Is carbon farming a climate boon, or boondoggle?
Programs that pay farmers to sequester carbon in their soil are ramping up. But a growing chorus of skeptics cautions that the results may not live up to the hype.
Trey Hill led a small group of fellow farmers to a field outside his office in Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a cloudy February day, but the ground was alive with color – purple and red turnip tops mixing exuberantly with green rye, vetch and clover, and beneath it all, rich brown soil. Hill reached down, yanked a long, thick, white daikon radish from the earth and showed his visitors sumptuous coffee-colored clods clinging to hairy rootlets. Those clumps, he explained, hoard carbon – carbon that’s not heating the planet.
Hill didn’t adopt “carbon smart” practices like cover-cropping to fight climate change. He did it to build soil, retain water, and make money. But when the third-generation corn, wheat, and soybean farmer learned about Nori, a Seattle-based startup looking to sell credits for carbon stored in the soils of farms like his, he was all in. Hill didn’t necessarily expect a windfall, but he wanted to show fellow farmers they could make money while helping fight climate change. “If it works out and we make some money on it, that’s great,” Hill says. “If it doesn’t, well, somebody’s got to be first, and we’re willing to take that risk.”