Big Hill, Texas. I’m up here at the farm watching happy cows eating good grass still working at the end of the summer, life is good. But back in the big city, my friends at the university are all concerned about carbon, and now they have discovered that farming can trap and hold a lot of carbon in the soil—resolving the greenhouse gas problem by offsetting the carbon excess headed to the atmosphere. They’ve chosen grazing land, since that may involve fewer carbon-rich inputs, and focused on one form of controlled grazing, adaptive multi-paddock, in order to increase grazing efficiency and accomplish this additional carbon trapping. Of course, farmers have been doing good grazing since the beginning and some form of rotation has always been a valuable part of farming, but only a part—there’s a lot more to farming, and deep down these professors know this, we just have to help them along and that’s the reason for this writing. Soil carbon sequestration, as they call it, is another way to look at the idea that good farming builds good soil, carbon is what farmers do. But before you chuckle at another “ivory tower” plan and move on to the next Grassfarmer article, read on and think about how you can help with this carbon concept; it won’t cost you and you might find some things that could form a new part of your farming down the line.
CARBON IS HERE
Regardless of how you feel about greenhouse gases, fossil fuels, climate change and all the related issues and controversies, some kind of reduction of carbon otherwise destined for the atmosphere is a reality that is not going away. For examples: President Trump’s economic advisor Cohn talks about a carbon tax, Europe has carbon reduction requirements and a market that pays for carbon sequestration, California has passed greenhouse gas cap and trade legislation, former Texas Governor Perry’s Department of Energy recently announced grants for carbon sequestration research, while back here in Texas, a market for carbon held in the coastal prairie soils as a means to sustain our fragile coast, is in its opening stages. The element carbon is the common denominator, the distillation of years of discussion, and fortunately for farmers, something we know about. So, the idea here is to start you thinking about the positive parts of this carbon in the soil concept as it relates to your own farming enterprise.
SOIL CARBON—AND WHERE YOU COME IN
What is the soil carbon value added concept? Good farming traps carbon, not so good farming depletes it, and a good farm’s soil that’s accumulated a lot of carbon over time will have a market value. The basic idea is that soil sampling over a candidate farm from a few inches to a shallow depth will establish the volume of existing carbon; and a second sampling, say 5 years later, will measure the amount of carbon added, or sequestered to use the fancy term, and that amount of carbon will have a dollar value paid by someone like an airline that sends a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and needs to offset that negative. Let’s face the bad news first, Grassfarmer readers may be saying (I sure did), “Wait a minute, I have worked a long time to build up my soil and it’s already chock full of carbon. It looks like I won’t be rewarded for my good work, but someone who comes in and adds new carbon to a farm they’ve beat up will reap the benefits.” That’s absolutely right, my friends at the university call it “additionality”, and it sounds like the Prodigal Son one more time, doesn’t seem fair. Additionality is an apparent contradiction in any of the concepts and markets designed to bring about a desired environmental end—you pretty much need to have something ruined to start with and then build it up to be rewarded, and long term environmental stewardship is not. This is a market thing and that’s the way it works, we don’t get paid for having a good cow herd, we get paid for sending a calf to market, and get paid more for a good calf, additionality. Should we be skeptical, you bet, and one important point of this article is to be interested, but be wary and spend little money. And let’s face another worry, there will be folks who are concerned about outsiders (including the government) gathering data on their farms—that concern should be respected. The important thing is that good farmers have the experience and skill necessary to make soil carbon projects a practical reality.
YOUR OWN STORY—EACH FARM IS UNIQUE
There is a big gap between carbon as studied in the university laboratory and discussed at academic conferences—and making soil carbon work on the farm. There is also a big gap between the concept of creating soil carbon markets and creating solid projects to sell, projects that will stand the test of time. Local knowledgeable farmers will be absolutely necessary. Academic folks, though they may mean well, often have a great deal of difficulty communicating with people. As soil carbon projects develop, these professors will soon realize that they need farmers—they’ll realize there aren’t many situations where there are more variables, and more outcomes that are difficult to predict, than farming. That’s where you come in—no one knows more about good farming that can result in improved soil carbon than you, even if you’ve been doing what’s talked about in the pages of the Grassfarmer for only a short time, you know more than the new researcher on the block or the farmer who has wrecked his soil in the first place—so you are the local expert. First step, what’s your story? Write it down, or outline it, or just start a folder. Add some pictures, or even just think about what you have done that has improved the soil—and remember, things that haven’t worked are important, too. Have you done soil samples and has that sampling involved organic matter measurements? Put them on a map and add them to the folder. Soil organic matter is a measurement commonly available through the local NRCS, but any measurement and observation is meaningful. Are there places on your farm where you are planning to improve things—pasturing, legumes, manure spreading…., do a before soil analysis, not a big production, just select a representative sampling site and think of other ways to document what you’ve done, like annual photos and a comparison site. Then, tell people about it, stop in at the NRCS, tell the county agent, talk about it at farm meetings; farmers learn most from seeing what works for others; demonstration plots, field days, stories at the coffee shop—soil carbon is only a slight variation on what is simply good farming practice, just a different way to look at it. And, be aware of what is happening with carbon elsewhere, like in the pages of the Grassfarmer. At this point, you will have spent very little and done some documentation that never hurts anyway.
