GARDEN CITY — Three years ago, rancher and farmer Jay Young got intrigued by a YouTube video.
A North Dakota farmer championed the idea of cover crops — plants that would be considered weeds in many other contexts — as robust plants for his cattle to graze on.
Young applied the cover crop strategy – rotating rye, radishes, turnips, oats and barley – to his land just east of the Colorado border. The plants held the soil in place, trapped nutrients in the ground and made the ground nicely spongy.
Partly as a way to prop up farmers who lost crops to flooding this spring, and partly as a way to protect the soil, a federal farm program now offers farmers in 67 flooded Kansas counties from $30 to $45 an acre to put down cover crops.
Meantime, a fledgling private effort is beginning to offer another cover crop bonus: payments intended to capture more carbon in the soil and reduce greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.
This spring, heavy rainfall destroyed crops and delayed the planting season throughout the state.
By comparison, some farmers who used cover crops like Young fared relatively well. Less ponding, more absorption. That’s paying off now when he needs to irrigate the land.
“If I ... use less water because I'm utilizing cover crops and capturing more water that is coming out of my sprinklers,” he said, “then I'm being a better steward of the water.”
Karen Woodrich, a state conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, said planting cover crops helps restore soil nutrients.
“Standing water, it might have killed what was already there and kind of pulled the nutrients right out of those fields,” Woodrich said.
Through photosynthesis, plants grab carbon from the air and store it in the soil through their roots.
“Every time you till the soil, you actually are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere,” said Steve Swaffar, the executive director of the No-Till on the Plains.
If plants continuously cover the ground, the root system creates porous soil. Swaffar says healthy soil resembles cake.
“It's full of small holes. It holds together when you hold it in your hand,” he said. “That allows water to infiltrate down through that soil and then be stored in the soil.”
The plowing of cropland crumbles that cake-like dirt. That prevents water from seeping into the ground. Swaffar says once tilled soil dries out, it’s almost like dust.
“When you get a rain on top of that, you essentially, in the first half inch, seal that structure,” he said. “It just creates kind of like a mud that seals over the surface of the soil and then water can’t infiltrate.”
Ag tech company, Indigo Agriculture, has created a carbon marketplace where growers who sequester carbon are paid and businesses, nonprofits or anyone interested in investing in the marketplace can purchase carbon credits, typically used to offset the release of greenhouse gases from some other activity. The company aims to reduce carbon dioxide by 1 trillion tons.
The company will pay farmers $15 to $20 dollars per acre for every ton of carbon dioxide captured in their soil.
John Niswonger grazes his cattle on cover crops in western Kansas.
“We do our best to raise the crops,” he said. “You’ve got to plant the cover crop out there and keep those roots growing and the photosynthesis is what pumps that carbon back into the soil.
“I don’t understand why they would pay us, but if they do, I guess we'll take the money,” Niswonger said.
Ed Smith is the head of Indigo Carbon, and oversees the company’s Terraton initiative. If a farmer has a 100-acre field, and puts three tons of carbon dioxide into the ground, Smith says that farmer would be compensated $45 per acre — for a total of $4,500 for the entire field.
Indigo Agriculture began by selling microbes that helped seeds grow faster. After working with farmers utilizing regenerative practices, the company noticed the soil transform from a pale to a dark color.
“The difference in that color is soil organic carbon levels,” Smith said. “They are also doing a service for the planet by taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in the soil, which led us to Indigo Carbon.”
Niswonger signed up for Indigo’s Carbon marketplace, but he says soil carbon sequestration is a more of an industry term.
“It's more for your university people than it is for anybody that works on the land. I mean ... the process happens, and it's not like we try for it not to happen or try for it to happen,” Niswonger said.
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or ror email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
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