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  • This is a good friend of mine's field. And he's doing the same

  • thing I'm doing, growing corn, right, for harvest. He's just

  • doing it a lot differently. You've got the contrast of the

  • the soil versus the corn. You've got the beautiful rows straight

  • down. This is what I envisioned when I was a kid, of doing when

  • I was older is farming just like this. And when you get into

  • regenerative ag, you've got chaos.

  • On Trey Hill's farm in Maryland, the fields look a lot different

  • than the clean, orderly rows of crops that his friend is

  • growing. Unlike his friend, who tills his fields after fall

  • harvest and leaves them barren for the winter, Hill plants rye,

  • turnips, clover and a few other species of plants in the off

  • season so that his fields stay covered year-round. Known as

  • 'cover cropping,' this practice is just one piece of a movement

  • called 'regenerative farming.' The approach focuses on

  • replenishing the soils nutrients and also includes things like

  • no-till cultivation, rotational cattle grazing and using less

  • synthetic fertilizers.

  • What we do is, after we harvest our corn or soybeans in the

  • fall, we plant a subsequent crop called a cover crop.

  • And that's what we're standing in right now. But then, when we

  • go to plant corn, our planters will go right directly through

  • this and put the seeds in the ground in the middle of all of

  • these flowers, and then we'll spray the cover crop off, and

  • it'll die and decompose into the ground and the corn will come up

  • through it.

  • As the cover crops grow, and eventually decompose, they

  • provide nutrients for microbes and improve the soil's health.

  • At the same time, the plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere

  • and store in the soil.

  • Globally, about 25% of our climate change pollution is

  • caused by food and agriculture. Most of that's because we're

  • deforesting places like the Amazon to create more farmland.

  • But also the methane that comes out of our cattle and rice

  • fields is also contributing to climate change, as is the over

  • use of fertilizers and other things. But regenerative

  • agriculture seeks to reverse that, and not only, kind of, cut

  • down the pollution, but maybe in some cases even soak up some of

  • the pollution we put in the atmosphere, particularly carbon

  • dioxide.

  • Driven by climate conscious consumers, a number of massive

  • corporations, including General Mills and PepsiCo are vowing to

  • scale regenerative practices across millions of acres of

  • farmland. But can it help tackle climate change?

  • For the last five years, Hill's planted year-round cover crops

  • and refrained from tilling the soil, which prevents the trapped

  • carbon that he's worked hard to sequester, from escaping back

  • into the atmosphere. He says his yields are comparable to what he

  • would have gotten through conventional farming, but since

  • starting to farm regeneratively, he's noticed that his soil is a

  • lot healthier and his crops a lot more resistant to pests and

  • extreme weather such as floods and droughts. He's also seeing

  • some savings.

  • In terms of the regenerative, it's a lot more work in the fall

  • because you're adding a another planting season. But in the

  • spring, it's a lot less work. In the spring, we used to run a

  • disk, a plow, and then the land finisher and then the planters.

  • Now we run the planter and that's it. It's offset a lot of

  • our diesel costs, it's offset a lot of tractor costs, it's

  • offset a lot of tillage costs, all that stuff is expensive. So

  • it actually is a much more efficient way to farm. It just

  • there's it adds a lot of complexity.

  • Initially HIll begin forming regeneratively to appease local

  • environmental groups, who were worried about runoff from farms

  • polluting the Chesapeake Bay. Plus, Maryland has one of the

  • most robust cover crop incentive programs in the country.

  • Right now, we get between I think it's roughly $45 or $50 an

  • acre to do cover crops.

  • But Hill is also generating revenue from selling credits

  • through Nori, a small carbon marketplace based in Seattle.

  • Lately, there's been an explosion of private

  • marketplaces like Nori and Indigo Ag. Here, companies and

  • individuals eager to offset their own footprints can

  • purchase carbon credits from farmers who've sequestered CO2.

  • But some are skeptical that companies will use the markets

  • as an excuse to continue business as usual. Still,

  • McKinsey estimates that the market for carbon credits could

  • be worth over $50 billion in 2030. The Biden administration

  • has also earmarked $30 billion to help pay farmers to implement

  • sustainable practices and capture carbon in their soil.

