The agriculture industry’s impact on GHG emissions is well-understood — nearly 10% of all U.S. emissions, with a significant contribution from the overapplication of synthetic fertilizer — and growers are facing the effect of these emissions on a daily basis. The most recent IPCC Report, released in August 2021, notes that some regions are already dealing with significant climatic changes such as severe drought, flooding, and heat waves, and these weather trends will only increase and intensify. Without immediate and dramatic reductions in GHG emissions, temperatures are likely to pass beyond the tolerance threshold for both agriculture and human health, the report warns.
The good news is that there are significant opportunities to reverse this trend. The agriculture industry has a chance to provide meaningful environmental solutions to climate change, with growers leveraging innovative, sustainable farming practices and tools that can not only improve a farm’s resilience, soil health and water quality, but also their operation’s bottom line.
“When we talk about sustainability, we want to promote the idea that farmers can do well and do good at the same time,” says Rod Snyder, President of Field to Market. “There are a lot of practices that research is demonstrating have both an environmental and economic benefit worth exploring.”
The Coming of Carbon Markets
Programs like carbon markets can serve as a catalyst for change providing financial incentives for growers to implement more environmentally-beneficial practices which help to reduce the risk associated with adoption and even provide new income streams. As an added benefit, many of the practices that help fix atmospheric carbon and reduce GHG emissions also boost soil health and improve farm resilience.
Reduce fertilizer application: By minimizing overapplication, there is less excess nitrogen for microbes to convert into N2O. Excessive nitrogen application can also increase soil acidity (pH) and impede the uptake of other key nutrients.
Slow nitrogen release: Using practices that slow the release of nitrogen so microbes and plants have all-season access to this key nutrient reduces the opportunity for excess nitrogen to be turned into N2O. Water-logged soils also significantly increase the release of N2O.
Use cover crops: By protecting the soil from direct impact from rain, wind and other weather, cover crops can help maintain topsoil and reduce erosion. They also improve soil structure, reduce compaction and increase soil carbon and organic material.
Maintain a healthy soil microbiome: The microbes and fungi present in healthy soils can provide crops with free access to key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizer applications and saving growers money. Healthy microbiomes also reduce soil compaction, improve water storage and play a key role in maintaining soils as natural carbon sinks.
Adopt no- or low-till practices: Soils that are undisturbed by tillage allow for more airflow, and microbes produce less N2O in high-oxygen environments. Low- or no-till soils also assist with water regulation, whereas highly compacted and tilled soils increase fertilizer loss to surface runoff.
When we talk about sustainability, we want to promote the idea that farmers can do well and do good at the same time. There are a lot of practices that research is demonstrating have both an environmental and economic benefit worth exploring.
Dr. Dianna Bagnall, Research Soil Scientist with the Soil Health Institute, explains that over the last 100 years, a huge amount of carbon has been lost from the soil. Through photosynthesis, plants take in atmospheric carbon and water and convert those molecules into a carbon-based carbohydrate and oxygen. The carbohydrate provides the fuel for the plant to grow, but some of the carbon taken in by plants is also deposited in the soil.
Carbon and organic matter play key roles in the formation of soil aggregates, or clumps of soil particles organized around soil organic material, that provide space for water and oxygen storage and infiltration. By forming clumps of different sizes, healthy soils can absorb and store water, reduce erosion and better supply plants with organic matter.
“When we’re trying to move to better soil aggregation, that carbon is important,” Dianna explains. “We need that aggregation so that we have habitat for microbes. We need it so that we have water infiltrating and not running off, we need it so that we can have better nutrient uptake, so that there are fewer erosion problems. The beauty of it is that we don’t have to pick whether we manage for soil health or for climate change. Because across the board, it’s going to be the same.”
Making Carbon Markets a Reality
Carbon markets have been growing slowly but steadily in the last few decades and will continue to gain prominence as countries around the world implement net zero emissions targets and policies to address climate change on tight timelines. As more and more industries are required to account and pay for their emissions, the price of carbon credits will continue to rise, increasing the financial incentive for growers to implement carbon-capturing practices. In fact, officials forecast that the price of carbon would have to climb to as much as $150/ton by 2030 in order to meet global climate commitments representing as much as a 10x increase from today’s prices.
“Getting paid to farm carbon is no longer just talk,” says Trey Hill, of Harborview Farms in Maryland. “I’ve personally benefited from selling carbon credits and see the application of innovative technology as an on-ramp for more growers to drive scalable and affordable adoption of climate-friendly practices.”
With input and output prices already volatile and tight, reducing a farm’s carbon footprint while maintaining profitability may seem incredibly challenging, especially as those markets continue to evolve in the near-term. However, shifts in behavior such as focusing on reducing excessive nitrogen application can often lead to impacts that extend beyond the promise of environmental benefits and incentive payments. By paying attention to how, when, and how much nitrogen is applied, growers like Ryan Speer, owner of Jacob Farms in Kansas, have also been able to improve their nutrient efficiency, saving on inputs and enhancing their bottom line. “We’re always looking at new ways to be more efficient and reduce our pounds of nitrogen per bushel,” says Ryan. “We used to apply around 1.3, but now are down around 0.7 or 0.8 by adjusting our applications and timing, and avoiding times of year when we know we’ll lose nitrogen through leaching and denitrification.”
Modern imaging tools like drones and satellites, self-driving equipment and science-based inputs like Sound’s SOURCE™ for Corn or Soy are also providing growers with more opportunities to understand their farm’s specific needs, minimize nitrogen loss and improve on-farm sustainability and carbon capture.
Still, when talking about sustainability and soil health, Dianna says it’s also important to acknowledge there is no “one size fits all” solution, and prioritizing principles over practices can help. No-till is a practice, she says, but using a principle like “reduce tillage as much as possible” allows growers to meet the needs of their own farm. “Leaving room for farmer innovation to find what really works for them, their region and their soil type is a much more respectful and honest way to deal with farmers’ situations,” she says.
Getting paid to farm carbon is no longer just talk. I've personally benefited from selling carbon credits and see the application of innovative technology as an on-ramp for more growers to drive scalable and affordable adoption of climate-friendly practices.
Renewed and Resilient
For growers, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of implementing sustainability practices on their farms is increased resilience. With recent catastrophic floods, historic droughts and extreme temperatures only likely to increase in the coming years, practices that improve resilience could have significant economic benefits to growers, Rod points out, and Dianna agrees.
“There’s a lot of focus right now on how much CO2 equivalent can be offset. But for our farm community, climate change resilience is just as big and just as important for the future of agriculture,” says Dianna.
Dianna says that while the growers she’s worked with care about the environment, ultimately they need to run profitable operations. She says the Soil Health Institute interviewed 100 farmers in 9 states who have implemented soil health practices, and found that net farm income increased for 85% of corn growers and 88% of soy growers.
Improving sustainability may sound daunting, but with a little planning, there’s also ample opportunity for growers to achieve both on-farm and bottom line benefits. Financial incentive programs can help farmers offset implementation costs, organizations like the Soil Health Institute and Field to Market are eager to connect growers with potential partners and experts, and researchers are developing new tools to support sustainability efforts. Adopting these practices and working towards a more resilient and sustainable farm may be an ongoing project, but growers don’t have to go it alone.