Pay Dirt

How American Farmers Can Ease Global Warming–And Make a Profit, Too

The answer to at least some of America’s greenhouse woes might be right under our noses. Well, under our shoes at least.

While many climate change naysayers argue that trying to stop global warming would be an economy-killer, some environmentalists in the Midwest are beginning to see a way to take more carbon out of the air while also improving their farm economies.

Courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources

For some time, scientists have known that carbon—the major player in global warming—doesn’t always stay in the atmosphere. Instead, some of it is sequestered by natural processes, captured in oceans, trees and other plants. But new research is showing that fertile soil can also act as a carbon sink. If this effect can be well documented, soil itself could become a precious commodity, which is good news for the nation’s farmers, says Kitty Sibold of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s State and Local Climate Change Program.

States like Iowa and Wisconsin are leading the way in preliminary research, studying how farmers could be convinced that sequestering soil beneath their fields is in their best interests. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), for example, is currently researching the anti-warming potential of switch grass, a low-maintenance crop that takes carbon from the air and deposits it in soil. This project is in concert with other research in the state involving alternative energy, utility deregulation, climate change education, and a carbon credit system.

“There’s a hypothesis that says a lot of sequestered carbon is in soil, and you can sequester even more carbon in soil by doing agricultural practices that are good for the environment anyway—that is, seeding down steep slopes instead of plowing it every year for corn or soybeans,” says David Osterberg, DNR global climate change consultant. The plan Osterberg envisions for Iowa and many other great plains states would work something like this: farmers use their rough or steep land, which is not ideal for their normal crops anyway, to plant carbon sequestering plants such as switch grass. That crop can be sold to power companies, which would mix it with their normal coal loads to make cleaner-burning energy. And by avoiding severe tilling to those steep lands, farmers can alleviate hefty soil erosion and water pollution. Meanwhile, utility companies are allowed the privilege to deregulate—a national trend right now—provided they increase the amount of alternative energy in the state’s power grid and pay farmers for sequestering the carbon they emit.

“We expect farmers to gain with a new crop, with sequestering payments, with using their land as the platform where we generate power,” Osterberg says. A large obstacle, of course, is measuring the amount of carbon that can be locked in the fields, which would be an essential component of a carbon trading system, says Jerry Schnoor of the Iowa-based Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).

Schnoor and his colleagues at the University of Iowa are currently trying to place farmers at the forefront of a carbon trading system by researching the carbon capturing potential of Midwest soil. By mapping the land at high resolution and using soil data and complex models, Schnoor says it will be possible to measure sequestration, though no system has been developed yet.

CGRER has also been conducting workshops with individual farmers to determine the feasibility of a carbon trading system. Schnoor says their input, acceptance and eventually the revenue they’ll receive from utility companies would do far more to decrease atmospheric carbon than simple legislation. “The person who does something good for the environment should get the credit because that’s the market incentive to keep the ball rolling,” he says.

Iowa is not the only state looking into soil sequestering as a basis for carbon trading. Officials in Wisconsin have also taken steps in that direction, and New Jersey and New Hampshire are in the process of setting up “carbon banks,” says Sibold.

“I’m bullish about farmers making money,” Osterberg says, and with good reason. A carbon trading system is just one piece of a larger plan that could place farmers on top of the alternative energy production scheme. Iowa, however, currently mandates that only two percent of its power must come from alternative sources, which is a negligible amount and clearly not enough to convince farmers to invest in a new crop. But legislation could be on the way to hike the cut up to 10 percent by 2015. President Clinton’s preliminary plans call for 7.5 percent by 2008, while one Senate proposal has asked for 20 percent by 2020.

With utility companies investing in cleaner energies, and with more opportunities available to farmers—such as biomass and ethanol—Osterberg says alternative energy could be what the Midwest needs to revive its struggling farm economy.

Though a full-fledged, nationwide carbon credits system is years away, some states have already begun preparing. Arizona, for example, has recently contacted Iowa officials to buy their future carbon emissions decreases, says Schnoor. He calls carbon trading a “futures market” because some states are interested in buying now while prices are cheap, rather than waiting for market forces to drive costs up.

But for now it’s up to the scientists, the politicians, and most especially, the farmers, who will end up playing a key role in America’s energy future. “You have to do things that people are used to doing, like something they’ve already done,” Osterberg says of the plan. “Each of the steps have to be small enough that nobody has to make a leap. Eventually, enough steps are made.”