continuum ag

How do farmers get paid for carbon?

Since starting into the soil health space, we often heard “I don’t get paid for soil health”. That has now changed. Recently, groups such as Indigo Ag have stepped forward saying, “We’re going to start paying farmers for Carbon sequestration.” That means farmers will actually get paid for the carbon (AKA CO2) that they pull out of the atmosphere and store in the soil. 

So how does carbon sequestration happen? Plants perform photosynthesis to pull in CO2, water, sunlight and nutrients and produce vegetative growth. As CO2 and sunlight are absorbed by the plant, the plant converts those compounds into sugars. Much of that sugar is pumped into the soil to feed the microbes – we call that excreted sugar, plant exudates. Those exudates are that milky substance on the root of a plant that feeds the microbes. Microbes like to live right around those plant roots and absorb carbon. Microbes eat very basic sugars. In return for the sugars that the microbes receive, the plants take in nutrients from the microbes.. Some of that carbon is used and stored in the plant to fuel growth and to produce carbohydrates. The resulting plant material give us calories, the nutrients that animals desire, or the sugars we process into products such as ethanol or corn syrup. 

Some soil nutrients are outside the root zone and plants utilize microbes, like fungi, to span the soil and acquire those distant nutrients. Other nutrients are all around us, like nutrients in the atmosphere. Some plants utilize microbes that can fix nitrogen and offer nitrogen to the plant in exchange for carbon, just like soybeans and other legumes do with rhizobia bacteria.

Nodules on a soybean root and colonies of rhizobia bacteria.Nodules on a soybean root and colonies of rhizobia bacteria.

Why is Carbon important?

Scientists are showing that carbon levels have increased in the atmosphere to roughly 415 parts per million. Farmers can reverse this trend, we can actually store or sequester carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon is a building block of organic matter in the soil. It feeds the microbes and bonds to nutrients. The carbon helps to hold soil together like glue in the system. Carbon is also great at holding on to other compounds, so it holds the soil in place and holds nutrients. We also know when we build things like organic matter, we build our water holding capacity and infiltration potential, ultimately helping our soils to be more resilient. The best analogy, is that organic matter is the home for the soil microbes, organic carbon is their refrigerator, their food source!

As farmers why is this important and how do we benefit?

So there are a ton of benefits, but how do we, as agriculturalists, benefit monetarily? We’re seeing a few new groups are paying us directly for the carbon we’re sequestering. We need to collect data to prove the carbon we are sequestering, that’s why we at Continuum Ag have been performing soil sampling that evaluates soil carbon. With better data, we can strategically adopt practices that pump carbon into the soil. Our favorite practices include: cover crops, utilizing manure, reducing our synthetic inputs, and keeping that ground covered at all times, while implementing as much plant diversity as we can. Ideally we want to stimulate different types of soil microbes while utilizing different species of plants that pump carbon through their roots and feed those microbes at different times. Our overall goal is to build long-term resiliency and long-term soil health. Now are also able to benefit from groups that want to pay us to offset their carbon footprint while we continue to build yield, build resiliency and reduce some of our synthetic inputs, ultimately helping the bottom line. 

cover crop Soybeans growing in a wheat cover crop.

For more information on how we can help your bottom line and how you can prepare to get paid for carbon, contact us! We’d love to come and work with you and explain more of the opportunities that we have going forward as farmers. It’s an exciting time, and now we have the opportunity to get paid for soil health!