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Ohio farmers have a growing interest in (and some questions about) carbon markets

A combine at a fallow field in Greene County.
Alejandro Figueroa
A combine at a fallow field in Greene County.

The idea is to farm in a way that captures carbon dioxide in the soil, which is called carbon sequestration. Farmers can sequester carbon by planting native plants and restoring prairies, or planting a mix of cover crops like clover, buckwheat, milkweed and radishes in their fields—those plants have deep roots that naturally store carbon from the atmosphere in the soil.

Now, that carbon in soil is rapidly turning into a new crop commodity to be sold.

Christine Gelley, an OSU extension educator from Noble County, gave a talk at the Farm Science Review to cattle farmers about how they can sequester carbon by planting native plants in their pastures.

“[Ohio native plants] have huge benefits to the soil as well as other parts of the ecosystem,” She said. “Over time and over many acres, that can be a huge carbon sink that could potentially come back to farmers as additional revenue and also increase the production of their farm.”

Here's how the additional revenue works: stored carbon in the soil can be sold as a credit to a manufacturer. So if a manufacturer's factory releases tons of CO2 into the atmosphere they can offset it by buying an equivalent credit for carbon stored in farm soil. That makes the manufacturer considered to be carbon neutral. The credits are sold through what's known as carbon markets — mostly private ones like Indigo Ag or Bayer Crop Sciences.

Some environmental advocacy groups criticize carbon markets saying they don't actually minimize the carbon that is being emitted by manufacturers.

Mike Estadt, an OSU extension educator, said the idea of carbon offsets isn’t new, but it's getting more attention as the effects of climate change become more prevalent.

“We know that if we somehow can take and sequester the carbon in the soil instead of letting it be remitted back into the atmosphere, that is a step towards halting the acceleration of greenhouse gas accumulation.” He said.

Estadt said that the process of opting in to carbon markets can be confusing for farmers

First, they have figure out the contracts to enroll their land to sell carbon credits and what they will get paid. Also, according to Estadt, there’s not always a lot of transparency on how these expanding carbon markets work,.

Additionally, sequestering carbon can require the farmer to significantly change how they farm—such as not disturbing the soil so that carbon within is not released.

Estadt said there's one more issue.

“Companies use sophisticated algorithms in order to estimate the amount of carbon that is being sequestered in the farmers' land. That's where the messiness comes in because not all of these companies out here are using the same model,” Estadt said. "There's no standardization right now.”

That means different companies could pay farmers different amounts per acre—anywhere from $6 to $25.

Estadt said that a standard to measure how much carbon is stored and fair and transparent payments for farmers are needed to get more people on board. But, despite some of the drawbacks, he thinks carbon markets are a step in the right direction.

“Anyone who has a concern for our climate should look at agriculture as one of the ways that we can help solve the problem,” Estadt said. “It’s not the silver bullet. Even if we adopt all these practices, I don't think we're going to solve climate change just in the ag community. But we can't afford to do nothing.”

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.

Copyright 2022 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Alejandro Figueroa