Carbon, the sixth most abundant element in the universe, has both bad and good qualities, and as is so often the case, agriculture seems to be smack dab in the middle of it all. 

Together with oxygen, it forms carbon dioxide (CO2)a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun preventing it from escaping into space. This “greenhouse effect,” helps keep the Earth's surface from getting too cold, but too much of it contributes to greater overall temperatures, which is bad. 

On the other hand, CO2 is captured by plants and through the photosynthetic process, glucose (plant food) is producedoxygen is released back into the atmosphere, and carbon is held in the plant, where it provides structure with some leaking from plant roots as food for soil microorganisms. Which is all good. 

As concerns about rising CO2 levels increase, the concept of carbon sequestration, or the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has become more prominent.1 American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) policy #461 / Researchunder we support says, “2.19. Research that identifies the advantages and disadvantages of carbon credits as it relates to carbon sequestration with USDA serving as the lead agency on researching carbon sequestration; AFBF policy #503 / Climate Changeunder we support says2.2. Updated quantitative scientific research on carbon emissions from current agricultural production equipment and practices - as well as current levels of carbon capture from agricultural sources - to establish an accurate baseline of carbon emitted by U.S. agricultural producers. 2.8. Market-based solutions, rather than federal or state emission limits, being used to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from any sources…” 

Generally, there are two ways to sequester carbon. Geologicallyalso called carbon storage, involves storing CO2 deep underground in porous rock formations. In this approach, the CO2 is compressed to the supercritical phase, where it behaves like a liquid. Next, it is injected into porous rock formations deep under the ground, where it becomes physically trapped in the pore spaces, dissolves in the fluid within the formations and eventually reacts to form stable minerals. AFBF policy #439 / Taxationunder we oppose says, “3.20. AFBF policy #439 / Taxationunder we oppose says, 3.20. Industrial carbon capture and sequestration pipelines qualifying for any additional tax credits or government-subsidized carbon credits. Additionally, AFBF policy #503 / Climate Changeunder we support statesResearch into methods of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide, methane and other ag-related sources of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere that does not involve transporting or storing these gases beneath agricultural land; 2.31. Monitoring the quality, quantity and placement in the pore space of carbon for any injection and geologic sequestration.” 

The second way you can sequester carbon, and this is where agriculture gets involved, is biologically, and involves storing CO2 in places where it is stored naturally as part of the?carbon cycleFrom our earlier discussion, we know photosynthesis pulls CO2 from the atmosphere and transforms it into living plant tissues, with some of the carbon being stored/sequestered underground in the plant roots and soil, as both organic and inorganic carbon.  

Soil Organic Carbon (SOC), is the measurable carbon component in soil organic matter (SOM), providing approximately 58 percent of the totalthus, building soil organic matter is how you sequester soil organic carbon. Overall, soil organic matter is a small2 but vital component of soil because it improves soil-water-holding capacity and improves both crop health and crop yields. Soils with high SOM generally benefit from improved nutrient availability, biological activity, diversity and overall productivity. Practices that build SOM and improve soil health are often practices that also sequester carbon3. 

How do I measure carbon sequestration? 

In theory, calculating the amount of carbon you sequester between today and a year from today can be done by simply measuring the amount of soil organic carbon you have per acre today and comparing that to the amount you have per acre a year from today. 

As you can imagine, in practice, this is MUCH more difficult. While the science behind soil sampling and carbon testing is sound, the number of samples needed (and cost) for an accurate measurement, the variabilities of soil content and soil quality across a field, and the potential impacts of weather (for example, drought-impacted crops don’t grow well and therefore don’t sequester much, if any, carbon) are a few reasons that make measuring carbon sequestration a challenge.  

As a result, many carbon sequestration programs have tended to rely on agronomic modeling and algorithms to “estimate” the expected sequestration over time given the general soil type, practices followed and environmental conditions that occur. Often with follow-up sampling and testing to benchmark progress.  

So how do I get paid for this? 

It is important to note carbon sequestration is just one of several ecosystem services” farmers and ranchers can perform, create a credit and sell. Others include greenhouse gas credits, water quality credits, water quantity credits, nitrogen reduction credits and more. More information about ecosystem services can be found at USDAs Climate Hub websiteAFBFs Ecosystem Services and Sustainability webpages with links to five informative Market Intel articles written in early 2021, and the Ecosystem Services Market Consortiuma nonprofit that compensates farmers and ranchers who improve the environment through their agricultural practices, and of which AFBF has been an influential member.  

While there are many companies and programs that work with and pay farmers to sequester carbon, perform ecosystem services or simply pay them to farm regeneratively, sustainably or climate smart4this paper will not attempt to list or endorse any specific company or program. 

Focusing on the creation and sale of carbon credits,5 farmers can either work with a program that allows them to create and sell their own carbon credits, getting paid for each ton of CO2 sequestered. Often, these are longer term, 15 years or more, with the farmer contractually bound. AFBF policy #503 / Climate Changeunder we support says, “2.25. Contracts for carbon credits being negotiated with a minimum length of time and containing no penalties for non-performance due to weather or other acts of God.” 

