As farmers, we have a positive story to tell about the role we play in mitigating climate change. Our efforts to sequester carbon often go unnoticed.
Unfortunately, it has become easy and to some, fashionable, to accuse farmers of contributing to climate change and making it worse.
The truth is that we’re on the forefront of “carbon sequestration,” which involves the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in solid or liquid form. Plants perform the work, through the natural process of photosynthesis. For this reason, trees and forests are an important part of the solution to climate change.
So are farmers. We raise plants for a living—and by pursuing certain agricultural practices, we are turning our fields into factories of carbon sequestration.
That’s what I’m doing as a farmer in the Canadian province of Alberta. I grow wheat, barley, canola, and other crops near the town of Drumheller, whose main claim to fame is a tourist attraction called the “World’s Largest Dinosaur,” an 86-foot-tall model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
This roadside novelty may look to the past, but in 2007 our province looked to the future when it established a protocol for conservation cropping. The idea was to create a market in carbon offsets for large emitters of greenhouse gases, including oil and gas producers as well as farmers, who can introduce no-till techniques on their land and lower their use of fossil fuels. With a partner, I started a company to help farmers participate in this new system.
Today, I’m a Certified Crop Advisor, which means that I examine and approve the crop and equipment plans that allow them to sell carbon offsets. I also have a crop consulting business called Beyond Agronomy (follow us on Twitter!) that supplies agronomic support to farmers. Finally, I have a research farm for testing farm systems, machinery, and technology.
In our area, for example, a farming system with tillage may store around 12 tonnes of carbon per acre in the soil. This equates to around 3% organic matter, where roughly 45% of that is carbon. Farmers who adopt no-till and the best methods of carbon sequestration, however, have increased this level to twice that of conventional farmers at 25 tonnes per acre. The best part is that we have the ability to increase our capacity to store more through better practices and technology.
This improvement is the result of new thinking and conscientious planning.
Traditional agricultural practices involve the deliberate disruption of the ground through plowing or cultivation. We call this “tilling”, and it is used as a method to manage heavy residue and aerate the soil, both to improve seed placement and crop emergence.
This practice also speeds up the breakdown of stored soil carbon—and if our goal is to store more carbon, we have to farm in ways that allow us to grow food while disturbing the soil as little as possible. The no-till farming system that we’ve adopted disturbs only 17 percent of the soil across our farm each year. It leaves the rest alone. The result is an accumulation of stored soil carbon over time.
We’re also careful about how we use our tractors and combines. Instead of letting them run randomly over our fields, they travel on permanent wheel tracks called tram lines. This limits compaction from machinery to a small area and eliminates the need to aerate the soil through cultivation. We let the plants do the aerating for us, which leads to an increase in above and below ground biomass (carbon).
Combining our systems of no-till and controlled-traffic farming with balanced crop nutrition allows us to store more carbon each year.
This strategy is good for the environment because it keeps more carbon in the soil and out of the air, lessening the impact of climate change, but it also has economic advantages. It improves nutrient cycling and water efficiency, makes yields more stable, and reduces the number of times machinery must pass over fields, saving time, labor, wear and tear, and fuel. Because we’re doing this, we have the opportunity to sell carbon offsets into a market that is becoming more attractive.
You can’t watch carbon sequestration the way you can watch crops grow or tractors move around fields, but it shouldn’t remain invisible—it must be a part of every conversation we have about agriculture and climate change.
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