The carbon farming future — by which farmers get paid to trap the organic matter in the earth through sustainable practices — is becoming a reality for a Minnesota-based company linked to ag giant Land O'Lakes.
But it sometimes takes encouragement. Just ask Brad Hagen, a farmer near Ellendale, Minn.
"A lot of people, including myself, were pretty shy about wanting to sign up," Hagen said. "It was so new. We didn't know what we were signing up into."
Hagen started farming in 1988. But by 2013, his fields were scorched by drought. He'd also lost more topsoil every year, describing conditions as a "modern day Dust Bowl."
So he planted a cover crop — winter rye after he'd harvested his corn. It turned the heads of neighbors. Cover crops act as a blanket on barren fields, keeping precious topsoil from eroding away.
They play an additional role in carbon farming: By spring, the roots of Hagen's winter rye had increased nitrogen in the soil. His field was trapping more carbon.
The nitrogen cycle and carbon cycle are closely linked, but naturally occurring sources of nitrogen are limited, especially in agricultural land. Carbon farming aims to improve a field's ability to produce its own nitrogen that then helps lock carbon in the soil.
"Carbon is basically the good stuff," said Hagen. "The stuff that makes your fields productive."
Hagen wants it in the soil. And so, increasingly, do big corporations.
Arden Hills-based ag giant Land O'Lakes launched Truterra in 2016 as its sustainability wing. Last year, the first enrollment season of its carbon program opened up. Company leaders say Truterra won a bid to buy and sell carbon for Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash.-based multinational technology company.
In effect, by buying credits, Microsoft can offset their own carbon footprint by paying someone else to keep theirs smaller.
After a conversation with his local ag retailer, Hagen heard that Truterra, a Land O'Lakes-owned business, would pay him money to do exactly what he was already doing: sequestering carbon through innovative farming practices.
"The farmer was one of the first environmentalists," said Mariah Murphy, Truterra's director of retailer and farmer services. "From the beginning days, farmers were starting to figure out how to better their practices, better their harvest, and it's still continuing today."
Carbon credits, sometimes derided as the NFTs of farm country, are still relatively new. In 2003, a carbon market launched in Chicago. But with increasing desire to monetize — and thus, incentivize — environmental programs, the market for buying and selling carbon has grown.
Just last month, Target and Hormel announced a $1.7 million investment into regenerative ag farms. Earlier this year, Wisconsin-based sustainable dairy giant Organic Valley launched a carbon-insetting program with farmers.
Officials with Truterra, who finished its latest enrollment season at the end of June, say they've so far paid farmers $4 million for sequestering 200,000 metric tons of carbon.
The effort requires farmers, and the company, to first figure out how much carbon is already in the soil. This is done by boring holes in the ground and running field tests. Truterra quantifies soil tests and makes models with Colorado State University. The process can take up to nine or 10 months.
But Truterra says the turn-around — from a farmer enrolling to seeing their first payment — is "lightning quick" for such a robust process. Company leaders argue it can often take competitors over a year to complete.
Depending on how many acres a farmer enrolls, the payments can be an extra line of income to his or her operation.
Enrolled producers earn $25 for every ton sequestered. Truterra says the average farm sequesters 0.3 to 0.5 tons of carbon per acre. According to a Purdue University survey of American farmers participating in a carbon exchange program, half say they recoup less than $10 per acre.
"Carbon [farming] should really be seen as the cherry on top," Murphy said. "You should really be [carbon] farming for soil health, for continuing that agronomic journey."
Moreover, carbon-friendlier farming has added benefits beyond credit payments.
Anna Cates, Minnesota's state soil health specialist and a soil scientist with University of Minnesota Extension, says practices that sequester carbon tend to have other benefits related to water quality and preventing soil erosion. Moreover, she noted farmers can't be expected to carry the burden alone of cleaning up the environment.
"They're also operating private businesses," said Cates.
Truterra's Murphy says the company has received interest from thousands of farmers in the last 18 months. While Microsoft is currently the sole client, the company acknowledges interest from other parties.
Like any innovation in farming country, carbon farming takes a little curiosity and maybe some courage. Hagen says farmers also need sympathetic landlords — often people living far away from the farm in the Twin Cities or other metropolitan areas.
"If the landowner is going to pooh-pooh the idea, [saying], 'Well, Grandpa always did it this way with a moldboard plow, and if you're not doing it that way, I don't know if you're going to be a very good farmer,'" Hagen said, then the prospect is thwarted.
For Hagen, he was heartened by his landlord's reaction.
"They've seen me doing this stuff and one in particular was like, 'We're really happy with what you're doing with our ground.'"