Mining Carbon Down on the Farm By Dan Morgan Wheatland, Wyo.

– This region of the country was built from selling coal, gold, lead and other minerals buried in the ground. Now some farmers and ranchers are betting there is treasure in yet another element below the surface: carbon. At this point, it is still a long-shot gamble. In the last two years more than 9,000 cattlemen and crop growers nationwide--including hundreds in this part of the western Great Plains—signed contracts to farm in ways that supposedly will capture and store nearly 5 million tons of carbon a year. Industries that spew the climate-threatening greenhouse gas into the atmosphere were offering as much as $7 a ton for these “offsets” last year, to counteract the impact of their emissions. But since then, in a boom and bust move that might shock even an 1890s gold speculator, prices have plummeted to as low as 10 cents a ton.

The sudden collapse, which officials at the Chicago Climate Exchange blame on the economic downturn and uncertainty over the future of climate legislation, has left many farmers with commitments to sell carbon and few buyers. It has also raised

questions about the economic soundness of the mandatory system of carbon trading at the heart of climate change legislation before Congress. Even so, there are strong indications that carbon is here to stay as a factor in the business calculations of farmers and ranchers across the American farm belt. The reason is that relatively new and sophisticated agricultural practices that offer a better economic return may also store more carbon in the soil. Banking Car bon? Against conventional wisdom, for example, soil scientists have found that intensive grazing can improve the health of native grasses in the West, and increase carbon by as much as a quarter of a ton a year per acre. “You don’t have to be sold on global warming to do this,” said Larry D. Cundall, 60, a Wheatland, Wyo., cattleman who qualified last year to sell about 2000 tons of carbon a year from the ranch where he raises Angus and Black Baldy beef.

Larry Cundall…..and friends enjoying meal in one of his carbon friendly pastures…
Another technique, known as “continuous no till,” avoids plowing and leaves crop residues in the fields. The method preserves moisture and nutrients and keeps oxygen in the air from combining with soil carbon so it can escape as carbon dioxide.

Farmers who follow the practice can qualify for nearly half a ton an acre of carbon savings. “There are a lot of co-benefits that come with managing for carbon,” said Justin Derner, a USDA rangeland scientist at the High Plains Grassland Research Station in Cheyenne, Wyo. These include saving water, upgrading pastures, preventing erosion and strengthening resistance to drought. There could also be long-term benefits for taxpayers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has told Congress that income from carbon-- along with new revenue from farm-based wind power and local ethanol plants using new forms of biomass— eventually could replace cash subsidies for farmers. “Old West,” New Ideas This sparsely populated area of rolling grasslands crisscrossed by barbed wire fences and spotted with beef animals still looks like the Old West but is actually a testing ground for new ideas about how to make rangeland more sustainable—and profitable. “What carbon sequestration does is show that ranchers are good stewards of the land,” said Grant Stumbough, the USDA resource conservation and development official who has spearheaded the effort in southeast Wyoming. Many ranchers still let their cattle roam widely over large expanses of unfenced range. It was long thought that this avoids overgrazing and unnecessary disturbance of the fragile covering. But that view has been challenged by research showing that intense short-term grazing on smaller fenced pastures results in a more productive grassland. Even pasture with short grass can store deceptively large amounts of carbon because 95 percent of the carbon is in soil and root systems, Derner said.

L essons Fro m the B uffalo Ranchers say they are drawing a lesson from the days when huge herds of buffalo thundered across the plains, mauling the prairie, yet leaving the grasslands strong and thriving. Confined to smaller fenced pastures, cattle act almost like gardeners, spreading seeds and manure with their hooves and breaking the thin crust to allow scarce water to filter in. “The closer we mimic Mother Nature the better” said Rocky Foy, 54, whose 7000-acre ranch 25 miles from Cundall’s won the Wyoming Stock Growers Association environmental stewardship award this year. Cundall’s decision to follow the new grazing scheme on parts of his 20,000 acre ranch long preceded the current interest in carbon. By holding cattle in smaller pastures and moving them frequently, cattle have time for only one bite at the grass, rather than many, which gives it a chance to replenish the nutrients in leaves and roots. Pastures are also grazed at different times of year, to shift pressure from plants that mature in different seasons. The result is healthier plants that can withstand drought better. A bonus is that they absorb more carbon. He concedes that it is harder work than just letting cattle roam widely for months. When the grass is growing fast in spring, he rides out on horseback at least once a week to move cattle to new pasture. Developing a water source in each restricted pasture also requires time and money, and the grazing must be monitored closely to make sure enough grass is left so cattle are not going back for a second bite. The New Ra nching But Cundall, as much scientist as cattleman, has gotten religion about grass. Touring the ranch with visitors he proudly points out a diverse mix of species: Western wheat grass, gramma grass, Little Blue Stem, and June Grass, all desirable.