A CREDIBLE SOIL CARBON PROJECT—YOUR ROLE
How could you add being a local carbon go-to guy to what you do as a farmer? This is another place where the gap between the university and farm presents many opportunities. You have a history, you have been there, you know the local dirt, the professors don’t. This writing is not about what some large agribusiness could do, it’s you—you have value and you should be rewarded for it—maybe just by being the example and talking about it, more appropriately, you should be paid for your effort and those involved in this carbon idea are used to paying for the information, call it consulting. Here’s a partial list:
Get these markets off the ground--
It’s one thing to talk about soil carbon storage and quite another to get a market going. There have to be buyers and sellers and a lot of people in between, they all have to see that it will work. It’s difficult for academic folks to talk to farmers; I know, I’m both. Are you the one who can learn about carbon and talk about it in your region? Do you have the experience, credibility, and gift to work with people? Can you analyze a carbon plan and tell folks on both sides what needs to be done to make it work—not that it simply can’t be done?
Directed thought required--
There is a lot more to farming than taking some samples, putting up a few cross-fences and turning in the cows. In my case, I have a lot of contiguous land, lots of woods, good grass and grass I wish was better, outer pastures in good shape but high traffic pastures that aren’t, cows I like a lot so I won’t sell when the weather turns dry: lots of variables that control my decisions, so carbon addition in my case is secondary. You, however, might be able to manage all these variables that I don’t and many more, and people need to know how that can be done—your local area!
A lot of bookwork needed--
The nitty gritty about this carbon concept is measurement, recordkeeping and all the documentation required to show that the carbon paid for is the carbon the market gets! If something is sold to someone far away, there has to be a way for those who invest to know that what is being sold is what is claimed. We farmers characteristically aren’t really all that good at those things, but there are people in our communities who are, do you know them, can you talk to them? Then out in the field, I hear of carbon sampling plans that would make a Nobel Prize winner sweat—star patterns, depth exponentiation, laboratory protocol; farmers don’t do that, but you could talk to these academic folks and come up with good and defensible sampling and credible ways to determine the carbon in a volume of farmland. There will be a need for local people to be involved in not only the beginning set of measurements and documentation, but in ongoing audits of carbon accumulation. A lot of people who do soil sampling and testing work are in the cities, a good example is all the contamination from leaking commercial facilities; this has been a significant source of employment for people doing histories, measurements, then subsequent measurements—they are in the cities, you are on the farm where the new measurements need to be done.
CARBON MANAGEMENT FOR THE LONG TERM
There will be a need for demonstration plots, pilot projects, grass and livestock managers, and all the things that go into making a new addition to farming systems work. I’m way too old to get involved in the business end of soil carbon, but I’m sure interested and talk to my university friends about it every chance I get. My own experience with measuring carbon illustrates the potential for good management. I have taken samples over the past couple of years across our farm. There is carbon there, quite a bit of it—partly because we’re on the blackland belt of Texas, and partly because this land has had some time after cotton to go back to grass; I’ve done a few things that help, but mostly the help is not taxing the natural system.
Are there different grasses, warm and cool season, legumes, rotation procedures, stocking rates, stocking periods, and other things to do in your area that build carbon in the profile volume over an extended time? And, can you do it so it adds to your good farming and you don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog?
And here’s one more problem that could become an opportunity for a grassfarmer: there have been studies about soil carbon accumulation evaluating the effect of different crops and different procedures—like the addition of chemical fertilizers. There may be immediate success with these fertilizers, but if the goal of carbon storage is to reduce the overall release of carbon to the atmosphere, then carbon inputs to this storage may be part of the equation. Can you improve the carbon soil profile over a long term while recognizing the nature of the inputs and managing them as well?
POSSIBLE PROJECT—LARGE TRACT, POOR LAND, YOU FIX IT
Think of the ideal project as if money were no object, how about that big tract of land a few miles out of town that foolish investors once put together, milked for all the subsidized crops it could produce, and now have left to invading trash trees and erosion. Nobody around can afford to buy it, or even wants it in any form; but a new group of carbon investors could come in, with your help, and make it a viable large farm enterprise because carbon income will make it so. The best early candidates for carbon value added will be exhausted land with little initial carbon, but land with the potential for restoration, not one where soil building was never meant to be, again, your call. A big place is a reasonable start because economy of scale will control the early choices in soil carbon projects—there will be a lot of people and equipment involved, testing and comparing various documentation plans; and after a project’s beginning base has been established, grazing control, test plots and other plans will benefit from having large tracts—when things get rolling, local folks can do these things at any scale. Look at the ingredients for this ideal starting project: we all know of land that has been let go, worn out in one way or another, fences gone, full of trash trees, no water, eroded…..nobody wants it, and in many cases nobody should. But maybe an investor who knows absolutely nothing about farming and especially nothing about farming in your region, does know about investing, and a carbon additionality farming package, if done correctly, will be a good investment. Now, depending on a lot of things including your temperament, you have a huge contribution to make: can this beat up place, with some upfront input, be a reasonable investment, and you can be the one to manage the project, and perhaps make it part of your farming operation so everybody wins? This journal is filled with stories about farmers new and old, young and very old, taking something nobody wanted and making it valuable, carbon is just one more possibility. And in the end, it may happen that an investor sees that farming is not such a painful thing and want to become more involved in the community than simply reading reports and collecting the income for soil carbon. This will open up additional opportunity, but that’s a story for another day.
Carbon concerns and ways to keep too much of it out of the atmosphere are a reality, and that reality leads to a market approach to carbon reduction. Carbon management as policy is real and this management represents opportunity for farmers at many levels. At this early stage, your knowledge of your own soil and how you have improved that soil is invaluable, you are the local expert. In addition to simply being involved in soil carbon, there are opportunities for new small businesses like sampling and evaluation, ongoing documentation, and overall carbon project management. Grassfarmers will be a necessary part of any plan—you’ve got the dirt and you’ve got the skills to add carbon to it in a good way
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