“It rubbed me the wrong way to hear catastrophizing and alarmist predictions,” says farmer Johnny Parker about climate change coverage. “I knew we were already doing good things for the environment and not getting recognized. And I wanted to reframe what we were doing, and get really serious and focused about what we were doing with carbon.”
Parker and his wife, April, farm 90 acres in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. Together they’ve operated Edible Earth Farm for 10-plus years, first in Tionesta, then in Sandy Lake, after purchasing their current property three years ago.
“I made sort of a crude carbon plan (for the farm) about energy use and energy expenditure,” he said. “It evolved slowly.”
Parker is referring to the need to reduce carbon dioxide in the air to help slow down and mitigate climate change. Carbon is an element in carbon dioxide and it cycles naturally through the environment. But, due to excessive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions going into the air — mostly from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, especially since the 1950s — the natural carbon cycle has not kept up. The current level of carbon dioxide today is about 414 parts per million. The goal is to bring that back down to 350 parts per million, says Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.
Plants and soils naturally store carbon and people are looking for ways to enhance that natural process of “drawing down” carbon from the atmosphere into the soil where it can be stored long-term. Agricultural lands have the potential to play a large role in mitigating climate change, mainly through sequestering carbon in the soil through no-till and cover cropping methods, improved soil health, and the replacement of some annual crops with perennial crops.
The idea of carbon sequestration has been around for a while, but has been studied more in forests than in farmlands.
“Plants, when they photosynthesize, take in CO2 and transform it into biomass,” said U.S. Forest Service scientist Chris Swanston. “The goal is to keep as much carbon in the soil as possible. If it’s done on a large enough scale, it matters.”
Forests in the United States have been inventoried and studied since the 1990s for their net carbon gains and losses, Swanston said. Researchers collect data on the forest trees’ entire life cycle, including tracking what happens to the carbon in trees that get cut down and made into lumber or paper, burned, or used in other ways.
“It is estimated that 15% of annual carbon emissions by Americans is taken up by U.S. forests,” Swanston said about the past decade.
Now, the idea of using agricultural land as a tool to sequester tons of atmospheric carbon is catching on. Several marketplaces are springing up to pay farmers for their carbon-storing efforts.
In fact, Maryland farmer Trey Hill is one of the early users of the carbon marketplace. In January, he received his first payoff — a check for about $120,000 for sequestering 8,000 tons of carbon over a three-year period on his 2,500-acre farm.
Harborview Farms is 100% no-till and plants new crops, like soybeans, into living cover crops to improve soil organic matter, thereby upping the soil's ability to pull carbon out of the air and store it.
Hill and his father operate Harborview Farms in Rock Hall, which has gradually shifted to 100% no-till, using cover crops in a conventional corn-soybean-wheat rotation. Hill said he “plants green” by seeding new crops into living cover crops, and uses a roller-crimper instead of herbicides to kill down the cover crop.
“Now I spend less on tillage and diesel fuel, because basically all we do is plant, spray and harvest. There’s no tillage,” Hill said.
Improving soil health with living cover crops has many benefits to a farmer besides carbon sequestration.
Hill said the cover crops soak up excessive rainfall in rainy periods, and the soils with cover crops stay more moist during drought spells. The cover crops suppress weeds, so Hill doesn’t need to spray nearly as often as he did before. The farm’s tractors and equipment can get out earlier in the spring to plant, since soil compaction is less of an issue because of the living roots. Hill’s crop yields are the same as with tillage.
Building soil organic matter — with decomposing cover crops or amendments like compost — improves the soil’s biological activity, which provides extra benefits.
Biologically active soil has higher levels of mycorrhizal fungi and other microscopic living things that can help store more carbon at deeper levels in the ground, and crops perform better too, said Gillian Julius, who has helped advise Parker.
In comparison, tilling the soil releases lots of carbon into the atmosphere.
In a 2019 policy report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Farm & Forest Natural Carbon Solutions Initiative, Eric Washburn of Windward Strategies writes: “Tilling and plowing expose soil to air and sunlight, causing carbon to oxidize and leave the soil.” In contrast, he said, avoiding tilling and plowing allows soil carbon stores to grow because the organic material — roots and leaves — decomposes.
While estimates vary, the World Resources Institute projects that the U.S. could sequester 200 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, Washburn said.
The potential is there for farmers.
“It is estimated that 20 million acres across the U.S. are planted in (cover) crops today. However, with about 267 million acres planted in row crops, cover crops remain a small part of the overall U.S. agriculture system,” writes Washburn.
Ag engineer Eric Sauder, of TeamAg Inc. in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, has studied the possibilities of carbon sequestration in Pennsylvania’s farmland. He gave a talk in early February at a conference hosted by PASA Sustainable Agriculture.
“Lancaster (County) is a leader in no-till and cover cropping because of the focus on water due to Chesapeake Bay issues,” Sauder said.
Using USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service numbers for Lancaster County last year, Sauder counted the county’s acreage that is in the conservation practices of cover cropping, no-till, reduced till and prescribed grazing, as well as silvopasture and riparian forest buffers. Using modeling software, he calculated that the annual carbon sequestration of those acres for the county equaled 264,147 tons of carbon.
That equals the carbon emissions from 655,451,613 miles of driving a car, Sauder said, or the burning of 291,053,755 pounds of coal.
According to a 2019 Department of Transportation report on states, Pennsylvania is the nation’s third worst emitter of carbon dioxide, due in part to its large amount of industry and power plants, Sauder said.