Foy has had similar success. More than a decade ago, Foy instituted the rotational grazing . More recently, he brought in goats and hired a Peruvian herder to protect them from coyotes. The goats ate encroaching sagebrush that was keeping sunlight from reaching grass seedlings and was degrading pasture. To track progress, he checked the status of his grass at every foot along a 100-foot test strip. At the start there was often three inches of bare ground between grass plants. Now the sagebrush has been cut back and the grass is thick and includes better varieties. The bonus from these and other steps has been increased carbon in the soil—and a chance to make money selling 100-ton “carbon financial instruments” (CFIs) at the Chicago Climate Exchange. Vital Mar ke tplace – Or F uture Ca sino? The exchange was established in 2003 as an early, privatelyrun effort to cut down on six greenhouse gases. With no climate legislation yet enacted, there are no federal limits on emissions. But those joining the exchange—including companies such as Ford, Bank of America and Safeway--agreed voluntarily to achieve a 6 percent reduction in emissions by 2010. They do that by cutting their own greenhouse gases and buying offsets from farmers, ranchers and others who can prove they are making savings. But figuring credits for offsets has been complex, since soil quality, types of crops raised, rainfall patterns, temperature ranges and even the depths at which soil is tested can all affect greenhouse gas levels. Nonetheless, a committee of soil experts from federal and state governments and universities established protocols for converting croplands back to grass, growing trees on agricultural land, practicing no till farming, and engaging in improved rangeland management. In connection with pending climate legislation, farm groups and lawmakers want to consider making other practices eligible for offsets in the future as well.

In Wyoming, only 11 counties qualified for rangeland management offsets because counties with less than 14 inches of rainfall annually are deemed too dry for grasslands to store significant amounts of carbon, according to the data soil science data available. Ahead o f the Ga me Last year, Cundall contracted with the National Farmers Union to sell carbon offsets from 7,500 of his managed rangeland. The protocol required him to have a formal grazing plan showing how each pasture was utilized. His grazing patterns had to continue for five years or he would forfeit a portion of payments previously made to him. And he was required to builds in enough reserve pasture to weather a drought, since maintaining his herd was key to achieving carbon storage targets. His ranch and his records are both subject to inspection for compliance by an exchange-approved “verifier.” Cundall’s contract was bundled with a pool assembled by National Farmers Union, the nation’s second largest farmers group. NFU, which supports climate change legislation, is attempting to sell the offsets through the Climate Exchange. But it isn’t certain what the return, if any, will be. The deep recession meant that big polluters such as Ford cut emissions and needed fewer offsets. That has combined with uncertainty over the status of Climate Exchange offsets in pending climate legislation in Congress. Doubts About Ag O ffsets Some environmental groups are dubious that agricultural offsets will result in actual carbon savings and fear the availability of such credits will provide an inexpensive way for polluters to postpone cutting emissions: buying offsets will be cheaper than curbing toxic gases.

Although the offset protocols of the Chicago Climate Exchange credit no-till farmers with half a ton of carbon savings a year, just-released studies by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have challenged earlier scientific data showing significant greenhouse gas savings from that farming practice. In Minnesota, ARS scientists compared test plots using aggressive tillage and fertilizer to grow corn and soybeans with ones using minimum tillage on a four-year rotation of corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa. They found that over one year “carbon dioxide emissions were no different.” That could give pause to those developing agricultural offsets for a climate bill in Congress. “All these questions have spooked the market at this point,” said Dale Enerson, the North Dakota Farmers Union official who manages the program for that organization. Dave Wagers, 63, who grows corn, wheat, millet and sunflowers outside Brush, Colo., exemplifies the “continuous no till” farming that also qualifies for offsets. But he stresses, “We’re doing it for our economic interests, not for the government.”

Dave Wagers standing in the remains of this year’s wheat crop….his harvester snipped off just the tips and left the stems standing.. He’ll plant his corn crop right into what’s left of the wheat next spring.. classic no till farming….

Years ago his dad used a standard moldboard plow, turning the ground after the annual wheat crop to get rid of debris, then fallowing the field for a year. But there has been no plowing on the Wagers’ farm since the mid-1980s. After wheat harvest, the stems are left standing in the field. The following spring corn seeds are planted into what is left of the wheat straw. After the corn is harvested the stalks are left in the field to decay through the following summer, until a new fallplanted wheat crop goes in. Although Wagers applies some chemical weed killers, he never uses plows, discs or cultivators that break the ground. The technique conserves soil moisture and forms a mulch that blocks sunlight, restricting the growth of weeds. Th standing stalks of corn and wheat provide a break against wind that can hasten evaporation, and rotating crop varieties creates barriers to plant diseases. Carbon: T he Co ming Co mmo di ty Although this type of farming has spread, especially in drier regions, USDA officials believe carbon payments could be an additional impetus. Only 10 to 15 percent of Iowa’s crop acres now use continuous no till. But like Cundall’s range management system, continuous no till requires high-level farming skills and investments in different types of equipment. “It’s risky and expensive to put in, and you can’t make any mistakes,” said Wagers. Still, Wagers said, “I think we’ll see a continuation of this trend regardless of what Washington does.” Wagers has not contracted to sell carbon but said, “If it paid enough I’d have to look at it.” None of that necessarily bodes well for climate change legislation in Congress, however. Many farmers and ranchers say the legislation would raise the cost of fuel and fertilizer far more

than could be earned from offsets. “I’m not a big fan of it,” said Wagers. Cundall agrees. “I just see more negatives than opportunities,” he said. The Political Battle Reflecting these concerns, many farm state lawmakers are opposed to climate change legislation, or are deeply wary of it. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (DArk.) has called passage in the Senate “a heavy lift.” Not all farmers will be able to sell offsets. In wetter parts of the farm belt, plowing is needed to drain soil, so no-till methods may not be possible. According to a recent study of 98 representative farms nationwide by Texas A&M’s Agriculture and Food Policy Research Center, most rice and cotton farms in the South would lose money if House-passed climate legislation became law. Methods used to grow those crops make it difficult to store additional carbon. But with or without action in Washington on climate legislation, carbon seems certain to emerge as a major agricultural commodity, alongside wheat, corn and cotton, over coming decades. Dan Morgan, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is an independent writer specializing in agriculture and energy. Email:

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