A 'carbon bank' could mean extra cash for Midwest farmers

Betsy Jensen said she is pleased with the rye cover crop.
Cover crops planted to keep soil covered by growing plants is one way to increase carbon storage.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2019

A well-known Minnesota agribusiness hopes to turn climate change concern into cash for farmers.

Land O’Lakes, through its sustainability arm Truterra, last week launched a carbon exchange program in which companies that want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions can buy credits, and farmers get paid for increasing carbon storage in the soil.

Storing carbon in the soil can help offset the impact of climate change. Farmers can increase carbon storage by using farming practices that help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to soil organic matter.

Microsoft is the first company to buy carbon credits from Truterra through the new program. Farmers can earn $20 for each ton of carbon they add to the soil.

"They now can think about, like, a double crop, so they may have their main cash crop, but now they can also produce a carbon crop, and so it's really thinking about, through good stewardship and regenerative agriculture techniques, not just the main grain crop, but now also the future carbon crop,” said Truterra Vice President Jason Weller.

Farmers who join the initiative will need to adopt farming practices that improve soil health, and the resulting impact on soil carbon will be measured.

Carbon storage measurements will be established by the nonprofit Soil Health Institute.

“The science is clear,” said Wayne Honeycutt, CEO of the Soil Health Institute. “Storing more carbon in soils not only benefits a farmer’s bottom line, but also improves water quality and helps fight climate change.”

Previous attempts to create carbon markets have been slow to catch on, but the idea is expected to get a push from the Biden administration.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, incoming Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed increased focus and funding for “embracing sustainable and regenerative practices that enhance soil health; and delivering science-based solutions to help mitigate and reduce climate change.”

Land O’Lakes hopes to sign up hundreds of Midwestern farmers this year for its new initiative.

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