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Cash for carbon credits

Robert Fears for Progressive Forage Published on 02 April 2021
Kelly Garrett receives check

Kelly Garrett, in western Iowa, is the first producer in the U.S. to market carbon credits for a large payment. The credits were determined by the amount of carbon stored in soil on his farm.

Kelly is the fifth generation to manage the 6,300-acre farming and cow-calf enterprise. He was preceded by his parents, Gene and Cathy Garrett, who are still involved in the operation. The sixth generation is Kelly and Amber’s three sons – Connor, Colin and Cael – who plan to return to the farm.

An effective method of storing soil carbon and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, is with green plants growing in healthy soils. Plants use CO2 from the atmosphere, water in soil, and sunlight to manufacture carbohydrates (sugars) through photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, oxygen from CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. The sugars, which contain carbon, are used by plants for growth and energy while a portion is exuded through roots to feed soil microbes. Throughout their life cycle, these microbes form soil organic carbon. When the ground is not disturbed, most of the carbon remains stored in the soil.

“Conventional tillage exposes soil carbon to the atmosphere, allowing it to combine with oxygen to form CO2. Because of this action, I switched to no-till farming many years ago,” says Garrett. “Since we intend to keep the farm in the family for future generations, sustainability is our key goal.”

Soybean seedlings emerge through shredded corn stubble

Soil carbon retention is a sustainable practice because carbon promotes aggregation of soil particles, enhances soil water retention, and increases microbial activity and nutrient cycling, resulting in improved soil health and productivity. No-till farming allows the ground to remain covered with vegetation throughout the entire year. In addition to improving soil productivity, continual vegetative cover helps prevent wind and water erosion.

Garrett Land and Cattle raises corn, soybeans and a small amount of spring wheat. After harvesting summer crops, winter wheat and rye are seeded into the plant stubble. The 400-head cow herd are grazed on pasture during spring and summer and on crop stubble during fall and winter. Cattle improve soil fertility by grinding plant residue into the soil with their hooves and adding nitrogen through their manure and urine. The incorporated plant material adds organic matter to the soil.

Processes for determining carbon credits

Validation and sale of carbon credits is a multistep process that begins with an assessment of conservation practices used on the farm. Technical help in making this assessment is available through the NRCS, various organizations and private consultants. Garrett enrolled in the CarbonNOW program, which was developed by Locus Agricultural Solutions (Locus Ag).

Through the program, Locus Ag field representatives work with growers to evaluate their conservation practices, determine if practices can be improved and suggest possible new ways of increasing carbon storage. Each suggested management change is evaluated as to whether enough additional carbon credits will be generated to pay for implementation and management costs. One of the main reasons farmers choose the CarbonNOW program is for the added benefits of their probiotic technology, which accelerates carbon sequestration by two to three tons per acre. The additional carbon increases crop yields and reduces the number of required inputs.

“After Locus Ag helped me maximize my carbon-credit value, Aster Global was contacted to verify my farming practices,” says Garrett. Aster Global, certified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), examined his farming records and then issued a verification certificate. Information from the Farm Service Agency and crop insurance records, plus farm photographs, were used to document the practices.

Locus Ag staff then put Garrett in contact with a carbon credit marketplace. Currently, Locus Ag works with two: Nori and Bluesource. These two marketplaces determine the amount of available carbon credits on a farm and then locate buyers. One credit is given for each metric ton of CO2 equivalent.

“Nori and Bluesource each use a different method to determine [the] amount of soil organic carbon storage,” says Grant Aldridge, CEO of Locus Ag. “Nori Croplands Methodology utilizes the COMET-Farm tool model to calculate the amount of sequestered carbon. Bluesource uses the Climate Action Reserve’s Soil Enrichment Protocol methodology, which physically measures soil carbon via certified lab protocols.”

The COMET-Farm model was developed through a partnership between USDA-NRCS and Colorado State University and is based on many years of field-collected data. It contains several modules, such as croplands, livestock and forestry. For cropland, growers describe and document the number of acres and years land has received one or more of the conservation practice standards listed below.

  • Conservation crop rotation
  • Residue and tillage management
  • Cover crop
  • Combustion system improvement
  • Mulching
  • Strip cropping
  • Nutrient management
  • Multiple conservation practices

The submitted information is integrated by the model with site-specific climate and soil data to estimate the amount of carbon sequestration.

Carbon credit sales

Garrett worked with Nori to quantify and sell his carbon credits. Nori compensates farmers for carbon removed as far back as five years. Garett’s total credits accumulated from 2015 through 2019 were 22,745 metric tons at a value of $341,175. Fifteen thousand of these credits were purchased by Shopify Inc.

Shopify is a Canadian global e-commerce company that provides platforms and support for online stores and other computer-based businesses. They have established a sustainability fund with a commitment to invest a minimum of $5 million annually into promising impactful technologies and projects that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Money from this fund was used to purchase carbon credits from Garrett.

“After the Shopify purchase, plus smaller sales, I have 13,729 carbon credits available for sale and will continue to accumulate additional credits annually as a result of my sustainable farming practices that facilitate additional soil carbon storage. The amount of carbon storage each year is tied to crop yields,” says Garrett. “Yields are mostly governed by the amount of plant growth, which determines the amount of sequestered carbon. I intend to sell carbon credits about every three years. These sales will help recover some of my costs of increasing soil carbon storage.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: A carbon credit check-receiving ceremony features Shane Head, Locus Ag’s vice president of environmental platforms, and Kelly Garrett, western Iowa farmer.

PHOTO 2: Soybean seedlings emerge through shredded corn stubble. Photos provided by Kelly Garrett.

Robert Fears is a freelance writer based in Georgetown, Texas.