Diane Becker, "Country Life"

Farmers may have a new crop — carbon. A Michigan senator has made the establishment of a federal agricultural carbon market a priority for 2021. Sounds odd — a crop that is intangible — but it’s getting a lot of interest.

It all starts with carbon credits. Carbon emissions are responsible for 80% of the greenhouse effect so the more carbon in the air, the worse it is for the planet. The thing is, we have carbon emissions anytime we burn something, so our cars burn fuel and they produce carbon monoxide. Anything that burns produces carbon monoxide, and we’ve got a lot of manufacturers who are being told to reduce their carbon emissions. We still need to drive, companies still need to make products and our country still needs to make electricity (from coal) so that is a bit of a problem.

One company has designed a sophisticated plant that can take the carbon out of the air but there’s other, simpler solutions.

One of them is the planting of trees, which take out tons of carbon out of the air. A manufacturing plant that is directed to only produce so much carbon which might be a problem for its productivity becomes more “carbon neutral” by planting trees or doing some other environmental practice that takes the carbon out of the air. It takes a lot of trees, though.

This is where farmers come in. Soil stores carbon; almost 75% of the carbon found on land. When farmers use conservation tillage by minimally disturbing the soil when they plant and grow crops, they sequester the carbon. So, according to the Michigan Senator, farmers should be able to gain carbon credits and market them.

This is where the carbon crop comes in. The better conservation practices they use by using no till or minimum tillage and cover crops, the more credits they get. In order for some companies to get to the carbon neutral status, they could purchase carbon credits from farmers. It’s already happening in some areas with one farmer in Maryland being paid $10 per acre for his land by a company just by proving he is practicing conservation on his land. It may not be much but as more companies see the benefits of buying these credits, the price may go up.

There are a lot of things that have to happen first, like more efficient soil testing and a reliable greenhouse gas accounting system that works with companies and farmers alike.

Still, many farmers already use low and no tillage practices so carbon could become a future crop. We’ll see.

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