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Regenerative Ag Advocates: Carbon Markets and Farmers Alone Will Not Fix the Climate Crisis

Will Glazik harvested organic soybeans in the fall of 2020 on one the farms his family operates near Paxton, Ill.
Tory Dahlhoff
Will Glazik harvests organic soybeans in the fall of 2020 on a farm his family operates near Paxton, Ill.

Will Glazik sat in the cab of his combine last fall on a farm near Paxton, Ill., as it moseyed through a field of organic soybeans. He pointed out the window toward the green blades of cereal rye cover crop emerging beneath the fresh bean stubble.

“Anything that’s green and growing is sequestering carbon,” said Glazik.

The cover crops and other carbon sequestering practices of the Glazik family’s farm operations is a point of pride—and now also a potential source of revenue in the developing carbon marketplace.

With diversification as a key tenet of both their fields and their finances, Glazik says exploring carbon markets makes sense for their business.

“I heard about carbon trading, so I got hooked on with a company called Nori and they started evaluating the carbon on our farm," said Glazik. "It turned out with our long rotation and incorporating perennials ... with high cover crops and limited tillage, we’re able to capture it, store in the ground like two tons of carbon on each acre every year.”

This concept has received lots of attention recently in the national conversation on stemming climate change. Likely because it sounds simple enough: Growing plants on farms sucks carbon into the soil, and anyone looking to offset their carbon footprint can purchase credits from the farmers that do that work. Farmers get paid, carbon gets drawn down.

But the monumental task of mitigating climate change and transforming agricultural practices at scale is anything but simple. Getting a carbon market to a stable and verifiable condition is just one of the many challenges.

"If carbon markets keep things the same, that means we also keep out of agriculture people who want in. And that's young people. It's people of color."
Liz Stelk

Bill Schleizer is the CEO of the Delta Institute, an environmental group that operated the Carbon Trading Program. They aggregated carbon credits on farm and forest land and traded those credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange which was created in the 2000s as a national experiment in cap-and-trade.

“Companies started signing up to reduce their overall emissions by a certain percent and they had the option to invest into carbon offset credits from projects that happen in farms and forests across the country," said Schleizer.

"There was an opportunity to kind of get in and test out and see how this would work as we moved toward a national cap-and-trade system.”

But in 2010 a variety of factors tanked credit prices, and the Chicago Climate Exchange closed.

Montgomery County farmer Richard Lyons, a former agriculture instructor and a longtime practitioner of regenerative farming, took part in the Exchange. He said one factor causing a weak market was uneven and underdeveloped verification methods for on-farm carbon capture.

“You just wrote down what you did. Send that to them and they gave you a calculation of what they thought you were sequestering and you were paid by the acre. And no soil testing then, just your word. That's a little bit different than it's going to be today.”

Today, resources such as the USDA COMET-Farm online carbon calculator help farmers better account for and reduce the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions of their operations. And over the last few years a handful of startups and big Ag companies have mobilized the growing arsenal of on-farm data and technology with the goal of providing a more reliable carbon credit for buyers.

Rebekah Carlson is the agriculture supply lead at Nori, one of the startups connecting farmers to carbon customers.

“We use soil metrics, which is a process-based model where we gather information about a farmers' agronomic practices, and then with that and their weather in their area in the soil under their field, we can model out how much carbon is sequestered on that land.”

Although the science and accounting for regenerative agriculture has improved over the years, Lyons says changing farming practices to sequester carbon does not come quick or easy.

“If you're not used to doing cover crops, familiar with no-till," said Lyons. "I think farmers are going to find out there's more to it than meets the eye ... and that's the majority of the farmers in Illinois.”

“It's a learning curve," said Peoria County Farm Bureau Manager Patrick Kirchhofer.

"Farmers are, you know, trying to learn about what it entails. You know what they need to do, what the potential payouts are.”

Kirchhofer said farmers are definitely interested in carbon markets and rewarding good land stewardship, but often have reservations about implementing new systems.

"The majority of them would rather wait and see ... if it does seem like it's doable for farmers, then they'll probably adapt to it," he said.

Liz Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, said she wants farmers to get paid for their work sequestering carbon but does not want the carbon market to distract from other critical issues.

"One of the biggest concerns that I have is that carbon markets are going to keep agriculture the way that it is and allow a few tweaks here and there that we can then measure and call that carbon capture," said Stelk.

“If we built the systems for diversifying agriculture, we'd have cleaner water. We would have less water pollution. We would have less erosion. We would reach our nutrient loss reduction strategy goals. All of those things are possible. They are not possible if carbon markets further cement the corn and soy rotation in Illinois.

“You know if carbon markets keep things the same, that means we also keep out of agriculture people who want in. And that's young people. It's people of color. It's all sorts of people who want access to land and want to farm it.”

Stelk added that carbon markets may also allow the biggest polluters, such as the fossil fuel industry, to avoid their responsibility of reducing overall emissions.

And without major reductions, Delta Institute’s Schleizer said it’s misguided to believe farmers alone can solve the climate crisis with an amber wave of carbon-sinking grains.

“Unfortunately they can't suck it all up ... It's an all hands on deck situation," said Schleizer. "That goes all the way up to the consumer goods companies and to the consumers themselves to really understand how all of this works.”

“I see myself as not the savior, or not the silver bullet, but a part of the total,” said Lyons.

"We’ve got to look to the total world, we can’t just look here in central Illinois, we’ve got to look and see what we can do for others to get them moving.”

Lyons said he worries, though, that the large-scale collaborative efforts needed to tackle the climate crisis might not come soon enough.

"I'm afraid the canary is already dead in the coal mine," he said. "I’m afraid of that. I think we’re past the tipping point and that all we can do now is try to mitigate as much as we can to prevent total destruction for our grandchildren.”

Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.