Aldyen Donnelly has been involved since the 1990s in market-driven strategies to reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations. So she understands as well as anyone that agricultural carbon credits can be complicated — but also can be a major potential benefit to ag producers.

"For most growers right now, this is all just really confusing. There are just too many options," said Donnelly, now director of carbon economics for Nori. Even so, "This is the cool thing to talk about, and how do we decide what to do next."

She was among the speakers at a March 16 webinar on the current state of ag credit markets. The online event, hosted by the Farm Foundation, which describes itself "as an accelerator of practical solutions for agriculture," was open to the news media.

Also on the panel of speakers were Lisa Streck, carbon business model grower program lead, Bayer Crop Sciences; Matt Schmidt, senior director of commercial carbon for Cargill; Christine Morgan, chief scientific officer of the Soil Health Institute; and Ken McCarty, co-owner of MVP Dairy in Ohio.

Here's the U.S. Department of Agriculture's explanation of ag carbon credits:

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"Increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide cause climate change. In the United States, several voluntary and regulatory markets have emerged which allow for purchases of carbon offsets. In many of these markets, agricultural conservation can be a source of offsets. These markets can help incentivize carbon sequestration and GHG mitigation in the agricultural sector while providing farmers compensation for environmental benefits."

More USDA information on carbon credits: https://www.usda.gov/oce/energy-and-environment/markets/carbon.

Donnelly said ag producers getting into carbon market programs face a cost in both time and money. So, "Try to make sure you're working with a marketer or marketing administrator or their representative who can at least give a reasonable estimate" of the cost in time and money, she said.

Among her suggestions of questions that farmers should ask before committing to a carbon market program:

  • How much is this going to cost?
  • Do I own my project and/or any credits issued to it?
  • Am I giving away my private farm operating data?
  • How much of the payment do I receive, and how fast?
  • Am I contractually bound to specific soil treatment, cropping and/or livestock management practices?

Other speakers

Schmitt compared the current state of ag carbon markets to the early days of electrification, when "hard-charging entrepreneurs" put up large amounts of wire.

"It was crowded and uncertain," he said. "There was just a messy energy to it all at the start that now has gotten to the point where it's largely invisible. And when we turn the light switch on, the lights come on and we hardly think about that. "

Now, "I see a lot of similar streets full of wires today in movements for carbon market opportunities" and "lots of hard-charging entrepreneurs (promoting those opportunities) and that's exciting," Schmitt said.

Streck, with Bayer Crop Sciences, said that "climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity, and agriculture feels its effect in a profound way. Agriculture really sits at the intersection of feeding a growing population while addressing climate change. And really at the center of these conversations is our growers, our farmers, and the opportunity they have to potentially adopt climate-smart policies."

Carbon sequestration, and the potential additional revenue it can bring to farming operations, can be an important part of that, she said.

McCarty, the co-owner of MVP Dairy, said his farming operation "utilizes a great deal of technology and basic fundamental good practices to try to continuously improve" animal welfare.

Sustainability is a priority for the operation, which utilizes cover crops and prudent water management, among other things. Marketing carbon is part of that effort, he said.

Morgan, with the Soil Health Institute, which describes itself "as a nonprofit whose mission is to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soil through scientific research and advancement," said scientists are working diligently to improve testing for carbon storage in soil.