Growing crops, not emissions: How carbon farming could help tackle climate change
December 6, 2021
Farmers are doing the biggest job on earth to feed an ever-growing population while also having to balance the effects of climate change and the demands of a changing world. Carbon farming is seen as a solution to mitigate climate change by promoting practices that avoid releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as well as those that sequester carbon. Kasey Bamberger, a farmer from Ohio (USA), explains her experiences with a few of these practices that promote soil health and keep carbon in the soil.
Kasey Bryant Bamberger, the only one of four sisters involved in her family’s third-generation farm, is as passionate as it gets as she tackles the biggest job on earth, helping produce enough food for a rapidly growing world population. “I always grew up around agriculture, but during that time, it wasn’t very common to have women returning to the farm,“ said Bamberger, whose farms span six counties in southwest Ohio. “Farming keeps you on your toes. We’re faced with many variables that are out of our control. In my eight years here, we’ve received a different weather pattern every single year.“
The effects of climate change are impacting farmers like Bamberger across the United States. Extremes such as droughts, floods, and strong winds are becoming more common. “Our springs have become a lot shorter and harder to manage because of heavy rainfalls,“ she said. “The planting window has become narrower, requiring more equipment and more people to do the work in a shorter timeframe.“
These days, farmers are much more than just farmers. They’re agronomists, meteorologists, soil experts, and much more. They must balance the effects of a changing climate and the demands of a changing world. They’re the original stewards of the land and their livelihood is inextricably linked to a healthy environment.
The idea of healthy soil is not new in farming but it’s the driving force behind today’s carbon craze. Scientists and thought leaders believe farmers, implementing carbon farming practices, are in a unique position to be part of the solution to a warming planet. If implemented on a larger scale in the United States, agricultural soils could draw down more 250 million metric tons of atmospheric CO2 annually according to The National Academy of Sciences.
Soils and climate change are intimately linked. There are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the planet. Behind oceans, soils are the second-largest reservoir of greenhouse gases on earth. Soils not only help to remove CO2 from the atmosphere but can also help farming operations be more resilient to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. Healthy soils make farmland more productive, reduce soil erosion, and improve soil structure, thus improving the quality of ground and surface waters.
What’s driving the carbon craze?
Traditional farming methods that sequester carbon, such as minimal or no plowing of fields (no-till), rotating crops, and planting cover crops, have existed for millennia. So, what’s causing the hype around carbon farming? “The carbon industry right now almost seems a little bit like the Wild Wild West,“ said Bamberger. “There’s a lot of new information rolling out to growers that looks to agriculture as the solution to reducing our carbon footprint. I believe we can help be the greatest solution, but I’m just worried about the rules and regulations that will be passed. My hope is that they won’t be rolled out too quickly.“
Many of the technologies and practices used to generate carbon credits are only cost effective when done on a massive scale. According to Bamberger, farmers normally implement new practices in incremental steps. “We started to introduce no-till practices about three years ago on parts of our farm to learn about cover crops,“ said Bamberger. “Understanding what cover crop species will work in our area has been a windy road. We’ve done a lot of trials on different cover crop mixes, different species and different parts of the field to try to learn more about the species and how they work on our farm. This helps us to not have a negative effect, so that cover crops do not get quickly out of hand. If so, this could prevent us from planting on time which is essentially what we are trying to avoid.“
Crop protection is a must
Crop protection technology, such as herbicides, plays an important role in helping farmers implement carbon farming practices. Bryant Agricultural Enterprises has partnered with BASF, which has the broadest range of herbicides in the industry, in a wide array of crop protection initiatives. “It’ll be very difficult for us to grow the number of bushels of any crop needed without the use of herbicides,“ said Bamberger. “With an increasing population that requires food, fuel, and fiber, it will be detrimental if we remove the capability to use herbicides. Even as we transition to no-till farming and plant more cover crops, herbicides play an even more critical role. Digital technology has allowed us to spray weeds in a targeted way and not in entire fields. We’re applying significantly less inputs today than just six years ago.“
Bamberger is just one of many next-generation farmers continuing the legacy of land stewardship. “We continue to challenge ourselves to produce crops in a safe and sustainable manner, while making sure decisions we’re making are operationally profitable and environmentally friendly,“ said Bamberger. “We know as the world population increases, it’s more important than ever to continue to take care of our soils and environment while producing high-yielding crops.“