On 1,100 acres of farmland near Austin, Minn., 47-year-old Tom Cotter has embraced no-till planting and cover crops that keep carbon stored in his soil and out of the atmosphere. Cotter changed his farming methods for financial reasons, not just to fight climate change, and stuck with them long enough to see them pay off.

Cotter sees a new pilot program in the 2018 federal farm bill that pays farmers to experiment with the same growing style as a chance for others to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits he has.

The $25 million test project will measure how much additional carbon the agriculture sector can keep out of the atmosphere by leaving fields untilled or minimally tilled and covered with vegetation.

"It's going to help more people to try it," Cotter said of the pilot program. "But you have to change your mind-set. If you can get some money to do it, that helps."

Farming techniques that fight climate change by increasing carbon stored in soil do not work everywhere, explained Tim Smith, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota. But where they do work, soil quality and productivity improves. They also reduce the need for fertilizers that contribute to carbon in the atmosphere.

The pilot program aims to "reward farmers for sequestering carbon in their soil, but we need to verify that they are doing that," said David Kolsrud, who farmed in Luverne before starting a private funding group and working in the renewable-energy sector.

The carbon sequestration experiment in the farm bill was the brainchild of an unlikely coalition that includes the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) as well as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the American Coalition for Ethanol. Those normally competing groups came together to persuade Congress to fund a model for encouraging farming that is simultaneously profitable and environmentally friendly.

The project will pay selected participants to revive old farming methods to draw more carbon from the atmosphere into the soil and keep it there.

"Ag [has] a major opportunity to protect the climate," said Nicole Lederer of E-2, a group that advocates for policies that work economically as well as environmentally. Lederer helped broker the deal between the corn growers and the resource council that led to the pilot program.

Fundamentally, the program relies on disturbing the soil as little as possible to limit the release of carbon stored in the roots of plants and decomposing vegetation. It also emphasizes keeping ground covered with crops year-round to prevent the release of carbon from erosion by water or wind.

Cotter said the combination reduces the need for fertilizer. "Instead of spending 20 bucks an acre killing the ground, I want my soil livestock [worms and other organic creatures] doing my tillage," he said.

That can mean planting cover crops rather than letting fields lie fallow. It especially means cutting down on or eliminating tillage, said Lara Bryant, NRDC's deputy director of water and agriculture nature programs.

No-till or low-till farming requires some special equipment. Cotter grows no-till soybeans using an $1,800 adjustment to the closing mechanism on his planter. He grows low-till corn by planting seed in narrow bands about 10 inches wide. He bought a used vertical till machine for $8,000 at auction to help do that and shared the cost of the machine with a neighbor.

These sorts of techniques fell out of favor in the 1970s when plentiful land and expanding crop production led farmers to use "more extractive systems," according to Bryant. Rewarding those who invest in equipment to return to the old practice is a necessary part of the pilot project.

The prospect of cap-and-trade payments for carbon reduction or the development of low-carbon fuel standards and products such as low-carbon feedstock can provide financial incentives, Lederer said.

The Minnesota Farmers Union offered its imprimatur to the pilot program as advocates made their case to members of Congress. Farmers union President Gary Wertish said details of how the program will work are still being developed. The basic concept includes paying farmers who undertake healthy soil practices, measuring their success and passing the data on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set up payment rates for various practices that could be funded under the agency's environmental quality incentives program, which averages about $2 billion a year in the new five-year farm bill.

California already has a state program that rewards farmers for sequestering carbon in their soil, Kolsrud noted.

How well the program would work in Minnesota depends on where you farm. In Blue Earth County, Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said the short growing season and frozen ground can be obstacles to no-till and cover-crop strategies.

Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota's Smith said, "I don't think Minnesota is aced out of this [program] at all. There are places where tilling conservation and cover crops can work. But it's not one size fits all."

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432