Ohio farmers are entering a new market: the carbon trade
Ohio farmers have been in the corn and soybean business for a long time.
But now, some are entering a new market: carbon farming.
That’s when farmers increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil — through practices like no-till planting — in exchange for credits, which they can then sell to corporations trying to reach net-zero emissions.
Organizations like Cargill and the Nature Conservancy have launched pilot carbon trading programs, and increasingly, Ohio farmers are trying them out.
“It’s picked up a lot of steam recently as so many companies have decided that they want to become carbon neutral,” said Brent Sohngen, an environment and resource economics professor with Ohio State University. “They look at America's farm and forest land as an opportunity to help them do that.”
How ‘carbon farming’ works
Trees and soil are carbon sinks, meaning they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a large scale.
“Right now in the U.S., about 700 to 800 million tons of carbon dioxide are sequestered every year in our agricultural systems,” Sohngen said.
That accounts for about 10% of the nation’s total greenhouse emissions.
“Our goal is to try to make it happen even more,” Sohngen said.
He says the key to doing that is incentivizing farmers to implement practices like no-till planting or using cover crops, which increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil.
Carbon trading programs reward those practices with credits. Farmers then sell those credits to corporations trying to reach carbon neutrality.
According to Sohngen, this is a mutually beneficial process – farmers get paid, while corporations take a step closer to their goals.
But not everyone agrees.
The future of carbon trading
"To try to get to net zero, we've got to store that carbon somewhere. And agriculture, soils, forests are a great place to do it.”Brent Sohngen, professor of environmental and resource economics
Practically though, Sohngen says carbon trading is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change because most corporations are not currently able to completely cut emissions.
“Those companies out there – the Amazons, the Microsofts, the Shells, pretty much every company out there that is selling you and I products by emitting carbon dioxide – they're trying to become carbon neutral,” Sohngen said. “But they can't do it.”
That’s because even tasks as critical as transportation still largely rely on fossil fuels.
“We have to accept that we're still going to emit carbon in the transportation sector,” Sohngen said. “So to try to get to net zero, we've got to store that carbon somewhere. And agriculture, soils, forests are a great place to do it.”
The challenge, he said, is to figure out how to market carbon trading to farmers.
Right now, most farmers don’t stand to earn a lot of money for carbon storing practices.
But in the next decade, Sohngen believes that will change.
“All of the studies suggest that we're going to see big increases in those prices,” he said. “And when you get those prices to $30 or $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, all of a sudden farmers have the potential to make $10 or $15 per acre per year for some of the practices that they currently aren't doing and that they could do.”