he said. “When you put that on a per acre basis, you might be looking at half a ton per acre, per year. simple math, it works out to $ 10 an acre. “

This per acre payment alone will not sell farmers for carbon storage, Weller said. It can cost a farmer $ 40 or $ 50 an acre to purchase the necessary equipment and make the necessary changes to convert to regenerative no-till agriculture.

“Once the farmers put their finger on it, you know, scratch their heads a little bit, they’re like, ‘It doesn’t really make sense, because it’s a lot of expense to get a low return. , did he declare.

Instead, Truterra focuses on believing farmers that there is value in healthier soil and other effects of changing the way they farm.

The carbon credit money is then just an incentive to stick to these practices for the long haul – and it is a critical part of storing carbon in the soil.

“Once the farmer is really locked in and has a working soil carbon sequestration system, it’s more likely that they won’t leave the system,” Weller said. “We need these farmers to maintain healthy soil systems for 10, 20, 50 years – across generations.”

Benefits and impacts

Even carbon bank skeptics like Ben Lilliston, director of climate strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, like the idea of ​​encouraging farmers to make long-term commitments to improving soil health.

But they say it allows companies to get off the hook for their own pollution. If they can compensate for harmful practices by purchasing carbon credits, they are no longer encouraged to reduce their impact on the environment.

“We know that some of the carbon is sequestered in certain farming practices and systems. That’s good. Let’s support that,” said Lilliston. “But let’s not use this as an excuse for business [not] reduce their own emissions.

Lilliston agrees that the work and money farmers like AJ Krusemark invest in storing carbon will have long-term benefits for the environment. But he argues that all this work won’t do much to help mitigate climate change if big companies are then allowed to buy those carbon credits to offset their own pollution.

“One of the things that concerns us is that a company says, ‘Hey look, we paid for carbon [to] be sequestered here. So we don’t have to reduce our own emissions here, our own pollution, ”said Lilliston. “And that kind of trade, that kind of pollution compensation, it’s called, is a real problem.”

Skeptics of carbon storage practices say that for it to have a real impact on the climate, carbon storage must be accompanied by reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – not a replacement for that pollution.

cows walking on a road

Cattle are moved to a field of recently harvested corn on the Krusemark farm near Trimont.

Photo courtesy of AJ Krusemark

And then there is the complication of knowing how to accurately measure the amount of carbon stored in a particular piece of land.

Weller said the science and practice of carbon storage in soils is still an evolving process, but it is important that regenerative agricultural practices take hold, even as the process of storing and measuring carbon does not take place. is not perfect.

“Climate scientists tell us we are running out of time,” he said. “And we need all the tools in the toolbox to meet the climate challenge. “

Krusemark knows that some farmers are skeptical of regenerative agriculture, thinking it may be just a passing fad.

But he’s committed, and he wants others to think about what he sees on his farm: healthier soils, less pollution and long-term savings through the use of less fertilizer and pesticides.

“It is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “You have to figure out what works for you. Because, I think, if you want to do a very simple definition of sustainability, you have to have something that you can keep doing.”

Truterra is betting its business model that farmers will adopt regenerative practices.

And thousands of farmers will need to find the solution that works for them, if regenerative agriculture and carbon cultivation are going to make a difference in climate change.

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