What is carbon farming? An essential guide to manage farms
Friday, November 26, 2021
Farmers face unique challenges from the fields to the industry level. In recent years, sustainable agricultural practices have been put into focus as governments and consumers call for solutions to reach net-zero global carbon emissions. In agriculture, this is where carbon farming comes in.
But what is carbon farming? And what does carbon farming mean to farmers in the coming years?
As the global buzz grows around carbon farming – the agriculture practices that draw carbon from the atmosphere and lock it in the soil – the inconsistent conversation surrounding it can get a little confusing for many farmers.
The truth is, a lot of farmers are already promoting carbon farming practices and may not know it yet. This guide aims to build on what farmers instinctively know when keeping farms healthy with a broad overview in support of our collective journey to carbon farming.
Discover the basics and benefits, and which practices to implement in carbon farming. Those new to the idea or simply looking to learn more can gain confidence to get carbon farming underway.
What is Carbon Farming?
Carbon farming requires switching to agricultural practices that enhance soil to store carbon and reduce emissions.
To expand, carbon farming is an approach in agriculture aiming to limit global carbon emissions and store CO2 from the atmosphere into the plants and soils of productive landscapes using a variety of prescribed agronomic techniques.
Many carbon farming practices are already popular when speaking of sustainable farming, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, or organic farming.
While there are overlapping ideas between these agricultural practices, carbon farming is a term closely linked with carbon markets. This gives farmers a unique prospect to earn verified carbon credits that are sold to buyers looking to offset their emissions based on their carbon footprint. But more on this later.
Soil carbon sequestration and emission reductions through regenerative techniques present opportunities to drive ecological benefits with positive impacts on soil health. It also provides opportunities to increase income and productivity for farmers.
Agriculture and climate change
The IPCC (or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) concluded that agriculture accounts for 10%–12% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, estimated at 5.1 to 6.1 gigaton of CO2-equivalent a year in 2005.
The transition of agriculture to bigger industrial scales meant reliance on heavy equipment that contributes to global atmospheric carbon emissions.
Specific agricultural land management activities release significant amounts of gasses that trap heat – greenhouse gasses – such as CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
Gas exchanges from sources and sinks like plants, soil, and the atmosphere is a natural process. However, the huge uptake in heat-trapping gasses by the atmosphere is driven by human activities largely relying on fossil fuels.
Curbing excessive emissions is crucial to keep the planet from warming further with climate change. The IPCC reports that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, affecting all life and activities on a warming planet.
Climate change effects have broad and deep implications for the agricultural sector. Extreme weather effects like droughts, floods, heatwaves, wildfires, and changes in rain patterns, combined with other ecosystem threats such as soil degradation are already affecting farmers and yields worldwide. The agriculture sector and with it, global food security, are under direct threat because of climate change.
Therefore, all industries must cut back greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest amount — net zero. In agriculture, carbon farming is one of the many tools to bring humanity closer to net-zero. As an emitter with a significant carbon footprint, while at the same time needing to stay resilient with future uncertainties of climate change, the farming industry is seen to play a major role in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Benefits of carbon farming
What can farmers do to be more climate-resilient?
Carbon sequestration in farming present many benefits for participating farmers and landowners with added benefits including environmental and biodiversity enhancements.
With a particular focus on land management, one of the biggest benefits of farming organic carbon is soil health. Healthy soils drive yield quality that can improve long-term income streams and cost reductions.
Benefits of healthy soils
Higher levels of soil organic matter
Better capacity to capture and store carbon in the soil (better carbon sequestrations)
Improved soil structure which increases capacity to withstand weather variability
Enhances drought and flooding resilience as healthy soils absorb and retain water better
Improved capacity to hold more nutrients which reduces nutrient runoff from farmlands into water sources
Benefits to farmers
Decreased chemicals and fertilisers usage that can bring costs down
Resource-use efficiency that can drive cost and labour reductions
Nutrient-rich soils can boost farm productivity
Promotes climate resilience and long-term sustainability
Added option to diversify profit streams through carbon credits for farmers
Beyond in-farm benefits, it is estimated that global farmlands can absorb and store up to 570 million metric tons of carbon per year with techniques that conserve soil and improve carbon sequestration in farming. The potential of carbon farming is one of the many ways global emissions can be reduced with direct benefits to the soil and farm productivity.
Carbon farming practices
Different agricultural sectors have varying methods and capacities to implement carbon farming. For example, in agricultural lands where trees are more predominant like in forestry and timberlands, tree stands may play a bigger role in carbon storage than in grazing lands and croplands, where soils are seen as the primary carbon sink.
Croplands in particular can benefit with quality improvements on farmland soils and crops with the soil-enhancing farming methods below. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the techniques listed below are commonly recommended by many farmers today.
When implementing carbon farming strategies, also consider other factors such as region, equipment and machinery, costs, environment, and weather, among others. It is recommended to consult an expert agronomist when possible.
Where conventional, intensive farming holds monocropping indispensable, carbon farming makes the case against its role in the future of agriculture.
Crop rotation is a farming strategy that promotes long-term productivity through plant species diversity and by stimulating soil health. It requires that different kinds of crops and plants be grown sequentially within the same area for each growing season. Thus, allowing the soil to recover from constant high yield practices while keeping pests at bay and restoring healthy soil ecosystems.
We found at least 7 reasons why crop rotation is worthwhile, which you can learn more about from this post.
