Farmer Lance Unger describes the process of strip tillage, which disturbs the soil less than conventional tillage, in Carlisle, Indiana, on April 6, 2021. Unger is among many farmers using minimum tillage, cover cropping and other methods to improve yields while storing more carbon in the soil. “I want to make our farm better for the fourth generation,” he says. (AP Photo/John Flesher)
Cover crops show environmental value and are making farmers money between seasons thanks to carbon credits.
Farmers have long known the benefits of growing off-season crops to prevent erosion and to enrich soil, but experts say that covering farmland with crops year-round rather than letting it go bare in winter could reduce emissions and boost the agricultural economy.
The Biden administration is encouraging both government and private initiatives that encourage carbon-storing practices with a two-fold goal: as a strategy for fighting climate and as a way to boost the rural economy.
Shop These Father’s Day Gifts That Dad Really Wants (SPONSORED)
Rick Clifton, an Ohio farmer, works with Indigo Agriculture, which pays him and other businesses for storing carbon in soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Clifton grows cereal rye and rapeseed during the late fall and winter in his fields that, in the spring summer and much of the fall, grow corn, wheat and soybeans.
Clifton had been growing cover crops for several years to improve his cash crops when he signed a contract with Indigo Agriculture that could pay about $175,000 over five years for his farm’s carbon storage.
“If you can get something green on the ground year-round, you’re feeding the microbes in the soil and it’s a lot healthier,” Clifton told the Associated Press. “And if somebody wants to pay you to do that, it looks to me like you’re foolish not to do it.”
In addition to cover-cropping, Clifton and Lance Unger, who owns a farm in Carlisle, Indiana, use minimum tillage practices to improve yield and increase carbon storage, the AP reported. Reducing tilling leaves plant roots in the ground, which slows the release of carbon as they rot.
(MORE: Almond Farmers in California Tear Up Crops Amidst Drought)
Agriculture generates about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the major factor in accelerating climate change. But farming also has the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as plants use it during photosynthesis.
Farmlands could absorb 276 million tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide every year, offsetting 5% of U.S. carbon emissions, according to an estimation by the National Academy of Sciences.
While farmers like Clifton and Unger are working with private companies that aid them in obtaining carbon credits, legislators and farmers are floating ideas on how the government can help. The USDA could run a carbon bank where farmers could sell carbon credits to other companies that want to offset their own emissions, Montana Public Radio reported earlier this month.
Biden has ordered the Department of Agriculture to steer the way in making the U.S. farm industry the first to achieve net-zero emissions by making practices such as cover-cropping and no-till farming or reduced-tilling an industry standard.
Secretary Tom Vilsack has ramped up the Conservation Reserve Program and pledged larger payments for pulling crops in order to plant carbon-absorbing grasses, trees and wetlands.
Farmers oppose making these actions mandatory, the AP reported, and many supporters say that more financial incentives are needed for farmers to change the way they work.
But for Unger, a third-generation farmer, the biggest reward is healthier crops and bigger yields due to the nutrients packed into his soil from cover-cropping and gentle tilling. He also uses more efficient fertilizing to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.
“I want to make our farm better for the fourth generation,” Unger said.
The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.