Ground-truthing the carbon market
Adam Jones, left, MFA conservation specialist, and student workers Matt Orlowski, center, and Addie Thessen take carbon soil samples on the farm of Justin Salyer near Higginsville, Mo. The service was part of MFA’s pilot carbon program conducted over the past two years in partnership with the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium and Missouri Corn and Soybean Merchandising Councils. Although that pilot ends in December, MFA is introducing two new opportunities for farmers to participate in the emerging voluntary carbon marketplace.
Measuring soil organic carbon requires a larger sample than a regular soil probe can produce. Instead, the samples taken for MFA’s carbon pilot program were foot-long, 2-inch diameter cores.
Jones and Thessen take carbon cores at one of the sites on the Salyer farm. These samples provide baseline information for participation in a carbon credit program. Typically, Jones said, most programs will require samples again at five years and then 10 years to see long-term effects of carbon-friendly farming practices.
Jon Hemme, who farms with his family in Sweet Springs, Mo., plants cover crops behind soybeans—a practice that allowed him to enroll in MFA’s first carbon pilot two years ago. To be eligible to earn payments from carbon credits, farmers must introduce a qualifying practice change, which can include no-till, cover crops and nitrogen management.
MFA completes one pilot, starts new collaborations to explore opportunities in ecosystem credits
As 2022 draws to a close, so does MFA’s initial two-year pilot program for carbon and water-quality markets.
Launched in late 2020, the pilot was MFA’s first experience in the rapidly changing carbon marketplace, generating certified ecosystem credits from eligible conservation farming practices. Nearly 9,000 acres of corn and soybeans from more than a dozen growers were enrolled in the exploratory program, conducted in partnership with the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), a nonprofit member-based organization.
“In this pilot, we learned a lot about the system as a whole, and we had an opportunity to meet with some of the companies that are purchasing these credits,” said Adam Jones, MFA conservation specialist. “It was very beneficial just to get our heads wrapped around this market, because it’s such an evolving space. Going forward, however, this particular partnership wasn’t going to be sustainable long-term, so we are moving on to something different.”
To further explore opportunities in carbon farming, MFA recently signed a one-year agreement with Indigo Agriculture, a Boston-based technology company founded in 2013 with a focus on microbial seed treatment products. Indigo Carbon was introduced three years ago and, counting MFA, now has collaborations with 16 agribusinesses to help farmers navigate the complex soil carbon market. Worldwide, Indigo has the largest carbon farming program by acres enrolled.
MFA is also working on finalizing a second pilot with Agoro Carbon Alliance, which would offer additional ways to monetize certain conservation practices, including those implemented on range and pasture acres. Agoro, backed by the fertilizer company, Yara International, was launched in 2021 and distributed more than $9 million in payments to U.S. farmers and ranchers in its first year.
Jones said MFA will participate in both programs on a trial basis without a long-term commitment.
“As grower-focused partners, we feel like MFA has a role to play in these markets, but it’s a matter of figuring out which company offers the best support and, honestly, who is able to market the credits for maximum dollars to participants,” he said. “To a certain extent, we’re trying to ground-truth some of these programs and see how they work. The more we learn, the better we can help interested farmers understand the system and give them peace of mind.”
MFA customers who participated in the ESMC pilot will be able to roll their acres into the new programs, Jones said. Eligibility will extend to any qualifying producer in MFA’s trade territory, he added, and includes more than just corn and soybeans. Just as before, growers must have introduced a practice change, such as planting cover crops, managing nitrogen more efficiently or moving away from conventional tillage, to participate. For forage producers, practice changes also include nutrient efficiency along with adding rotational grazing or biodiversity to pastures.
The Hemme family, who raise row crops and operate a dairy in Sweet Springs, Mo., qualified for MFA’s initial carbon pilot by introducing cover crops behind soybeans. They have participated in the program for the past two years, enrolling 300 acres of the 2,000 that they farm.
“We’ve been doing a lot of these practices on a fair amount of our acres anyway, and when I heard about this program, I liked the idea,” said Jon Hemme, who oversees the agronomic side of the farm. “Planting cover crops takes a higher level of management, and there really is no financial incentive other than being a good steward of the land. Yes, you are building soil health for the future, but it’s nice to get a payment for that extra management.”
While he’s still unsure about the value of carbon farming in the long run, Hemme said he has no doubt that the climate-friendly practices it promotes can make a difference in soil health. He’s seen it firsthand.
“We have a farm where we’ve been devoutly using cover crops for seven years, and we’ve raised organic matter 2% in that time,” Hemme said. “That farm is way more productive now than it was seven years ago. So, I know there’s merit to it. The question is, will the carbon markets evolve to truly incentivize more farmers to do these things?”
While Jones said carbon credit payments from the first pilot with ESMC were not as competitive as he would have liked, the newly formed partnerships with Indigo and Agoro could be more promising. Indigo recently announced that farmers earned $30 per verified credit produced and sold in the 2020 and 2021 crop years.
“Right now, I’d say the potential for carbon payments is a benefit for people who are already considering practice changes. I don’t think we’re there yet as far as monetarily incentivizing people to go that direction,” Jones said. “But if you’ve got somebody who’s looking at these things anyway, then using carbon credits to essentially recoup costs makes sense. You can plant cover crops for $30 an acre. You cover your costs and then get all the other benefits—improving soil health, controlling weeds, reducing erosion and more.”
