Carbon farming markets are emerging as an appealing prospect to reverse the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

They are also a breath of fresh air in the metaphorical sense because of the unusual alliances and rare bipartisan support they are attracting. Agricultural groups and environmental advocates have coalesced around the prospect that farming can be a meaningful part of the climate change solution. While a small private market for carbon farming practices already exists, the seeds are being planted to explore the prospect on a much bigger scale at the state and federal levels.

Jane LandrettiJane Landretti, Drake 2004, is general counsel at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Madison.

The idea got a recent boost at the state level. The Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change included in its December 2020 report recommendations that lay the groundwork for Governor Evers’ proposals to improve Wisconsin’s land and water health. They are part of a network of fresh ideas described by Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary-designee Randy Romanski that advance producer-led conservation and incentivize farmer participation.

The recommendations accompany other forward-thinking ideas that are good for Wisconsin, including a food waste pilot program, increases to Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin and Farm to School , and a new Farm to Fork program at DATCP.

Carbon farming is one of the most exciting among these, because of the prospect that, if we lay the groundwork now, down the road farmers could see new revenue streams – including private ones – to incentivize the practices that are part of the climate change solution.

The idea is also fertile at the federal level. Carbon markets are a centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s climate strategy. The Growing Climate Solutions Act would make it easier for farmers to participate in carbon markets.

Groups as diverse as American Farm Bureau Federal, Environmental Defense Fund, and National Farmers Union have aligned in their support. It is popular with Democrats and Republicans. Politico reported recently that the bill is expected to pass on its own before the August recess or may be attached to an upcoming infrastructure passage.

What Is Carbon Farming?

Carbon farming is a broad set of agricultural practices that help plants suck carbon from the atmosphere and direct it into the soil.

When plants photosynthesize, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. When the plants die, this carbon either goes back into the atmosphere or stays in the soil.

Agricultural practices help determine that fate. Plant materials that are left to accumulate and slowly decompose in the soil contribute to the formation of soil organic matter, a way of storing carbon in the soil over long periods of time.

Some of these practices have been around a long time because they made good practical sense – we just haven’t always called them carbon farming. My late Grampa Shorty always tilled his leftover biomass into the soil, so that it would act as mulch after he harvested his fields. I can imagine how it would go if I could tell him he been carbon farming back in the day. He would think to himself that I should have been raised to have more sense, and he might say, “Nope, not farmin’ any carbon. Just corn and beans.”

What is Driving This Push?

Even while some of the practices are not new, there is a growing eagerness for private companies to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. And in turn, that could translate into a whole new revenue source for farmers that transcends the limitations of traditional agriculture incentive programs.

One model for pilot programs is premised on the notion that consumers will pay more from companies they identify as environmental stewards. Third-party marketplaces would pay farmers for sustainable practices, either per acre practiced or per amount of carbon captured, and sell those credits to companies eager to purchase the credits in response to consumer demand. Companies like Microsoft and North Face join many others eager to tap into the potential for carbon markets as a way to demonstrate to customers their commitment to sustainability.

Consumer demand aside, regulatory compliance may also drive the market from companies down the road. That model puts the federal government (or third-party intermediaries acting in its capacity) as the banker, to pay the farmers and sell their carbon credits to companies seeking to offset their own emissions for regulatory compliance. Danone, Smithfield, and Nestle have indicated that they need help from their farmers to meet their own greenhouse gas emissions goals.

Of course, there will be important things to get right. We need to explore how best to quantify, validate, and report carbon offsets. There will be important questions about what checks will exist on the third-party intermediaries who may perform these functions, especially if their methods will have regulatory impacts. And there are farmers who are already using these practices.

As with any new idea, we’ll need to adapt as we learn. A certification program, like the Growing Climate Solutions Act could bring the clarity and certainty that farmers need to invest in climate solutions, and bring new sources of funds from the private sector where they could do the most good.

It is a refreshing chance to stop digging our heels into old political barriers and start digging instead into new ideas about the role of cover crops and healthy soils.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Environmental Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Environmental Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.