  • Part of these funds could be used to create a federal carbon

  • bank, which would stabilize the price of carbon.

  • Okay, 10-4 well we can go ahead and do it then.

  • Last year, HIll became the first farmer in the country to sell

  • carbon credits through Nori. Currently, Nori offers its

  • farmers $15 for every metric ton of CO2 they sequester,

  • We put in all of our data for the farm, our yields were,

  • planting dates, what our cover crops are, what our cover crop

  • plant dates are, when our cover crop was killed, all of these

  • different things and we put it into a model that was developed

  • by the Department of Agriculture. What it ended up

  • being is about a ton of carbon per year per acre.

  • Hill says his farm already keeps records of most of the data

  • required by the carbon sequestration model, which made

  • the process easier, but not every farm does. And keeping

  • track of all this data can eat up valuable time.

  • We didn't do every field, it's a lot of work to get the model

  • done. So we took a portion of what we farm and sold that into

  • the carbon markets.

  • After paying a third-party auditor $4,000 to verify

  • Harborview's data, Hill has so far made around $210,000 for

  • sequestering just over 14,000 metric tons of carbon over the

  • course of five years.

  • So that's compost. And it's basically turning into really

  • awesome soil.

  • Loren Poncia owns Stemple Creek Ranch in Northern California.

  • Through a partnership with the Marin Carbon Project, a

  • consortium of independent agricultural institutions,

  • Poncia has also adopted a number of regenerative farming

  • practices. These include applying compost instead of

  • chemical fertilizers to pastures to avoid tilling, and

  • periodically moving livestock from one pasture to another,

  • thus giving the grass and soil a chance to recover.

  • We're part of this study, a 10-year study, that had a

  • 35-acre treatment plot. And basically what we're seeing is

  • we sequester about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of carbon per acre

  • per year. Poncia has already received state funding from

  • California's Healthy Soils Program to implement sustainable

  • farming practices on his ranch, but says he's not yet ready to

  • sell carbon credits on the private market because of the

  • high cost of determining how much carbon is contained in his

  • soil.

  • The carbon that we're putting in the soil has allowed us to grow

  • so much more forage that we are making more money now and

  • selling more pounds of protein now than we did 10 years ago.

  • But we haven't gotten to the point where we're selling carbon

  • credits to the open market, mostly because the value of the

  • carbon credits isn't really worth going through all of the

  • process of monitoring and measuring in order to pay for

  • them.

  • Current carbon market for pasture-based carbon

  • sequestration is somewhere between $5 and $10 per carbon

  • credit. And in order for me to get interested, I would be you

  • know, more like $80 or $100 a carbon credit.

  • Hill and Poncia agree that regenerative farming has been

  • beneficial for soil health and their businesses. But the jury

  • is still out on how effective the practices are when it comes

  • to mitigating climate change. For one, setting up a carbon

  • market is tricky, because measuring carbon sequestration

  • is hard.

  • Back in the 1990s, there was something called the Chicago

  • Climate Exchange, which was trying to trade carbon credits

  • from farmers with companies who were, very early on, talking

  • about greenhouse gas pollution. And the idea was, back then we

  • thought farmers who didn't till their landscape, didn't plow it

  • up every fall, would be absorbing carbon. They do, in

  • the top few inches of the soil. But then, when we started

  • measuring the lower parts of the soil, we noticed that they

  • weren't accumulating carbon as much. And it kind of became a

  • wash. And then, the whole idea of that market kind of fell

  • apart.

  • Even today, figuring out how much carbon is trapped in the

  • soil is not an exact science,

  • The traditional method is you take a core, you stick a big

  • kind of pole in the ground and pull up like what's basically a

  • long rod filled with soil. And you take that out and you

  • actually stick it in a really hot oven ,essentially, and you

  • bake out the water. But then eventually you bake out all the

  • organic matter, you burn it all off and measure the CO2 that

  • comes out. That's really time consuming, expensive. And you

  • basically get a measurement for the place you stuck the pole in

  • the ground. So you have to then go do that again and again and

  • again across the farm. Because every little patch of land is a

  • little bit different.

