As soil health takes on a higher profile with food companies and consumers, various avenues are emerging for farmers to collect environmental incentives.

The growing number of soil health programs can seem overwhelming, but one farmer and soil health advocate believes it’s a case of more is better.

“It’s no different than choosing your corn seed,” said Jimmy Emmons, the third generation owner-operator of Circle E Farms near Leedey, Oklahoma. “Choices are good. Tools are good,”

Emmons is currently serving as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm production and conservation regional coordinator for the Southern Plains region, which includes Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas as well as two other states.

The federal administrative appointment, which was newly created when he accepted it last May, involves coordinating between Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency to better serve farmers and improve conservation outcomes.

He’s already driven 40,000 miles, visiting state and field offices around the region, meeting with governmental partners such as state agriculture departments and assisting producers when program disputes arise.

As the former president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, he also helped organize and moderate a special soil health day program held in conjunction with the group’s annual meeting in late February.

His advice to farmers is to pick their conservation programs the way they choose their corn seed — based on which ones have the unique features best suited to their circumstances and the objectives they hope to accomplish.

“Get on today with what you think is the best option out there, and you can always change later,” he suggested. “Now the one thing to be careful about with these new carbon markets is the length of the term of the contract. When you sign up, you could get locked into something for the next 10 to 15 years. So that’s something to consider carefully.”

Carbon offset markets are one tool farmers can use to capture value from improvements to soil health.

Increasing organic matter by just one percent translates to 2 or 3 extra tons of carbon sequestered on every acre, according to Barry Knight, head of research for Indigo Ag, which launched a carbon-trading platform last summer as part of its Terraton Initiative.

The initiative’s goal is to sequester 1 trillion tons of carbon, equivalent to the excess carbon that has accrued in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Farmers who sign up can realistically expect to put an extra $20 bucks a year per acre in their pocket, just by restoring organic matter, Knight said.

“It’s real money,” he said, “for something you’re already doing.”

Knight was part of a panel discussion on how farmers can market soil health attributes to increase their profitability.

“Jeff Bezos (founder and chief executive of Amazon) just pledged $10 billion to try to fix the CO2 problem. The question we asked ourselves was how can we work with growers to secure carbon and sell it to the Jeff Bezos of the world?” Knight said.

Knight, who grew up in western Oklahoma and attended Oklahoma State University but now farms in Mississippi and works out of Indigo’s Memphis office, said companies like FedEx are investing in the effort as a way to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Farmers have more than one option for selling stored carbon.

Well-known soil health educator, Jill Clapperton, a scientist from eastern Washington, mentioned during her keynote address that she’s an adviser to a third party verification program called Farmed Smart, which in turn supports Nori, an open source carbon trading platform that allows companies and individuals to buy CO2 emissions offsets.

Anyone can go to the website and sign up to remove carbon from the atmosphere at a rate of $15 a ton. The site currently states that its carbon storage capacity is sold out, but it welcomes farmers to apply to become part of an ongoing pilot project.

Both carbon platforms require soil probing and core analysis, and use block-chain ledgers to authenticate carbon removal.

Knight echoed Emmons’ idea that providing a wide variety of choices, rather than a single program, benefits both farmers and consumers.

He pointed to the egg section of the typical grocery store, where selections range from 88-cent cartons to others premium priced as high as $5 a dozen.

“Consumers want a choice,” he said.

Emmons said some things to consider when weighing conservation incentive programs could include whether they have local ties, tap into existing long-standing relationships and welcome farmer input. What convinced him to get involved with the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, for example, was that it includes the Noble Foundation, a unique Oklahoma-based research entity that has already spent decades working with producers in Oklahoma and Texas.

Many existing farm service and input suppliers are setting up their own climate-smart programs to serve their members. One of them is Land O'Lakes, the country’s third largest farmer cooperative, represented on the panel by Jason Weller, the co-op’s senior director of sustainability.

He explained how a small start-up within the company, called Truterra, works through the co-op’s local branches and in collaboration with a precision ag subsidiary, WinField United, to advise farmers on how to improve their soil health, while also working within the broader food system to help companies and brands achieve their sustainability goals.

The program uses extensive field mapping to show where the most erosion is occurring in a field. It also provides a plug-and-play calculator that allows farmers to compare results by substituting different cropping practices.

In addition, it assesses and delivers a stewardship score, from field-to-field, in real time, which growers can use for verification purposes.

“You can literally see where soil carbon is going down and where it is improving,” he said. 

Truterra pays for these services through support from interested food companies like Campbell’s Soup.

The Land O'Lakes program is in turn part of a much broader industry-wide effort called Field to Market.

Panelist Rod Snyder has been president of Field to Market since 2014, after previously serving as director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association.

Field to Market is one of the oldest and broadest sustainability campaigns, created by and for farmers, with 140 members ranging from National Farmers Union to Coca-Cola and Walmart. Snyder said it is currently involved with 65 different sustainability related projects nationwide.

From its start a decade ago, Field to Market pledged to provide a “science-based, technology neutral and outcomes-based” platform for demonstrating and capturing the environmental benefits of producing more with fewer resources.

It includes a free online tool, the Fieldprint Calculator, to help growers document their sustainability gains.

“Most farmers probably don’t realize this but every product sold on the shelf at Walmart is required to provide sustainability data,” he said. “These companies don’t have a choice to not have that information anymore. The entire marketplace is changing.”

How value gets transferred back to the grower through the existing supply chain is still in the early stages of being worked out, he added.

“It’s not always a premium. It could be cost-sharing, technical assistance, preferential market access or payments for ecosystem practices,” he said.

In a conversation following the panel, Snyder said there’s no perfect solution for how farmers can increase their leverage in the marketplace and transform their role from price-takers to price-makers. But his program is intended to recognize and reward them for the collective advances they are already making.

“We’re not trying to create another niche market,” he explained. “We’re trying to lift the value of mainstream agriculture as a whole.”