In the initial pilot through ESMC, baseline soil-sampling services were provided by MFA with lab fees covered by Missouri Corn and Soybean Merchandising Councils. Going forward, the new pilot partners will conduct the sampling, and MFA will assist with data collection and provide guidance to growers throughout the process, Jones said.
“We are planning to have a core crew of MFA personnel in the field in each of our districts who will be experts on whatever platforms we’re marketing,” he said. “One of the main things we learned in this first pilot was that the data load is significant. It’s very important to keep good records and know field history and that type of thing. If not, there’s a lot of tracking down information, which can be exhaustively time consuming.”
Because these programs are still in their infancy, Jones said it will take years to gauge a true measurement of carbon sequestration. That’s why carbon contracts are typically generated on five- and 10-year increments, he explained. Payments in the first few years are based on computer models that take into account factors such as soil type, geography, practices and baseline sample results.
“You input all that information, and the model creates a curve that predicts how much carbon you will sequester through the years,” Jones said. “Then you start climbing the curve, and payments are based on what the model thinks you should be sequestering. You’re not going to see major differences in soil carbon after one or two years. In most protocols, sampling occurs year one, year five and year 10—in other words, where you start, where you are at midpoint and then where you are at that 10-year mark.”
Regardless of the platform MFA or its customers choose, all indications are that the carbon-credit system is poised to grow. The value of the voluntary carbon market has more than quadrupled since 2020, reaching almost $2 billion in 2021. Demand is coming from companies that have increased pressure to decarbonize their operations and achieve emission reduction goals. Whereas ESMC was marketing mainly to food companies looking to offset the carbon footprint of their supply chain—General Mills purchased the program’s 2020 credits—Indigo and Agoro market to a wide variety of customers, Jones explained.
“This is not going away anytime soon. There’s too much demand out there and not enough supply,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, companies are being held accountable for climate impacts, and they need a story to tell about what they’re doing to offset those impacts. It’s just how everybody does business these days.”
That being the case, Hemme said he believes agriculture can play an important role in the carbon market while improving farming operations in the process.
“If a company has made promises to reduce carbon, and a farmer can deliver them a solution and get paid for his practices, I think it’s a great deal,” Hemme said. “At the same time, we didn’t get into this to sell carbon credits. We are trying make our soils more productive over time. That’s the real benefit. And if you can sell a carbon credit, I look at it as icing on the cake.”
Confused about Carbon?
If you’re unsure about how the carbon marketplace works, you’re not alone. Even MFA is still in the exploratory phase when it comes to offering customers opportunities for capitalizing on carbon credit incentives.
Admittedly, the process can seem incredibly complex, but it boils down to supply and demand, said Adam Jones, MFA conservation specialist. With new greenhouse gas emissions regulations and growing consumer pressure surrounding climate change, industrial manufacturers need to purchase carbon credits to stay in line with certain environmental standards and meet company goals. Farmers can create these credits for companies to buy.
You may ask, “Buy where?” The simple answer is the voluntary carbon marketplace, which has turned carbon dioxide emissions into a commodity that can be priced and traded. Carbon credits are issued by national or international governmental organizations based on emissions targets. These “carbon registries” certify the credits that are generated and keep track of how many are available to trade in the marketplace. Each credit is assigned a serial number, and that information is publicly available through a ledger. When a purchaser buys a credit to offset emissions, the registry will retire that credit on the ledger to make sure no one else can buy it again.
In agriculture, the process works like this.
· Farmers adopt sustainable practices known to capture more carbon in the soil.
· The impact of those practices is quantified and calculated into carbon credits.
· The data is verified and submitted to a carbon registry, which makes the credits available for trade.
· A corporate buyer purchases the credits on the voluntary carbon marketplace.
· Farmers are paid for the value of the credits they produced.
At least, that’s how the system works today. As with any emerging market—especially one largely based on government regulations—the processes and protocols are continually evolving. Helping to clarify the complexities is a main reason MFA has entered this space, Jones said.
“We know farmers have lots of questions about carbon markets. So does MFA,” he said. “There’s a pretty big learning curve to understand all the differences in the marketplace and the companies that issue and pay for credits. That’s why we continue to explore different partnerships, to answer some of those questions and help our customers tap into the full benefits of the stored carbon on their farms.”
Biodiversity credit program returns for second year
Carbon sequestration isn’t the only way farmers can be compensated for their stewardship practices. Corn and soybean producers once again have an opportunity to participate in a biodiversity credit program, offered by MFA Incorporated in collaboration with other agricultural and conservation entities.
Producers working to create or enhance pollinator habitat within existing or new field borders, buffers, waterways or other non-productive agricultural grounds are eligible for this pilot program, now in its second and final year.
Along with MFA, other partners in the pilot are the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council (MSMC), Missouri Corn Merchandising Council, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), MFA Incorporated, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever and the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC).
The pilot offers farmers an opportunity to earn biodiversity credits along with agricultural carbon and water-quality credits. Once credits are quantified and verified, ESMC makes the credits available for purchase to interested buyers.
“Creating healthy habitat for pollinators benefits people, crop production, soils, water and wildlife,” said Jason Jensen, MDC community private lands field chief. “By working with like-minded partners and producers, we all achieve the goal of profitable farming through sustainable conservation practices. The biodiversity pilot allows producers to increase conservation practices on their working lands with relatively little investment or risk.”
Because this is the last year of the biodiversity pilot, only one year of commitment is needed. Incentive payments will be offered to interested farmers to offset initial costs and keep this a low-risk opportunity.
For more information, visit https://mosoy.org/about-soybeans/environment/environmental-programs/.
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