Just Ask a Farmer: Is Carbon Right for Me?
Does a carbon program make sense for me?
It’s a question many farmers are asking themselves, and our answer is always the same: Don’t chase a carbon payment unless it makes agronomic sense for your farm.
But don’t just listen to us. We asked four farmers to share their thoughts on carbon programs and why it works for their operations. Each of them shared their take in our recent carbon roundtable webinar series.
Jess Daily farms at Mainstay Farming Partnership in North Central Indiana with his dad, uncle, and team. They grow non-GMO corn and soybeans, popcorn, wheat, commercial soybeans, and organic popcorn and soybeans. Jess has adopted various soil health practices and is a customer of Corteva’s Carbon Initiative.
Heather Hampton-Knodle runs a farm with her husband and four kids near Nokomis, Illinois. She’s been on numerous state and national level councils and was recently elected President of American Agri-Women, which is the nation’s largest coalition of women in agriculture. Their commodities include corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and black Angus cattle.
Todd Shively operates a 180-acre farm near Buckley, Illinois, where he grows corn and soybeans. He began experimenting with cover crops and reduced tillage over the last three years. Todd is a Certified Crop Advisor and co-owner of NextGen Ag Service which offers Pioneer brand products, downstream seed treatment, soil sampling, and cover crops through Midwest Grass and Forage. He spent nine years in the grain business with CGB.
Joey Stasell operates Stasell Family Farms, a 1,200 acre family farm located in Central Illinois where he raises non-GMO corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. Joey began experimenting with cover crops and strip-tillage in the last few years and has newly implemented these practices on 600 acres. Joey is also an emerging leader in the American Soybean Association (ASA) and Corteva Agriscience Young Leaders program, which focuses on leadership training in agriculture.
Why were you interested in a carbon program?
We’ve been more or less experimenting with cover crops for close to 8 to 10 years now, and keep tweaking and adjusting. A carbon program offers a unique opportunity to figure out and learn and still take advantage of some financial incentives.
The financial risk to changing practices is real. Payments from carbon, EQIP, etc. can relieve some of that financial burden.
To be eligible to participate in a carbon program, you have to introduce soil health practices like cover crops or reduced tillage. What was your incentive to get started down this path?
We did this change to help support our soil structure, to better our farm. It’s not so much about the carbon payment, but we’re more precise with our fertilizer application, we don’t have the chemical costs we had before, and our soil is healthier. Our organic matter keeps going up.
My initial interest in cover crops was weed control, and cereal rye was a great place to start to help with weed-resistant water hemp. It’s also a good way to reduce chemicals. We also use poultry litter, and cover crops are a good way to work those nutrients in and hold them so they’re available for the next crop. Water infiltration is also important, and radishes and the roots will do a lot for the soil in terms of water infiltration.
Can you share a little bit about your experiences with soil health practices and what you’ve learned?
On our non-GMO soybeans and some of our conventional beans, we’re letting cereal rye get three or four feet tall, planting into and burning it down. We are getting excellent broadleaf control from that cereal rye, building thousands of pounds of biomass, accumulating humus, reducing erosion – and we’re doing it all without sacrificing yield from our trials. We can also reduce inputs and are getting better nutrient cycling. We’ve just seen so many benefits – from soil structure to nutrient build-up to weed suppression.
You want to start with the fields you know the best, are easy to manage, easy to farm. If you’re going to try cover crops, go ahead of soybeans – it’s a lot easier than going ahead of corn which is more management intensive.
As for failures, in 2019, we had cereal rye that was 6 feet tall. It was terrible trying to plant into that. You don’t learn from good years. Try it out on one field, not 20, and surround yourself with people who have experience with it.
I think of soil like DNA – it’s different depending on which corner of a given field you’re in and which part of the world you’re in. Soil responds differently to different practices. We could implement regenerative practices in one field, and we have seen results even in three growing seasons – either improved yield or moisture filtration and retention. We’ve already seen subsurface moisture that’s needed in the middle of the growing season in some fields where we’ve had a consistent kind of cover crop cycle. Other fields may take a lot longer to respond given the soils or the topography or the environment itself.
With the oats and radishes, we relied on winter kill for the crop. It takes a lot of hard freezes to kill those crops. When we finished up by November 6, I was amazed at the size of the root – almost the size of my little finger – even after going through several 25 degree nights. You need to be aware of things, making sure you’re not introducing something that’s going to carry over into the next crop. Identify a clear goal, start small, and keep it simple. Offset costs with a carbon payment and federal funding.
What would you tell a farmer looking to introduce soil health practices?
You can’t and don’t want to go out and do this on a thousand acres – no one can risk that economic loss or extra work. That’s why it’s so important to start on a small scale and learn as you go. You can do a lot of things to help the soil, but if it doesn’t pay the bills, or if it’s not contributing back to ROI, it’s just not going to be sustainable for your operation. And carbon stacks in nicely with the other economic incentives we have.
This isn’t for everyone or every acre. It’s high management. We’ve done cover crops and strip till and are now getting into N management. It takes a while to learn what works best, and what doesn’t. There’s stuff that works for me but won’t work for the farmer 10 miles down the road.
And you don’t have to introduce all the eligible practices right away. I know there are some fields where we have cover crops but don’t strip till. Other fields have both. Some fields we haven’t implemented anything because those fields aren’t worth the time/investment because they’re more challenging.
You have to go in with the mindset that this isn’t just a one-year thing. It’s a long-term commitment to change. You may not see those benefits immediately. It’s going to be 2 to 3 years easy before you see that whole system starting to work together. There are years where you just won’t plant that cover crop if it doesn’t make sense. Go into it knowing you’re going to have some glitches and challenges, but don’t give up. This is a long-term change.
Are you tapping into other financial incentives in addition to carbon?
One of the reasons we started down this road was because we were farming ground that never should be farmed. So we started to look at some of the NRCS and CSP programs. The very first year we had two fields that we cover cropped cereal rye into winter corn. We basically did everything wrong, had to tear up those fields and replace the crop. Anybody in that situation would be tempted to never do it again. It was a failure, we wasted money and time. But we had a five-year commitment with NRCS, so we had to figure it out. That was probably the greatest thing that could happen because we kept tweaking it, doing more research.
We have such variability and soil types – we’re just trying to figure out the systems that work. The CSP funding was excellent – it covered our equipment, our cover crops. We were basically getting subsidized to go out and figure this out.
There are lots of carbon programs out there. Why did you choose Corteva’s?
We chose Corteva because of the depth and breadth of expertise and the track record of the company. We’re not advocating for vertical integration, but we do recognize that having geneticists, plant breeders, agronomists and soil scientists with cumulative experience spanning generations, coupled with the record keeping capabilities, is an asset. And the tipping point was the assurances related to our data.
We looked at different companies, but Corteva is the easiest to work with so far. I like the structure of the program.
We evaluated several different platforms and tried to understand what was going to be the best fit and least painful for us. A key point to understand is if you’re able to capture the upside on market value. You also want to make it easy. If your carbon payment is anywhere from a few bucks to $20 an acre, and you’ve got to change your whole documentation system, it’s probably not worth it. Make sure it easily integrates with what you’re doing. You don’t want to lock yourself in for several years – so having some flexibility – and find a program that’s going to have some additional expansion.
If you think carbon programs aren’t a good fit today, remember the market is growing, improving, getting more structured. Just keep getting educated on it, because at some point it will be a good fit.