Seeing the future: Could carbon credits be the compromise that farmers and emissions experts agree on?

Ruby Howell
Pratt Tribune
No-till farming methods in this barley field could contribute to better planet health, and now the farmer-owner's bottom line with the use of carbon credits.

Carbon credits for farmers are a new innovative and incentivizing way for farmers to regeneratively practice farming right here in our own backyards and get money from businesses that want to offset their own emissions. However, there are some inequitable challenges to be worked out before the playing field is level. According to the EPA, farming and agriculture actually makes up about 12% of global greenhouse emissions, so it’s important for farmers to reduce their carbon footprint, too. But, the average Kansas farmer cannot compete with big business when it comes to paying to offset emissions. What if I told you that there may be a way for farmers and ranchers to work together with businesses wanting to offset carbon emissions that benefits the climate and the farmers? 

The idea of carbon credits is a fairly new concept in the field of agriculture. Essentially, businesses looking to offset their carbon emissions pay farmers for sequestering carbon by practicing regenerative farming. For those that are unaware, regenerative agriculture practices include, no-till, cover-cropping, and diverse crop rotation, among others. This idea of businesses paying others to offset their emissions isn't new. It’s just usually in the form of planting trees or in the way forests are managed. Agriculture has been limited in this area because of high costs and there not being a reliable way to measure just how much carbon is in a farmer’s soil.

But why should any of us care? Well, it’s everyone’s planet, and while not all of us are farmers, we can advocate for, support, and encourage our neighbors to farm sustainably. I think that anything that takes a step in tackling climate change is worth trying out, especially when monetary rewards might assist in the possible financial challenges of switching.  

Does it sound too good to be true? Well, it isn’t without its challenges, that’s for sure. According to the Indianapolis Star, the biggest two are getting enough farmers to use regenerative practices and setting a standard for measurement and reward. Many farmers and ranchers are reluctant to switch to no-till or cover-cropping because it usually takes a few years to really start showing yield results, and there are always upfront costs of getting different equipment. My father, who has been practicing no-till farming for close to twenty years, said his yields were low the first couple years, but since then it has had a positive impact, such as saving him money on labor and equipment costs, as well as reducing water runoff. Also, change is hard, especially when it comes to the way you have been doing something your entire life.

According to Jeff Dukes, executive director of the Climate Change Research Center at Purdue University, the science of how to accurately and fairly measure how much carbon there is in a farmer's fields is rocky. There is no doubt that regenerative farming increases carbon storage in the ground, but how much is hard to tell. Currently, there are two types: modeling and sampling. Basically, you guessed it,  modeling is cheaper but not as accurate and sampling is more accurate but crazy expensive. 

Kari Hernandez, the global head of carbon operations for IndigoAg, a leading company that strives for sustainability in farming, says that if many different companies all use different ways of measuring carbon, it could lead to a disparity between what farmers receive as money in their pockets. One company might pay you more for less carbon, etc. Indigo uses a hybrid measurement system of modeling and sampling and pays farmers $15 per ton of carbon. Using the example from the Indianapolis Star, if a farmer had 1,000 acres he/she sustainably farmed, and each acre stores one ton, he/she could make $15,000. According to the Indianapolis Star, the Biden Administration plans to create a carbon credit bank through the USDA to serve as a standard. The bank would buy credits from farmers and then sell them to corporations for offsets. That concept has won support from a variety of farm, food, forestry and environmental groups. 

More research is needed into the science of measurement for carbon. Technology is surprising, though, so I’m sure that a solution will be found. If the kinks are worked out, which is feasible, then the intangible asset of carbon credits will have a real impact on this planet, for the better.

* Writer Ruby Howell is a Pratt High School senior, who with her parents Jason and Pam Howell, practices no-till farming on their fifth and sixth generation farm near Preston in Pratt County.

Ruby Howell