14 January 2000

US growers rest ploughs to earn carbon credits

By Stephen Leahy

CANADAS biggest power companies are paying farmers in Iowa £8-16/ha (US$5-10/acre) to park their ploughs this spring.

This is not altruistic concern over soil conservation, but part of a hard-nosed trade in the worlds newest commodity – carbon credits.

For farmers in Iowa it is manna from a northern heaven. "Its a good source of income for doing nothing. Its a gift," says Roger Doescher who farms 100ha (250 acres) of maize and soybean in New Hartford.

Ploughing farmland causes oxidation of organic matter which releases carbon dioxide at a rate of 0.6-10t/ha (0.25-4t/acre) annually. Carbon dioxide is the main cause of global warming and reducing emissions of this greenhouse gas is the focus of the international Kyoto Agreement.

By paying 400 farmers in the mid-west of the US to no-till their land, Canadian utilities are reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 2.8m tonnes. The resulting carbon credit can then be used to offset their legal obligation to cut emissions.

Frank Lewis of West Des Moines, Iowa, owns several large corn/soybean farms and signed on to enhance his return in a time of low commodity prices. New no-till equipment will be needed, Mr Lewis says. But costs will be offset by the payments, reduced inputs from no-till, soil conservation benefits and improved wildlife habitat.

Carbon credits should increase in value over time, which should attract other farmers, he believes. "Carbon credits have the potential to dramatically increase the numbers of no-till acres."

The program, run and sold by crop insurer IGF Insurance of Des Moines, also gives farmers advance payments to help with equipment purchases. Independent evaluation and verification is done on each farm to estimate the carbon savings and future payments will be made on that basis.

The credits are a simple and low-cost way for industry to reduce greenhouse emissions says Steve Griffin of IGF.

Farmers can also sell credits for burning less fuel and reducing nitrogen applications – nitrogen oxide is another greenhouse gas. Additional credits can be secured by planting trees and grass buffer strips, idling acres, biomass power generation and methane abatement from livestock waste.

"Most farmers have no idea that tillage puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," says Mr Doescher a long-time advocate of no-till. "Many farmers will be in favour once they understand." &#42

CARBONCREDITS

&#8226 No-till cuts CO2 release.

&#8226 Power companies buy credits to offset enviro obligations.

&#8226 Worth £8-16/ha.

&#8226 400 mid-west US farmers.

US farmers are being paid to shift from ploughing to reduced cultivations in a novel carbon credits deal with Canadian power companies.