Pay farmers to reduce carbon footprint

Fourth generation rancher Loren Poncia has made Stemple Creek Ranch carbon positive. He has implemented rotating cattle grazing systems that allow soil and grass to recover, applied compost to pastures, and planted chicory that aerates the soil.

Courtesy of Paige Green

President Joe Biden has called on American farmers to lead the way in offsetting greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, a goal fourth-generation rancher Loren Poncia set out to achieve more than a decade ago.

Despite working in the beef industry, a major contributor to global warming, Poncia has transformed his Northern California ranch into one of the few carbon-positive livestock operations in the country.

“It is beneficial for everyone, for the environment and for our wallet,” said Poncia, who adopted carbon farming practices through a partnership with the Marin Carbon Project.

Experts estimate that farmers around the world can sequester a large enough portion of carbon through regenerative farming practices to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Research suggests that removing carbon that is already in the atmosphere and replenishing soil worldwide could result in a 10% reduction in carbon. The United Nations has warned that efforts to curb global emissions will fall short without drastic changes in land use and agriculture globally.

Poncia’s ranch sequesters more carbon than it emits through practices such as rotating cattle grazing systems that allow soil and grass to recover, applying compost instead of chemical fertilizers to pastures to avoid tillage, building farms of earthworms and planting chicory to aerate the soil. These climate-friendly projects have allowed Poncia to grow more grass and produce more meat.

“If we, as a world, are going to reverse the damage that has been done, it will be through agriculture and food sustainability,” Poncia said. “We are excited and optimistic about the future.”

While some farmers, ranchers, and foresters have already adopted sustainable practices that capture existing carbon and store it in the soil, others are wary of upfront costs and uncertain returns that may vary between states and farm operations.

The US Department of Agriculture recently said it would incentivize farmers to implement such sustainable practices. And more researchers and companies have begun to better quantify and manage carbon stored in soil.

USDA Push Toward Carbon Farming

Fighting climate change has become a matter of survival for American farmers, who have suffered heavy losses from floods and droughts that have become more frequent and destructive across the country.

In 2019, farmers lost tens of thousands of acres during historic floods. And NASA scientists report that rising temperatures have led the western US to the worst drought in decades ever seen in the last millennium.

In the US alone, agriculture accounts for more than 10.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.

As a result, the Biden administration now wants to direct $ 30 billion in farm aid money from the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation to pay farmers to implement sustainable practices and sequester carbon in their soil.

This Monday, March 18, 2019 file photo shows flooding and underwater storage containers on a farm along the Missouri River in rural Iowa north of Omaha, Nebraska.

AP Photo | Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management

Biden’s USDA Secretary of Agriculture candidate Tom Vilsack, who has vowed to help fulfill Biden’s broader plan to achieve a net zero economy by 2050, said the money could go toward creating new markets that incentivize producers to sequester carbon in the soil.

Former President Donald Trump previously turned to those funds to bail out farmers affected by his trade wars with China, Mexico and Canada that drove prices of raw materials.

Using the CCC money to create a carbon bank may not require congressional approval, and agricultural lobbyists are expected to convince Congress to expand the fund.

“It’s a great tool for us to create the kind of structure that will inform future farm laws about what will encourage carbon sequestration, what will encourage precision agriculture, what will encourage soil health and regenerative agricultural practices,” he said Vilsack at his Senate confirmation hearing this month.

Vilsack, who spent eight years as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, also asked Congress to have a farmer advisory group to help build a carbon market and ensure farmers receive the benefits.

The administration’s push to encourage carbon sequestration on farms could fuel an emerging market for on-farm emission reductions and technological advances that are helping growers improve soil health and participate in trade markets for carbon.

An emerging market

Some farmers have started partnerships with non-profit policy and environmental groups to work on environmental sustainability. The movement has also seen growing support from private companies.

Indigo Ag, a startup that advocates for regenerative farming practices, said corporations like Barclays, JPMorgan Chase and Shopify have committed to buying agricultural carbon credits that help growers with transition costs.

Chris Harbourt, Indigo Ag’s global carbon director, said the company is working with growers to address financial barriers during the transition and provide education on implementing regenerative farming practices, such as planting cover crops out of season or changing to agriculture without tillage.

“Growers who adopt regenerative practices see benefits far beyond the financial,” said Harbourt. “The soil is healthier and more resilient, creating more opportunities for profitable years even when weather conditions are challenging.”

More of CNBC environment:
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Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta, a Switzerland-based crop and seed protection company, said government policies must provide appropriate incentives for farmers to accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture.

“The incentives must be sufficient and reliable enough to give farmers the confidence to make the necessary investments to implement these practices on their farms,” ​​said Fyrwald.

Poncia, who has received state funding twice from the California Healthy Soils Program to implement sustainable practices on his ranch, said he hopes the administration can provide enough support to agriculture so that others can achieve similar results.

“The farming community wants to support this movement, but they need help, education and the ability to reduce risk,” Poncia said. “If the government supports farmers who are doing well, everyone else will follow.”


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