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Farmers look to cut emissions but financial incentives are still catching up

A farm field with an irrigation pivot in front of mountains.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
Kurt Heward is the farm manager at Heglar Creek Farms in Declo. He's been switching up growing practices to improve soil health.

It’s a few weeks before Kurt Heward will plant corn to feed his company’s dairy cows in southern Idaho. He jumps out of his truck to admire the soil.

“When I can just step on that shovel, put it down all the way in there easy and I can pull it out without all this work, it just makes me happy,” said Heward.

He digs up a patch of the farm field, bends down to the ground and lets the soil crinkle through his fingers.

“Have you ever seen what worm poop looks like?” he asks, then pulls out a clump from the soil. “It looks like a piece of cottage cheese. It’s your definition of perfect soil health, is worm poop – perfectly balanced pH, perfectly balanced nutrients.”

As the farm manager at Heglar Creek Farms in Declo, Idaho for a few years now, Heward’s been gradually transitioning the roughly 4,000 acres of corn, hay and other crops grown to feed the farm’s cows to a no-till system. That involves using a special planter that drives the seeds into the ground more gently versus a tiller that digs it up about a foot deep first.

Heward’s had good results so far. There are more worms in his plots that have been no-tilled, for example, and the soil there is holding onto water better. Healthy soil can also absorb and hold onto more carbon dioxide than if it’s overworked by agriculture, researchers have found.

But Heward primarily made the switch to save money. Cutting out the tiller means fewer drives in the tractor.

“If we can get across the field in one pass and get the same result, then we’re winning,” he said.

It saves about $50 an acre, maybe even more with high fuel costs. Heward has also starting planting triticale—hybrid of wheat and rye—as a cover crop to blanket his fields all winter, which he said prevents water and wind erosion.

Kurt Heward hold some soil in his hands on an agricultural field.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
Heward examines a section of soil that's been no-tilled.

The latest United Nations report on climate change out earlier this month makes it clear that more carbon dioxide needs to come out of the atmosphere. One sector it says has lots of potential to hold onto carbon is agriculture, which accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And adopting regenerative agriculture practices, like no-till and cover cropping, could be a cost-effective way to make inroads.

Figuring out just how much carbon dioxide healthy soil can store is tricky. That’s part of what a team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center in Kimberly is looking into on behalf of the dairy industry.

There, and at several other research sites across the country, scientists are using special gas chambers that look like upside-down mixing bowls to measure how different growing techniques—from cover crops to fertilizer application—affect the levels of greenhouse gases that are emitted from the soil.

Cow burps and manure are the main sources of dairies’ emissions, as they release lots of methane, but the industry says growing crops for cows makes up about a quarter of its footprint.

So, if this research can prove dairy farmers are taking more carbon from the air and keeping it in the ground, it could help the industry reach its goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050.

Farmers could even sell "carbon credits" to other industries — basically, get paid to offset carbon dioxide pollution by maintaining healthy soils that absorb more of the gas. Heward likes that idea.

“I thought, well, might as well jump on the bandwagon of selling carbon credits to someone that needs them, I guess,” he said.

Cows in an outdoor pen.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
Heward grows crops for cows at Heglar Creek Farms.

Carbon markets are fairly new in the U.S., and the biggest ones don’t currently pay for holding carbon in soil. There are voluntary offset markets, in which big companies pay farmers for healthy soil practices to help them with their sustainability goals, but Heward hasn’t found one of those companies verifying farms in Idaho yet.

“We haven’t found anyone that’s able to let us do it,” he said.

Bas Hargrove, the senior policy representative for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, said farmers in Idaho are interested in finding additional revenue streams for soil health practices. But the payment opportunities that exist are “immature.”

“There’s a lot of challenges around monitoring, reporting and verification,” he said.

Most farmers in Idaho pursuing these changes are doing it because it improves their soil productivity, Hargrove said. About 5% of farms in Idaho had planted cover crops in 2017, which is a bit less than the national average, according to USDA data.

The Nature Conservancy has a demonstration farm near Twin Falls to educate farmers on regenerative agriculture practices. Neil Crescenti, the agriculture program manager, said most research on how farms can best adapt has been focused on the Midwest, which has a different climate and soil profile.

The Biden Administration wants to expand opportunities for farmers across the country, like Heward, to profit from agriculture practices that are beneficial to the climate. With a $1 billion investment in a program called “Climate-Smart Commodities,” the USDA is funding pilot projects to expand market opportunities for farms that reduce emissions. It includes a goal of supporting private carbon markets, specifically for farmers.

Cathy Day, the climate policy coordinator for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, agrees that farmers should be part of the climate change solution. But she says incentives that focus on just one component — like carbon — are not looking at the system as a whole.

“They can help people to experiment with cover crops the first time, for example,” she said. “But they're not getting that longer-term change to more holistic systems that help farmers to be more resilient to climate change over the longer term.”

Day said there are government programs that mentor farmers over several years and pay them, like the Conservation Stewardship Program. Through that, farmers are taught how to adopt more complex cropping systems or integrate cows onto the landscape, which she says can help with air and water quality. There’s just not enough funding for everyone who wants to take part.

Groups like hers hope those initiatives get a boost in next year’s Farm Bill.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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