Alternately, farmers can work with a program that creates and sells carbon credits, or sella product based on carbon sequestration or sustainability and in turn pays the farmer to enact practices that will contribute to this effort. An example of this type of program would be an ethanol plant working to make and sell a low carbon fuel that requires a specific grain grown under specific agronomic practices, i.e., grain sorghum grown using no-till. These programs are shorter, paying the farmer a premium on all contracted bushels grown under those practices that year. AFBF policy #525 / Land Ownershipunder we support states, 3.14. A landowner’s right to sell carbon credits. 

AFBF policy #503 / Climate Changehas several suggestions under we support including, “2.3. A voluntary market-based carbon credit trading system with clear, science-based, and consistent standards for calculating the amount of carbon sequestered by agricultural practices that is not detrimental to other agricultural producers, provides credits for previously implemented practices that sequester carbon, and accounts for regional ecological differences; 2.4. If a government agency is to set the “carbon credit” standards for agriculture, it should be the USDA; 2.5. Compensation to farmers for future, current and past activities such as planting crops, managing native and tame grasslands, planting and managing forestland or adopting farming practices that keep carbon in the soil or plant material or improve water quality, or water-use efficiency2.10. Already established climate-smart farming practices being monetized to participate in carbon programs; and 2.15. Education programs for farmers and farmland owners with negotiating carbon sequestration language to provide fair and equitable compensation, adequate legal protection and liability limits. Additionally, the KFB Legal Foundation includes several Carbon and other Ecosystems Markets resources. 

Carbon Intensity (CI) Score 

relatively new term is the Carbon Intensity (CI) scorewhich is measure of the carbon footprint per bushel of grain producedCI scoring has its roots within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation, or GREET model, that quantifies the carbon footprint across biofuel supply chains. The GREET model creates a uniform scoreboard to track carbon emissions, and a transparent pricing system to reward CI point reductions. U.S. ethanol has a carbon intensity score of 55.2, or 55.2 g of GHG/MJ. A CI score of 0 equates to carbon neutrality, corn has a typical CI score of 29.1, meaning that according to the GREET model, corn is responsible for more than 50 percent of the carbon footprint in a gallon of ethanol. AFBF policy #404 / Renewable Fuels5. Emissionsunder we support states5.1.9. The use of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model for carbon intensity scoring for agricultural biofuel feedstocks. 

CI scoring is not based off specific practices, but rather on how companies and farmers compare to those around them. According to an article in Farm ProgressBetty Haynes sums it up by writingGetting paid for carbon at the farm level boils down to data collection and management. Every field has a different CI score, and every county has a projected CI average. When a farmer sells corn to the elevator or ethanol plant, their bushels would be linked to their CI score. If their CI score is less than the county baseline, the elevator or ethanol plant would pay the farmer a premium on each bushel of grain sold. The lower the score, the better. Mitchell Hora, of Continuum Ag, adds that, CI scoring allows carbon and grain to be sold as one asset, remaining together through the supply chain.”  

Continuum Ag is a soil health data intelligence company that uses their proprietary tool called TopSoil® to enable farmers to profit from improving their soil health. They are also an industry leader in Carbon Intensity scoring for farmers. 

Carbon Insets v. Offsets 

Two other terms you may have heard of are carbon insets and carbon offsets. Both relate to strategies for mitigating the impact of carbon emissions, but they differ in their approach and implementation. Offsetting involves compensating for emissions by funding projects that reduce or remove carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These projects are often located away from the emission source and can include various activities such as renewable energy projects, reforestation and methane capture. For example, programs exist where a corporation may “offset” their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits sold to them by a farm or farms that are implementing carbon sequestering practices. As noted throughout this article, Farm Bureau is very supportive of this. 

Carbon insetting, on the other hand, refers to reducing carbon emissions within a company's own value chain or supply chain. It focuses on projects that have a direct-positive impact on the company’s own operations and those of its suppliers and partners. For example, programs exist where a corporation may inset” their carbon emissions by paying a farm or farms for practices that sequester carbon (i.e., planting trees, a cover crop or using no till) or by purchasing and using commodities grown by a farm or farms implementing carbon sequestering practices. AFBF policy #503 / Climate Changeunder we support says, “2.7. Incentives to industries seeking to become more energy efficient or to reduce emissions of identifiable atmospheric pollution and the means of preventing it; 2.29. The insetting of carbon for carbon credits within the value chain of an agricultural operation; 2.30. Research into methods of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide, methane and other ag-related sources of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere that does not involve transporting or storing these gases beneath agricultural land…” 

Can I Stack Carbon Payments? 

Double counting occurs when a single carbon credit, reduction or benefit is claimed/sold more than once and is not allowed within any credible carbon or ecosystems services programBut the stacking of payments from private initiatives and federal programs can be done. Carbon Farming: Stacking Payments from Private Initiatives and Federal Programsa July of 2023 paper from Iowa State University does a great job of explaining how this can work. 


Questions for Policy Development 

  1. Read AFBF Policy 503 / Climate Change carefully. Does it continue to reflect the needs of Farm Bureau members of Kansas? 

  1. Carbon Intensity is only mentioned twice in the AFBF policy book, should there be more language developed while the concept is still new and being developed? AFBF policy #128 / Transportationunder we oppose states, “14.3. The adoption of vehicle emission standards or the regulation of the carbon intensity of transportation fuels if they have a long-term, negative impact on the production and use of renewable fuels or an adverse economic impact on agriculture;” and the earlier listed, 5.1.9. from AFBF policy #404 / Renewable Fuelswhich supports the GREET model.