Our Lead Carbon Agronomist Europe, Charlie Siggs, shares how carbon farming can tackle climate change while unlocking a new source of revenue for farmers.
Discovering carbon farming practices
Whilst at university Charlie had the opportunity to go and visit a local farmer that had been practicing reduced tillage for a number of years. The visit to the farm started in a very unusual way, where the farmer stood in his yard with two clear plastic bags with soil in them. He held up one of them and stated “This was our soil ten years ago when we used to intensively till our soils.” On closer inspection, it appeared that the soil was poorly structured with low porosity and little organic matter.
Then the farmer held up the other bag and said “This is our soil today after ten years of minimum tillage”. The soil was better structured, had more porosity, was a darker, richer colour and had more organic matter present. He then went on to saying: “ Soil is your most important asset and you have to think of it as your bank account. You have to keep on making deposits in order to be able to make withdrawals.”
This moment sparked Charlie's interest in soil and how different tillage methods can improve it over the long term. He proceeded to do his bachelor's thesis on the effects of different tillage practices on soil aggregate stability in a continuous wheat trial that had been running for thirty years.
Carrying out this study, and reading several papers demonstrated to him how reduced tillage and crop residues improves soil, and makes it more resilient to extreme weather events. He observed how organic matter and carbon increase over time when the soil is not disturbed and residues are left on the surface, which resulted in less erosion and soil run off.
From a scientific point of view it seems obvious that growers should all be practicing no-till and leaving crop residues on the soil surface, but he learned from working on farms and being an agronomist that it’s not that simple. Moving to a new system takes time and involves a large amount of learning and managing risks, and it also requires support from an agronomic and financial point of view.
Charlie believes that there is also a degree of confusion about what regenerative and conservation agriculture are, everyone has a slightly different definition of them. His own definition of conservation agriculture consists in the minimisation of soil disturbance and continuous cover of soil with crop residues and/or cover crops.
The reasons for moving to conservation agriculture vary from grower to grower, some may be doing it to help combat climate change, others for reducing costs, increasing working area, the list goes on. In Charlie's opinion there is a common reason for all growers, which he learnt from the grower that he met whilst at university: “Your soil is your most important asset and you have to think of it as your bank account. You have to keep on making deposits in order to be able to make withdrawals.” It is clear, we have to start increasing our deposits in order to keep making withdrawals in the future.
Carbon credits: a double opportunity
Carbon credits now give growers an opportunity to monetize those deposits they make when switching to conservation agriculture. They have been around for a while, but now it’s becoming much easier for growers to obtain them and generate a new revenue stream. They provide a form of financial support for the switch to conservation agriculture, something that has not been available before.
How to establish which carbon credit offer is best for growers? The most important part of the transition to conservation agriculture is having an advisor with the knowledge and experience to support growers on their journey. Making sure that growers are implementing the right practices for their farm, providing them with the right advice. Having an advisor that can support this transition will bring the most value and will benefit the grower and their soil in many ways, the carbon credit will bring in the extra revenue needed to help support this transition and make it permanent and scalable.
It's clear that the transition to carbon farming is not simple nor fast, it takes time, it needs to be supported and studied carefully; however it is necessary to respond to our climate challenge also through changes in farming and it the farmers, as well as the environment will reap its benefits from it: ''The soil bank account will grow over time and it will stabilise to enable growers to make consistent withdrawals. We need to start building that investment so that the future generations can bank on the soil''.