Five Dollars For a Ton of Carbon Stored in the Soil
Humans have released more carbon from the depths of the earth and released it into the atmosphere than any event or epoch in history. More carbon dioxide is in the air now than at any time in the past 4 million years. Most of the increase in carbon dioxide has come from the burning of fossil fuels. It’s been a good run and fossil fuels have served us well, but the binge needs to end. Our planet is getting warmer and weirder, mainly because of this unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Agricultural Carbon Capture Incentive
It’s time to move on to renewable energy. It’s also time to capture carbon from the air and put it back into the earth. Call it an agricultural carbon-capture incentive.
Soil Organic Matter (SOM)—it’s basically carbon stored in the tissues of plants and animals that reside in the soil. I propose that we pay or credit farmers five dollars a ton/acre for the carbon stored in the soil they manage.
Oceans are the largest carbon sink in the world. Soils are second, forests are third. U.S. farmland soil is capable of sequestering 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, offsetting 11 percent of America’s greenhouse gas, according to a report published by the Soil Science Society of America.
Soil and forests are the most practical and available carbon sinks. And it makes sense to motivate those with the most soil—farmers and foresters—to use plants to capture carbon from the air and store it.
A 1 Percent Increase in SOM Captures 8 Tons of Carbon
Agricultural soils, at least in Eastern North America, can store about 8 tons of carbon per acre (at a depth of 10 inches) for each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter. So if a farmer has a field of soil at 1 percent organic matter and increases that to 2 percent, he is storing 8 tons of carbon per acre. We could have a soil carbon payment program or a tax credit program that would then pay or credit the farmer $40 per acre. We would have less carbon in the atmosphere and more in the soil.
Plus, the more organic matter in the soil, the healthier it is. Healthier soils absorb more water, are more productive, and are less likely to erode. Therefore, healthier soils contribute to cleaner streams as well as cleaner air.
Soil laboratories commonly test for soil organic matter. The Virginia Tech soil lab charges $4 per sample to measure it. To keep everyone honest, a third party vendor could take the soil samples. We would sample as deep as the soil is managed. A corn field would be sampled 10 inches deep, pastures 4 to 6 inches, forests much deeper.
Five dollars a ton seems reasonable and so does the depth of sampling as a metric. We’d have to work out a lot of the details. The main thing is to get the conversation going.
Grow Plants, Reduce Tillage, Add Manure
Hows does one pump the soil full of carbon? It’s fairly simple. Grow a lot of plants and leave as much plant residue as possible. With corn, for example, you harvest the ear of corn but leave the stalk—there’s a lot of carbon in that. Second, reduce tillage. Tillage vaporizes carbon, so the less tillage the better. And third, add manure or compost—both full of carbon.
I have seen farmers increase the SOM in rundown soils by 1 to 2 percent in two to three years. By rundown soil, I mean soils that have less than 1 percent SOM. Those are the ones that have been cropped and tilled literally to death.
An agricultural carbon-capture program does not have to be complicated. Let the farmers know there is a robust incentive to increase soil organic matter, and I promise you, they will figure it out.
With a successful carbon-capture incentive program, we could eliminate some of the more complicated cost-share programs such as cover crop and no-till practices.
Good science, great idea, hopefully not too many deaf ears.
Great idea although the carbon stored in the soil is temporary and long term solutions should be talked about too, meaning long term ways of reduce fossil fuel use and ways of retaining carbon in the oceans, soil and forests. Our approach of restorative forestry using animal powered techniques has long been claimed to be carbon neutral or beneficial to collect and store more carbon, again temporarily. Paying incentives for good behavior can help. Thanks for thinking about the real world problems from down on the farm sir. Best Regards, Jason Rutledge, Ridgewind Farm Suffolks, Copper Hill, Virginia
Thanks, Jason. Good comments.
Bobby – if farmers would just support a national carbon tax with appropriate offset provisions that recognize soil storage, there would be no need for a government program – industrial, commercial, and agricultural emitters (yes, dairy farmers should also be taxed) would pay farmers to capture CO2 in order to reduce their taxes – probably much more than $5/ton, since the experts are saying the carbon tax should be at least $40/ton, which will probably grow over time.
Prices for fertilizer and pesticides will rise, along with diesel fuel. There’s some arithmetic to be done by farmers to figure out how they make out. But they can’t be worse off than where the climate is headed right now.
Sam, thanks for your input! Good comments.
Bobby, commenting and responses should check out. Let’s try a test here.
Hey Bill, How is the weather there in Michigan?
Blustery but beautiful. Email message received alerting me to your reply. All is well.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY OL’ BOY!
Bill, see if you get my reply.
Absolutely support this and hope we have the political willpower to make it happen. Just finished reading the book “THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: LIFE AFTER WARMING” by David Wallace-Wells — an absolute eye-opener. A must-read.
And then I had an epiphany.
Twenty years ago, I thought the most important thing I did on the farm was to create a livestock forage program that was as production efficient as could be. Then I realized that the few hundred pounds of lamb we squeeze out of each acre are the least of what this soil, sun and rainfall afford. We are certainly producing almost a ton of earthworms per acre. We are sequestering carbon, cleaning the stream, enhancing biodiversity and providing habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Probably, most importantly, I created a pretty view shed for my neighbors. This realization was my epiphany. It was my dope slap moment. These intangibles were more valuable the meat I was paid for.
