No-tillers have always felt they were good soil stewards. Now a group in West Des Moines, IA, is willing to pay farmers for environmentalism - and no-tillers may benefit more.

That's because, in no-till, more carbon stays in the soil. "Tilling soil helps break down plant material, which in turn releases carbon into the atmosphere," says Tim Kautza, planner with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in Des Moines.

Carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, is called a greenhouse gas and is, according to some, one reason for global warming.

Brokering a deal between Iowa farmers and a group of Canadian utility companies is CQuest, Ltd., West Des Moines. Working with IGF Insurance Co. agents throughout the state, CQuest plans to purchase carbon emission reduction credits (CERCs) from about 100 farmers later this spring.

Kautza's agency is working on a model to predict how much carbon would be tied up - "sequestered," in technical terms - in the growing crop, roots and soil. "We don't know how to accurately assess the amount of carbon a producer has on his or her land, other than direct measurement, which is cost prohibitive," points out Kautza.

He says no-till appears to sequester the most carbon of any cropping system. Some estimates are that 3-4 tons/acre of carbon might be sequestered in a no-till situation, while a permanent seeding of switchgrass might sequester 5 tons or more. Kautza adds that numbers are much lower in the pilot study. "We estimated 0.21 ton/acre for no-till beans and 0.33 ton/acre for permanent grass."

Extra credit

If producers could contract sequestered carbon for $3-4/ton, they would receive payments of from under $1/acre up to $20/acre, depending on how much carbon is actually stored each year. "If farmers are to be compensated in this way, some have suggested that a mechanism be developed to recognize and pay for past efforts," Kautza says.

"I think there's an enormous opportunity here for the American farmer," says Richard Sandor, chairman and chief executive officer, Environmental Financial Products L.L.C., which specializes in developing new environmental, financial, and commodity markets. "I think monetizing carbon sequestration could add $4-6 billion to net U.S. farm income."

Sandor says farmers who are in the process of switching to lower tillage or no-till, or participating in reforestation, should keep good records to verify changes later. At the same time, he adds, all growers need to stay abreast of legislation that would affect carbon credits locally or nationally.

Today's best advice is to learn everything you can about carbon sequestration and how your land management practices affect it. Then, if you're inclined to sell CERCs, avoid long-term contracts at first. Most sources expect prices to rise in the future.