'Carbon Farming' Could Soon Be New Cash Crop For Florida Growers
As the world continues to warm due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases, the public and private sectors are ramping up programs to pay farmers for trapping carbon dioxide in their soil.
David “Kip” Ritchey, 31, and Angelique Taylor, 27, are standing in their one-acre farm off of a busy highway just outside of Tallahassee. Their muddied rubber boots are surrounded by rows of budding mustard greens, collard greens and kale.
“There's a lot going on in our space, Ritchey said. "There's an open field of cover crops, a mixture of hairy veg, of rye grass, also oats.”
What started out as dating in the garden flourished into growing fresh produce for a food desert in their area called Frenchtown.
Ritchey and Taylor harvest about 500 pounds of food a year, but they also spend a lot of time and energy evolving their sustainable farming practices for their regenerative farm.
“It's definitely been a roller coaster ride,” said Taylor. “It's mainly like researching and then application. And then the application doesn't always go as planned.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the agriculture sector accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions across the country.
President Joe Biden wants to reward farmers for using climate-friendly practices on their lands. Big agriculture companies are already paying growers in the Midwest to plant crops that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and use techniques to keep that carbon in the soil. Those developments and others have spurred hope that the business of carbon may soon come to Florida.
Greenhouse gasses can be emitted when farmers till the land. The traditional practice of overturning soil when preparing for new crops releases carbon from the soil back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. It also destroys the natural ground structure.
Ritchey and Taylor use alternatives to tilling. They also plant cover crops in the off-season to keep nutrients in the ground, use hay as a natural water and nutrient reservoir and experiment with organic fertilizers to lessen their carbon footprint.
“When you practice those things, there's a there's a learning curve … And in that learning curve, that's when you have to sacrifice, and you have to say, ‘All right, let me pull it back from our profit, and let me readjust,’” Ritchey said.
But Ritchey and Taylor are not getting any compensation for this extra effort — and that could soon change.
President Joe Biden’s administration wants to use $30 billion in farm aid money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation to pay growers for implementing sustainable practices.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried supports the proposal.
“It's gonna be millions upon millions of dollars,” Fried said.
She said Florida farmers have had it hard recently with tariffs, weather and the coronavirus pandemic, so she thinks this incentive can help.
“They are the best stewards of the land out there,” Fried said. “By giving these types of tools to make additional profits, while also saving their land and saving the environment, every farmer across the state of Florida will be eager to see these types of programs coming out and participate in them.”
Fried submitted a proposal to the White House, which said that “with 9.7 million acres of farmland, Florida is an ideal state for potential pilot programs.”
The document suggests a public-private partnership “to identify federal and state-owned lands on which potential properties not actively being managed can implement a tree planting and cover crop program for carbon sequestration.”
The Business Of Carbon
Some of this is already happening in the Midwest. Private agriculture companies have started paying growers there for farming sustainably.
Bayer is one of them. The pharmaceutical company has a separate Crop Science arm, which is paying farmers $10 per acre annually for at least one climate-conscious action. The program only runs in the Midwest and Brazil right now, but Bayer representatives say it's possible their program could expand one day to Florida.
Jason Lay has been a grain farmer in Central Illinois for 18 years. And he's had 31 fields enrolled in Bayer's program since it launched in August. Lay said adopting new practices is not necessarily more work in the field, but it does require some education.
“A lot of it is just coming to grips with what additional practices you have to become better at,” he said.
Lay acknowledges he's not making much off of this one program, but for him it’s not about the money. The practices he’s adopting are making his soil healthier overtime which is good for business and the environment.
“We're going to leave the soil undisturbed, there's going to be less erosion, it's going to be better water infiltration, we're going to have less chemical runoff, less fertilizer runoff. There's a multitude of things that are more of a long-term part of the solution,” he said.
But farmers, by nature, are very independent, very traditional, and slow to change, Lay said.
“So this would be classified as something along the lines of changing,” he said. “Farming is not just cows and plows anymore … We've got to address this and not only be part of the solution, but also try to get ahead of it too. And we're one of few industries that can help solve this.”
David “Kip” Ritchey and Angelique Taylor say that they're fairly new to farming, so they have no traditions keeping them from learning.
“Really, it’s the stewardship that drives us to practice these sustainable things,” Taylor said. And Ritchey agrees.
“Yeah, we want to leave something behind for the future generations that come after us,” he said.
They realize that they have a small operation but they’re developing practices that can be used on large-scale farms. And funding through public and private programs could be what it takes to get traditional growers on board.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.