These services I freely provide to my community. Your proposal would provide a fee for service. But, pardon me, five dollars a ton to sequester carbon is not enough for most farmers. It greatly underestimates the true value of this service. Most grain producers, I think, would not trade little more than a bushel of grain for a ton of carbon. Instead, I imagine government incentivizing a high value carbon trading market.
We just spent 28 billion dollars to offset the financial damage that the plundering of international trade did to our grain producers. If you accept the premise that that was good money spent or that there is a role for government in agriculture, then it is easy to see the value good conservation practices can do for our children’s future.
Are you we willing to pay for it?
Great comment, Leo. Yes, if we added up all the ecosystem services well-managed farmland and forests provide, those landowners should be receiving a tax credit, not be taxed.
Gr8 idea, Bobby!
The other half of it is a regulated and certified carbon credit market system such as Congress repeatedly refused to establish in the Obama years. Because it was part of the Obama energy policy.
The idea is a non-governmental clearing authority which inspects, verifies, and issues the credits which are then fungible and tradable in a carbon credit market. The Chicago Climate Exchange had plans to do it but abandoned them after the failure of the Congress to support a national system of carbon credits, even a voluntary one. It needs to be mandatory.
Composting is another way to build SOM and reduce methane release produced by liquid manure application. Composting would be a great on-farm carbon credit generator, a new income stream for farmers.
Thanks for your ideas on farm-based GHG reduction.
Thank you, Michael. Excellent comments.
Bobby, the science behind all in this conversation is solid and long established. All that is lacking is the will and legislation to get it done. I hope that the next few years will prompt enough bipartisan action to allow these solutions to become an important part of the CO2 draw down that must happen soon.
And Happy Birthday! Anne
Thank you, Anne!
I think an important consideration is the “resilience” that higher organic matter content soils provide. Given the extremes of our weather – resilience – will be a potential path to sustainability and a very important part of the future.
Well said, Jason. Thank you.
Animals have no role to play in carbon sequestration in soils. Animal waste on the ground pollutes the water supply. High plant diversity in the complete absence of herbicides, pesticides, and any other man made chemical inputs promotes soil health and carbon sequestration. Taking animals owned as property off the land will promote soil health as long as the chemicals are removed as well. It’s true that the oceans uptake CO2, but only to a certain point after which the uptake acidifies the water to a pH of around 7.6, killing the phytoplankton that form the basis of the food chain and produce 45 to 70% of the earth’s oxygen supply.
So while we are not helping soils because of the pressure of livestock on the land, we are faced with what to do with all that CO2 that the oceans reject. (There is a lot more to this story than space allows here. Sorry I can’t help construct the whole picture.).
Don, thanks for your comments. I’ll have to disagree on your point about animal agriculture. Animal agriculture, especially ruminants play a vital role in nutrient cycling and producing food and fertilizer. Steep slopes are a challenge and huge risk for annual crops causing soil erosion and water pollution. Steep slopes need to be in perennial plant cover. We can’t digest trees or pasture forage. Ruminants allow us to utilize steep slopes to produce food and fertilizer. There is a lot more to this story . . .
What are your thoughts on utilizing a practice such as silvipasture? In your opinion what would be the best (your) plan in slightly more detail than you previously discussed.
Jack, thanks for stopping in with your comment. Silvopasture is a growing trend in ruminant agriculture. It’s basically growing trees and forage for livestock in the same field. It’s great for livestock, not so good for the trees. However, the trees do sequester carbon, eventually provide timber dollars or nuts or fruit, and they provide shade for the livestock. As for my previous comment, animal agriculture has a very important role in the health of the planet if it’s managed right. We can’t overgraze or have livestock in the streams. Organic farming is hard to do without the fertilizer generated from livestock.
knowing that we can increase our carbon capture with just a few better management practices should encourage everybody to increase their SOM. We as humans should put in our part to creating a better environment. it was interesting to see that baling corn stalks takes carbon away from the soil. I wonder why these farmers to this practice when it is not necessary. Fossil fuel use has been a long part of americas history and is a reason why we are developed country, but the time for renewables is now.
Have a look at Gave Brown’s efforts in North Dakota – impressive and instructive.
Figure 2.8, page 46, in Solar Corridor Crop System: Implementation and Impacts (2019)
published by Elsevier Academic Press illustrates the most effective system, I’m familiar with, to maximize the biosynthesis of atmospheric sourced CO2 from the current carbon cycle at 40 to 41° latitude. It essentially says develop your crop system to begin photosynthesis and subsequently maximize it as early as possible and continue substantial photosynthate production as long as possible. It places carbon deep into the soil rhizosphere in addition to the carbonaceous residue left on or near the soil surface while sustaining a living crop ground cover every day of the year. Complimentary cultivar selections directed to achieve above may vary according to the site specific production environment. As an interdisciplinary corn production agronomist, I chose corn as the main crop in this illustration. Other crops that I’m not familiar with, may do as well.
After meeting human caloric needs, process the balance of the harvested calories into bio butanol, biodiesel, bio ethanol and biogas to replace fossil sourced* carbon additions to the atmosphere.
* from the carbon in the carbon cycle that cycled when dinosaurs roamed earth
During a time of climate change, if we equalize the caloric value of humus and that of white refined sugar then the $5.00 per ton price you propose to put on carbon sequestration shorts the farmer or land manager of approximately $448 a ton of its actual human cultural capital value and presumes the fairly rapid collapse of the free market and the demise of human culture. $5 a ton is 1/90th or less of its true value to the commons.