Again, using NRCS numbers for farms across the entire state that use conservation practices, Sauder calculated that Pennsylvania agriculture has sequestered 5,623,540 tons of carbon emissions in one year.
There is no one magic bullet to prevent climate change from getting worse, Sauder said, but “the biological processes are very powerful. In agriculture, (storing carbon) is letting photosynthesis do the work.”
It’s All About Management
How a farmer manages a farm is the most important thing as far as carbon sequestration goes, even more important than which crops are planted, Sauder said.
For instance, he’s observed that many farmers view cover-cropping as a last-minute, low-priority task instead of a critical one.
At Hill’s farm in Maryland, a company called Nori used a USDA-approved software model called COMET-Farm to calculate that Harborview Farms was sequestering 1.1 tons of carbon per acre, per year. Hill worked with Washington state-based Nori to put his carbon credits into a marketplace that funds carbon removal from the atmosphere. Nori currently pays about $15 per acre per year for carbon sequestration.
Indigo Ag, which also runs a marketplace for carbon sequestration credits on farmland, pays approximately the same rate, according to its website.
“We’ve been no-tilling and cover-cropping for a long time,” Hill said. “That led to soil health. You’re building carbon into the soil. … Why not get paid for farming carbon?”
Before his farm changed its tillage practices 20 years ago, Hill said he managed the farm primarily by looking at its inputs and outputs. That took its toll on him. He said that getting involved in planting green and 100% no-till has rejuvenated him.
“Farm work became more exciting,” he said.
While getting ready for spring planting, Hill said, “We’ve gained 1 to 2% organic matter in our soils. (Back) when we used a chisel plow, the top (of the soil) and 10 inches down was all homogeneous.”
Maryland already pays its farmers $45 per acre to grow cover crops year-round, Hill said, so the carbon marketplace payment is “icing on the cake.”
He said it took a lot of work to put together the information that Nori needed to get on the marketplace. But “if you have good records, it’s not that bad,” he added. “Once you do it the first time, it’s easier after that.”
“The scale of the farm doesn’t matter,” Hill said. “Everybody has to think it through for themselves.”
Hill, who is the first farmer in the Nori marketplace, believes carbon credits could earn him even more money in the future. “As climate change becomes more real to people, I think they’re going to be more interested,” he said.
Sequestering carbon in farmland to help reduce climate change can have an effect on the public’s perception of farming, too. “It’s a good story for the farmer. It’s good for agriculture in general,” Hill said.
For the upcoming growing season, the Parkers at Edible Earth Farm expect to have 300-400 CSA members. Parker is still in the early stages of looking at carbon, learning as much as he can about carbon cycles on the farm and what he can do to burn less fossil fuels (like buy a more fuel-efficient tractor) and sequester more carbon long-term in the soils (do cover cropping, improve soil biology). He’s already added animals (pigs, goats, cattle) to his fields in a grazing rotation to improve the soil biology. The meat is another farm product sold to customers.
“We’re on the front lines,” Parker said about experiencing the impacts of climate change. “The last two years we had record rainfall and insanely warm winters.”
“Now I’m thinking about carbon all the time,” he added, as he learns how he can reduce his carbon footprint. “I feel that’s my role, because carbon touches everything we do.”
Back at the farm, Julius has brought a microscope to measure changes in the microbial activity of the soil since Parker has added livestock on the pastures — an experiment he is doing to increase biodiversity and soil health.
Parker was happy to see the improvements. “I am not the expert, but I am an implementer, a note taker, and an observer,” he said. “Farmers tend to look at the bigger picture, but there’s a lot to be learned from those looking at the micro-systems. And, I can make better decisions with that information.”
Parker researches, reads articles and talks to anyone knowledgeable about carbon sequestration. He has put together an advisory team of professionals he can call, including Julius, who are knowledgeable about soil biology and agronomy as well as climate and carbon.
“Local agencies are not really up to date or forward-thinking (about managing carbon),” he said. “They are bringing older thought about erosion and runoff.”
Parker is considering expanding his use of no-till, but he laments the lack of equipment, such as compost turners, roller-crimpers and no-till vegetable seeders, built for a mid-sized farm like his.
“I have a 100-horsepower tractor. You can’t find a no-till seeder for that,” he said.
This winter he planned a new large-scale compost project at the farm. There is power in compost, he said, to increase soil organic matter and sequester more carbon.
He added: “I’m not perfect. I have a 20-year-old diesel truck. I still bring in peat moss. You can’t be critical of others … but I would rather do this myself instead of waiting for it to become a requirement.”
Hill also acknowledges that it is a process.
“Farmers are changing how their fathers farmed. Every no-till farmer had to fight their fathers about going no-till,” he said.
Hill said his father truly enjoys the experience of plowing in the spring, as do other area farmers. Hill understands this and knows how hard it is to change generational notions about how to prepare ground for planting.
“The method is not the issue,” he said. “It’s a mental barrier.”
“We keep living roots and living plants (in our fields) all year long. The soil is biologically alive and has a diverse ecological system. … The more biomass I can accumulate, the healthier my soils become,” Hill said, “The profit comes from soil health. … It’s really good for me and my future, and for whoever farms here in the future, whether it’s my kids or someone else.”
Farmers are dealing every day with the impacts of a changing climate, but they can also be on the solution side, using cutting-edge information about sequestering carbon to build their soil health, helping their own bottom lines and mitigating climate change for the good of the Earth at the same time.
“I feel we’re on the front lines, and it’s exciting,” Parker said.