  • The other option is to use an algorithm.

  • Sometimes, what we do is we rely on an algorithm that says, well

  • based on the topography, the basic soil chemistry where you

  • are, the climate where you are, and the way you're farming, I'm

  • going to go look at 100 other farms who did something similar

  • and give you like a ballpark number to use as kind of a

  • baseline to credit the carbon that you're putting away.

  • Assuming that you get an accurate number for how much CO2

  • has been stored, the next challenge is ensuring that the

  • CO2 will remain in the soil long term.

  • In America, a lot of farmland isn't owned. It's leased by the

  • farmers. And so there's turnover. So I think as a

  • policymaker, members of Congress, the Biden

  • administration and so on, if they're going to plan to kind of

  • pay farmers to do this, or if companies paid farmers to do

  • this in some kind of market, how are you paying them to ensure

  • it'll be there for the next 100 years?

  • Nori demands that sellers on its marketplace sign a 10-year

  • contract promising that they will continue farming

  • regeneratively.

  • So in Nori's market, the farmers are signing a 10-year contract

  • with us that says that they're obligated to keep that carbon in

  • the ground and they have to re-verify the data that that

  • we're using for quantification, at least every three years. And

  • then at every three year verification mark, they can sign

  • a new 10-year contract.

  • Such a long commitment can be tough for farmers.

  • As a farmer, that's a huge risk. If we get a hurricane in the

  • fall, say September, and I have to harvest after 22 inches of

  • rain, I'm probably gonna have to do some tillage. At least in

  • places. What if I don't own the land? The owners that I rent

  • from, t's not typical to get a 10-year agreement because as the

  • markets fluctuate, so do the rental prices. I have some

  • owners that don't like this look. It's their farms and

  • they'd like it to look neat and clean and this is definitely a

  • different look than a freshly plowed field.

  • And Hill's not alone. According to the latest numbers from the

  • USDA, around 40% of the farmland in the US was rented in 2014.

  • Hill says challenges like these are why he's only sold about 35%

  • of his fields into the carbon market.

  • The biggest cost, of course, is time. If farmers have to switch

  • the way they're doing things from what they used to do for

  • years, which reliably could give them productivity and income,

  • and have to make some adjustments. During that time,

  • you might not be earning very much. Or maybe it takes time for

  • the farm, the ranch to shift to getting into kind of settling

  • into these new practices. So that's probably why it'd be good

  • to see things like price supports and government

  • assistance for these kinds of agriculture.

  • Coming up with accurate measures of carbon sequestration and

  • figuring out how to keep that CO2 in the soil long term are

  • moot points, unless farmers agree to adopt regenerative

  • practices in the first place. Nori currently only has six

  • farmers who are fully enrolled onto its marketplace and Foley

  • estimates that regenerative farming is still only practiced

  • on less than 1% of the farmland in the US. In order to gain

  • wider adoption, Hill and Poncia think there needs to be more

  • incentives for farmers.

  • I think what we need to do is be able to couple markets together.

  • So you know, if we can sell the $15 credit on the carbon market,

  • you know, maybe we can save another few dollars on crop

  • insurance. We're offsetting risk by growing crops this way. So it

  • should save crop insurance money anyway.

  • If the government would subsidize carbon in the soil

  • instead of subsidizing mono crops across the country that we

  • end up exporting overseas anyway, I think we could

  • definitely gain a lot of ground very quickly. If we could make a

  • living selling the carbon, I would love it.

  • As for a federal carbon market, Hill says that may not be a good

  • idea.

  • We have to turn over so much data in order to make this

  • marketplace valid, transparent and true. I don't know how many

  • farmers are going to be comfortable turning over that

  • level of information to the Farm Service Agency.

  • Most experts agree that regenerative farming is

  • beneficial and should be encouraged. But they say that

  • it's by no means a silver bullet for solving climate change and

  • should not be used as an excuse to continue emitting greenhouse

  • gases in other places

  • If we're paying farmers to secure carbon from the