How farmers are using cover crops to absorb carbon emissions

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is more than 50 percent higher than it was during the pre-industrial era. In an effort to fight climate change, many industries are grappling with how to reduce or offset their carbon emissions. Illinois Public Media's Dana Cronin reports on how farms are becoming a frontrunner in the race to reduce carbon.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is more than 50 percent higher than it was during the pre-industrial era. In an effort to fight climate change, many industries are grappling with how to reduce or offset their carbon emissions. Illinois Public Media's Dana Cronin reports on how farms are becoming a front runner in the race to reduce carbon.

  • Dana Cronin, Illinois Public Media (voiceover):

    It's springtime on Jason leis farm in Bloomington, Illinois. We're standing on one of his 75 acre fields, which during the growing season is covered with corn or soybeans. But today the field is dotted with a grass like grain called cereal rye. It's a cover crop which goes in during the winter months.

  • Jason Lay, Farmer:

    What that does is it helps hold the carbon dioxide or the greenhouse gases, it helps hold them so they don't get released out in to the atmosphere.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Instead of leaving his field alone in the winter, Lay uses the rye to help fight climate change. And these 75 acres of cover crops are keeping a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere.

  • Jason Lay:

    Roughly would be about hopefully a ton an acre, so about 75 times across this whole field.

  • Dana Cronin:

    That's equivalent to the emissions of 15 gas powered cars driven for one year. Lay is part of a growing number of farmers across the country starting to experiment with these cover crops, thanks to something called the carbon marketplace.

    The marketplace works like this. Let's say there's a company like a factory or manufacturer that needs to offset their carbon emissions because of self-imposed goals or government regulations. They can go to big corporate agriculture companies like Bayer, for example, and purchase carbon credits. Bayer in turn pays farmers like Lay to plant these carbon capturing cover crops, which offset the company's emissions.

    These carbon programs are popping up across the agriculture industry targeting everything from corn and soybean farms in the Midwest to cotton fields in the south.

  • Chris Harbourt, Chief Strategy Officer, Indigo:

    I absolutely am a believer that carbon credits are part of the move to reduce the overall pressure on the atmosphere.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Chris Harbourt is Chief Strategy Officer at Indigo, a farming technology company. Unlike older agriculture companies, Indigo focuses exclusively on sustainability.

  • Chris Harbourt:

    Right now we can get every farmer on Earth to change their behavior if we incented it correctly, and they have the infrastructure the equipment there already dispersed across the globe to make that happen immediately.

  • Dana Cronin:

    But Harbourt acknowledges scaling up would be difficult. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports only 4 percent of farmland is planted with cover crops, and only a small fraction of those farms are enrolled in carbon programs.

    To help bring more onboard, Indigo offers farmers short five-year contracts. But some climate experts say it's going to take long term commitments to reduce the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere.

  • Giana Amador, Co-Founder, Carbon180:

    For the climate we really need, I would say durability of carbon stored on timescales of 100 years.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Giana Amador is the co-founder of Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on carbon removal. She argues when it comes to making a real dent in the climate crisis, we need to focus on how to reduce carbon overall, not just offset it. But Amador says paying farmers to sequester carbon is ultimately a good thing.

  • Giana Amador:

    What's exciting about these voluntary offset markers is it provides an incentives for farmers to shift practices and potentially helps with some of those financing challenges.

  • Jason Lay:

    Permits the obvious American answer you give me more and I'll figure out how to do it.

  • Dana Cronin:

    For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Dana Cronin in Bloomington, Illinois.

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