Many years ago, no-tillers saw a glimmer of hope for making extra money on their conservation efforts when a national carbon-trading exchange was operating through the Chicago Climate Exchange. Inactivity in the U.S. carbon markets killed those hopes and CCE was shuttered.

But last March, a coalition of environmental organizations and food companies — the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium — announced efforts to build a market that would pay farmers for carbon sequestration and cleaner water. The program would give farmers credits for their efforts to sequester carbon or protect water quality, and then companies could buy those credits to reach their own sustainability goals. They plan to build the market by 2022.

Ag media are reporting this week that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is open to the concept, and an upcoming agriculture appropriations bill will likely include language urging the USDA to research the possibility of such markets. A central theme here is sequestering carbon through no-tilling and planting cover crops to help reduce the effects of climate change, for which agriculture is 10% responsible, Fern’s Ag Insider claims.

One wicked problem here is agreeing on how soil carbon should be measured so farmers can be compensated. Fern’s says Perdue feels the USDA should be the organizational body to set the metrics for such a program.

ESMC says it will, “drive the coordinated development of advanced analytical tools and technologies to cost-effectively measure and monitor changes in sustainability outcomes and contribute income to farmers and ranchers through insetting and offsetting supply-chain strategies and the sale of ecosystem services credits.”

ESMC says its “science- and standards-based focus on measured outcomes will provide the necessary transparency and rigor to track improvements in soil health and GHG, water quality and water use, as well as additional attributes to be added in the future, such as biodiversity.”

ESMC is conducting a pilot test of its integrated ecosystem credit protocol on 50,000 acres of rangeland and farmland in Texas and Oklahoma. This initial test is part of a land-stewardship pilot focused on development of cause-and-effect assessment from production management practices, led by Noble Research Institute.

ESMC says its future plans include additional pilots and later implementation across the U.S. in 2019 and later. “By 2022, the program intends to encompass all major agricultural production systems and geographies in the U.S.”

While there are many incentives and grants available to help farmers adopt conservation practices, private and public efforts to reward farmers for these practices have been disappointing at times. Just recently, U.S. lawmakers found a way to kill well-reasoned discounts on crop insurance premiums proposed in the Farm Bill for growers using conservation practices.

It will be interesting to see the science behind how this group measures carbon sequestration, as it’s not an exact science in agriculture like it might be with point sources. The Consortium answers some questions about its goals here.

With the involvement of the private sector and growing momentum of conservation practices in the U.S. — including nearly 50% growth in cover crop acres between 2012 to 2017 — perhaps this effort to reward farmers stands a better chance of succeeding