Illinois farmers will soon have a new market available to them — selling carbon credits they can earn by adopting a variety of conservation practices.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and a number of state agencies and private organizations are developing a program that will allow producers and land owners to earn and sell “carbon credits” for using conservation practices, such as no-till and planting grasses and trees.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere having been going up because of increased emissions. But research at the University of Illinois, conducted by Steve Hollinger and Carl Bernacchi, both with the Illinois State Water Survey, shows that certain conservation practices, such as no-till farming, can help to offset these rising carbon levels in the atmosphere. They can create a carbon “sink” by storing carbon in the soil.

“This is an eight-year running experiment where we directly measure CO2 flux between the atmosphere and a no-till corn-soybean agricultural ecosystem,” says Bernacchi. “So far, we've collected six years of data that represent three complete corn-soybean rotations. After accounting for all the agricultural practices associated with no-till farming, the data suggests that a slight carbon sink actually exists.”

Continuous no-till, strip-till and ridge-till farming all increase the organic matter level in soil and sequester carbon. Other farming practices that increase carbon sequestration include converting cropland to permanent grass or trees and methane capture and combustion.

Farmers who adopt eligible conservation practices will be able to register with the state to sell the carbon they have sequestered, called offset credits, to private industries that want to reduce their carbon emissions. The average selling price for offset credits in the U.S. is around $2 a ton.