Farmers who practice no-till, or other tillage-limiting production techniques, can earn a few extra dollars by carbon trading - the latest push for a greener environment that rewards growers who sequester, or keep, carbon in the soil.

Carbon sequestration, also known as carbon farming, refers to the storing of atmospheric carbon in plants and soil so that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reduce or slow.

Carbon-trading efforts have been expanding across the United States. Typically, energy industries pay no-till farmers through bilateral agreements, or agricultural groups work in the open market on farmers' behalf.

The Chicago Climate Exchange is a voluntary, rules-based greenhouse gas emission and trading system, and the place to go to trade carbon credits in the open market. Currently, carbon is trading at $1.70 per ton of carbon dioxide, which translates into revenue for the farmer of roughly a dollar per acre.

"Currently, the financial returns aren't that great, but at that rate a farmer with 1,000 acres of no-till could earn $1,000 annually for merely continuing his established practices," said Mark Wilson, president of Land Stewards LLC in Columbus, Ohio. Wilson spoke about carbon trading to no-till farmers during the recent Ohio State University Extension Ohio No-Till Conference in Plain City, Ohio.

"No-till in and of itself is a carbon credit. If someone is willing to pay you to do what you've been doing, then why not get involved? You are just leaving money on the land if you don't," said Wilson.

Examples of carbon-trading efforts throughout the United States and elsewhere include:

  • Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, who works with Entergy, an electric company based in Louisiana, to "lease" carbon credits to Washington state farmers.

  • Greenhouse Emissions Management Consortium, a Canadian company whose efforts to trade carbon with farmers have expanded into the western United States.

  • World Bank in Washington, D.C., which has mobilized the BioCarbon Fund to alleviate poverty and promote biodiversity conservation by aiding farmers in developing countries to practice no-till.

  • Windows of opportunities are opening for interested farmers. For example, the Iowa Farm Bureau has launched a carbon credit aggregation pilot project to encourage Iowa growers to practice no-till and to trade carbon credits. Through 2004, more than 80,000 acres of cropland have been enrolled, and the Iowa Farm Bureau is looking to expand the project outside of the state as far east as western Ohio.

    Though carbon trading varies at the Chicago Climate Exchange, credits can reach as high as $2 a ton or higher. Some industries have rewarded farmers with as much as $5 a ton for sequestered carbon, noted Wilson.

    However, carbon trading in the U.S. holds no candle to the revenue European farmers generate -- in some instances as high as $58 per ton. It's conservatively estimated that the European Union will trade as much as $1 billion worth of carbon emissions annually by 2010.

    For more information on carbon sequestration and carbon trading, go to:

  • American Farm Bureau

  • USDA Economic Research Service

  • Pew Center

  • SOURCE: Ohio State University via Dairy Herd Management magazine.