However, keep in mind that the application of crop rotation is site-specific and depends on many factors like soil types and condition, crops grown previously, nutrient requirements, and climate.
Cover crops are often described as crops grown for the soil.
Instead of leaving the ground bare, growing cover crops protect and nourish the soils. Cover crops are different from the primary cash crop and can be interplanted, undersown, or sown before or after the main cash crop.
With cover crops, the soil remains active in sequestering carbon instead of leaving it empty. It is estimated that cover crops introduced regularly can mitigate warming by ~100 to 150 g CO2 e/m2/year.
Beyond soil carbon enrichment, cover crops also help prevent nutrient leaching, provide an environment for soil microbes to thrive, and improve soil structure that can provide positive effects to yield.
Animal manure or compost application
Essential to carbon farming is a nutrient management plan. In general, nutrient applications for soil conversation farming favour organic sources such as high-quality compost or animal manure than manufactured fertilisers.
Using manure or high-quality compost can limit or displace the need for synthetic fertilisers, which deplete soil nutrients in the long term. These organically-sourced fertilisers provide greater benefits to the soil by increasing sequestration capacity, the soil’s water retention, and a stable source of nutrients for both soils and plants.
And instead of rotting, landfilling, or burning (which releases more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere), organic waste materials from compost or manure are repurposed through decomposition into a nutrient-rich organic fertiliser added in the soil.
Keep in mind that there are practical considerations when deciding between animal manure or high-quality compost as a strategy to manage soil health. Take into account risks of pollution, crop nutrient management plan based on crop and soil needs, and the rate of application, among others.
Direct drilling or planting seeds directly in the ground is a soil conservation technique central to carbon farming, as opposed to ploughing that breaks up the soil surface. No-till farming limits soil disturbance that can help keep organic carbon intact in the soil and reduce soil erosion and compaction.
Conventional plough-based farming leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion and promotes agricultural runoff. Because tilling breaks the soil, ploughing also moves the carbon closer to the surface where it gets released into the atmosphere more readily. Heavy ploughing is seen as a contributor to CO2 emissions in agriculture.
Low- to no-till farming is already widespread in countries like Australia and the US where this method is attributed as a low-resource, low-energy input agriculture with the potential to bring yield improvements. Organic farming or regenerative farming also utilises no-till farming.
Reducing fuel use
Conventional agriculture relies on energy-intensive practices for all agricultural operations. From tillage, transportation, drying grain, and the equipment used for agricultural inputs, these processes require fuel use, often fossil fuel-powered that emit greenhouse gasses. When the goal of carbon-capture farming is to reduce emissions in agriculture, cutting back on fuel-based emissions can also be a cost-effective strategy.
Some in-farm practices that reduce fuel and energy consumption are fuel storage efficiency, improved vehicle operation and maintenance, and switching to low impact field practices such as no-till farming.
How carbon farming works
Farmers are the first ones to tell how important it is to nurture healthy soils. Carbon farming supports this sentiment with provisions for sustainable crop production with additional profit options.
Regenerative agriculture has been around for decades. And a carbon economy operating on market mechanisms surrounding carbon farming is making the practice attractive to sectors beyond agriculture. This is why carbon farming is gaining prominence in other industries as well.
Farmers who shift to carbon farming practices that increase organic soil carbon and decrease emissions — backed by verified records — can earn carbon credits for farmers through a carbon program.
Genuine carbon credits in carbon farming must be associated with greenhouse gas removals or reductions that can be verified through measurements. For carbon credits to be awarded to a farm, the entire lifecycle of carbon farming for carbon offsets involves consultation, testing, and monitoring carbon levels in the soils on top of adopting agricultural practices that prioritise soil health.
Verified carbon credits can then be sold to organisations or individuals looking to further reduce their emissions through carbon offsetting.
Opting to participate in a carbon credits program is an option that extends the income potential of carbon farming. Earnings amount to per ton of carbon sequestered in the soil.
First, check if you qualify for a carbon credit program. To start earning carbon credits, the process usually begins with an evaluation of a farm’s impact potential.
How to start carbon farming
This article intends to provide an overview of carbon farming. In practice, however, many things should be factored in first before getting your hands dirty. Factors like costs and effort commitments vary from farmer to farmer. But consider the following as early as possible to help with long-term success in carbon farming, especially when aiming to qualify for carbon credits.
For starters, location plays a big factor in what you can or can’t do. Weather and climate conditions vary where the farm is located. Then there are local and regional rules to follow.
In Australia, the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) should be consulted for country-specific rules. For a farm in the European Union, guidelines are slated to be announced for carbon farming as a new green business model that rewards climate-friendly practices.
More countries are expected to push for carbon frameworks in the coming years. It’s best to look into the environmental guidelines in your town or city before committing to major changes in your farm operations.
Plan for efficiency
Switching practices for soil carbon enrichment requires more than just knowing which methods to use. To make the most of this climate-friendly approach to farming, developing a carbon management plan is recommended. When aiming to qualify for carbon credits, a carbon farming plan is needed to operationalise concrete strategies to ensure soil carbon storage is authentic.
Creating a carbon farming plan can be more efficient with the advice of an agronomic expert and the use of digital farm management tools. Tracking a farm’s carbon footprint, as well as mapping yields through satellite, soil sensors, and AI-powered crop rotation planning tools can simplify the hours needed to plan for carbon credits accreditation.
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