CHESTER, S.D. - The future of soil health, conservation and biofuels were the focus of Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Gregory Sopkin's recent visit to South Dakota. He toured biofuels plants, tribal nations and various farming operations to get a picture of what agriculture is doing in these areas and how the agency can provide support, especially through various grant programs.

Sopkin visited Alverson Farms near Chester owned by Keith and Ron Alverson. Sopkin learned about how they have been building organic matter and sequestering carbon for years on their farm through conservation practices such as no-till.

Ron Alverson says the corn they grow on that land is low carbon. They sell it to the ethanol plant near Wentworth, S.D., which in turn sells the resulting low carbon ethanol into West Coast markets for a premium.

"Dakota Ethanol has its own unique carbon footprint," he says. "They look at how much natural gas the plant is using, they look at how much electricity the plant's using."

Keith Alverson says that footprint also takes into account the carbon level of the corn used to make the ethanol. "All the ethanol that gets produced is scored based on how much carbon or how carbon intense it takes and so they attribute some of that carbon intensity to the corn production practice," he says.

Currently all the farmers are lumped together, but Ron Alverson said he hopes farms will eventually be paid individual premiums. "We don't get to segregate out better farming practices yet, we hope to achieve that someday."

The recognition of low carbon corn ethanol is a major change for some. During the era of higher corn prices and the food versus fuel debate, environmentalists charged corn ethanol as being negative to the environment.

Keith Alverson says, "Historically they've given us a deficit or charged us for the carbon that they say we emit when we grow corn, but some of the things that we've found out on our farm and (South Dakota State University) has worked on, we're realizing that we're actually adding carbon to the soil and so corn ethanol should be getting credit for that," he says.

While promising, Ron Alverson admits the low carbon fuel markets are difficult to break into. "They want low carbon fuel, but they would rather keep that money in their state and pay their producers to make that low carbon fuel for them, but they've been forced to come to the Midwest," he says.

Sopkin, who came from the energy industry, sees many opportunities for farmers to get paid directly for producing low carbon fuel in the future. "That's been done through renewable energy and it seems to me that the same type of parallel system can be created for the agricultural community," he says.

The EPA official also toured the Glacial Lakes Energy ethanol plant in Watertown. Sopkin says he was impressed with E30 and its benefits for consumers and the environment. He said he thinks studies can be conducted to break through the regulatory barriers the product currently faces.

Natural Resource Conservation Service officials showed Sopkin how farmers in the state have ramped up conservation and soil health, leading to less soil erosion and improved water quality. Jeff Zimprich, NRCS State Conservationist says, "It's up now to where right at 50% of South Dakota's cropland is planted with no-till methods."

Sopkin says that has a major impact on lowering greenhouse gases. "I've seen some really pretty impressive statistics that if enough people do that, it's going to have a very large impact at recapturing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere," he says.

Sopkin says he thinks farmers will at some point also get credits or payments for conservation efforts that lower greenhouse gases.

"If you can show carbon reduction, for example, you should certainly explore whether there could be a credit-based system or something to incentivize that behavior and I have no doubt that's going to develop over time in the agricultural community," he says.

One way EPA has helped support conservation is through the SRAM Program or Seasonal Riparian Area Management Program.

"The farmers can plant native grasses and have a buffer zone between their livestock and the various rivers and streams in the watershed," he says.

He says that is helping with water quality issues in the Big Sioux Watershed. However, he is optimistic EPA will be able to do more in the future.