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Carbon storage offers hope for climate, cash for farmers

by Mary Sewell

ORIENT, Ohio — The rye and rapeseed that Rick Clifton cultivated in central Ohio were coming along nicely — until his tractor rumbled over the flat, fertile landscape, spraying it with herbicides.

These crops weren’t meant to be eaten but to occupy the ground between Clifton’s soybean harvest last fall and this spring’s planting. Yet, thanks to their environmental value, he’ll still make money from them.

Farmers increasingly have been growing offseason cereals and grasses to prevent erosion and improve the soil. Now, they’re gaining currency as weapons against climate change.

Experts believe keeping the ground covered year-round rather than bare in winter is among practices that could reduce emissions of planet-warming gases while boosting the agricultural economy if used far more widely.

“For too long, we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: jobs, jobs, jobs,” President Joe Biden said in his April address to Congress. One example, he added: “Farmers planting cover crops so they can reduce the carbon dioxide in the air and get paid for doing it.” Clifton, 66, started growing cover crops several years ago to improve corn, soybean, and wheat yields. Then he read about Indigo Agriculture, a company that helps businesses and organizations buy credits for carbon bottled up in farm fields. He signed a contract that could pay about $175,000 over five years for storing greenhouse gases across his 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares).

“If you can get something green on the ground year-round, you’re feeding the microbes in the soil, and it’s a lot healthier,” he said, touring a barn loaded with cultivating and harvesting equipment. “And if somebody wants to pay you to do that, it looks to me like you’re foolish not to do it.” Agriculture generates about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, carbon dioxide from machinery.

All industries are under pressure to reduce emissions, primarily by switching to renewable energy.

But farming has something most others don’t: the ability to pull carbon dioxide, the most prevalent climate-warming gas, out of the atmosphere and store it. Plants use it in photosynthesis, their process of making food.

Besides cover crops, promising techniques for carbon storage include reducing or eliminating tillage and letting marginal croplands revert to plains or woods, said Adam Chambers, a U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service air quality scientist. Agriculture won’t be “the sole solution, but I see it as a solid plank in an overall program to address climate change over the next few decades,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist.

The National Academy of Sciences estimates agricultural soils could take in 250 million metric tons (276 million tons) of atmospheric carbon dioxide annually, which would offset 5% of U.S. emissions.

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