Deep in west Alabama, in a part of the state where most economic activity grows up from the ground, one woman is hoping to get paid for what she’s putting back into the soil.
Aliceville farmer Annie Dee, who runs the Dee River Ranch in Pickens County, is one of a growing number of farmers who are signed up to get paid to sequester carbon in the soil using what are being called regenerative farm techniques.
Dee uses a mixture of plants such as radishes, turnips, clover, winter peas and oats as cover crops for her 4,000 acres of row crops. The cover crops grow to different depths in the soil, providing a variety of benefits. She still tinkers with the mixture based on seed prices. In the past she’s used sunflowers, but she said those were too expensive this year.
Dee is one of the early participants in an incentive program run by startup Indigo Agriculture called the Terraton Initiative, which will pay farmers like her $15 per ton of carbon sequestered in the soil where she grows crops like corn, soybeans and timber and grazes cattle.
Dee isn't a climate change activist, but she has been an advocate of no-till farming, using cover crops and crop rotations for decades. Now she's making a little extra bank for the added benefits of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.
"What I hope is to get paid for things that I'm already doing," Dee said.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher now than at any point in the at least the past 800,000 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Agriculture is estimated to be responsible for 20 to 25 percent of global carbon emissions, but some believe it may also be the easiest and cheapest way to put carbon back in the ground.
Plants naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and using cover crops in between growing seasons can keep soil healthy, richer and full of carbon. The plants also break up tough soil with their roots, adding nutrients back to the soil as they break down.
Indigo Ag believes farmers like Dee can sequester enough carbon in their soil to make a real impact in the battle to limit the impacts of climate change. The project name Terraton is a play on words from “terra,” meaning earth, and “tera,” meaning one trillion, as the stated goal of the project is to keep one trillion tons of carbon in the soil and not the atmosphere.
The company says it expects farmers who use “the full suite of regenerative growing practices” could capture 2 to 3 tons of carbon per acre per year.
Those practices include using cover crops, no-till, reducing fertilizer and chemical inputs, crop rotation, and integrating livestock and crop areas to allow “carefully managed grazing” for the animals and provide a bit of free fertilizer for the plants.
Indigo gets its funds from large companies, individuals and governments looking to purchase carbon offsets. Indigo will earn its profits by charging for the measurement, monitoring, and verification of carbon sequestration.
At $15 per ton, reaching its one trillion ton goal will be very expensive, but the company says that figure is actually cheaper than the other methods being tested to remove excess CO2 from the air.
So far, Indigo says farmers have committed more than 12 million acres to the program, including 77,000 acres in Alabama. The company is still recruiting participants through its web site.
Dee is among the largest participants in Alabama at roughly 10,000 acres and she’s also in the minority because she is already using many of the recommended techniques.
Indigo cites an analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that estimates only one in five farmers use any of those techniques consistently, and less than one percent use all five. The company hopes this financial incentive will kick-start the more widespread adoption of more sustainable farming.
“With a financial incentive – $15 per ton of carbon dioxide – growers are able to reduce the risk associated with transitioning to regenerative growing practices,” the company said in a statement. “This new revenue stream is critical as growers are faced by an increasing number of challenges, including extreme weather events, low commodity prices, and high input costs, that make it difficult to remain profitable each year.”
Dee said she is still sending the company soil information to determine how much carbon she is keeping in the dirt.
"I think they're still in the figuring it out stage," she said.
Dee said the benefits of some of these techniques can be measured in laboratory testing that many farmers perform now to get an idea of their soil health. Dee said that when she began farming row crops in Pickens County some 30 years ago, her soil had very low organic matter. Now, it’s a different story.
"The organic matter, when we got here, some of our fields were less than 2 percent, maybe 1.5 percent," Dee said. "Now some of them are as high as 7 percent."
Dee says the difference is visible to the eye as well as instruments. The soil is darker, richer and more fertile. It very rarely cracks during drought, and erosion is less of a problem. That leads to larger yields at harvest time of corn or soybeans.
“[The soil] holds more water, it’ll hold more nutrients, and it’ll be a healthier soil,” Dee said. “That’s a huge thing to build the organic matter.”
Annie Dee was a No-Till Farmer Innovator award winner in 2018.