What is Carbon Sequestration?

What is Carbon Sequestration?

Let’s Talk About Farmers, CO2 & Carbon Sequestration

I’m three months into establishing roots here in Grey Bruce as a resident and a rural entrepreneur. Wherever you travel in Grey Bruce you’re blessed with beautiful scenery making any “commute” something to look forward to and enjoy. When I was an urban entrepreneur the “commute” was nothing like it is here!

Whether you’re in Grey Bruce or 45 minutes north of the GTA all around you are farms, livestock and crops that are integral to the food supply chain. Farmers (especially family owned ones)  are the producers of food that you and your family eat every day. Yet, how well do we appreciate this as consumers? 

Some are quick to blame agriculture as major producers of greenhouse gases because cattle poop creates methane gas. There are other unintended consequences to the environment caused by farming including carbon emission from tilling soil, trampling of pastures (according to one video I recently watched) and prolonged exposure of soil.

The reality though is that all industries, companies and consumers, especially those in developed countries, have their share of work to do to cut emissions. The concept and practice of carbon reduction, net zero emissions and “going green” is complicated. But does it have to be? 

This brings me to my conversation with Ken Schaus, a second generation farmer in Grey-Bruce. In a twitter DM exchange Ken introduced me to the topic of carbon sequestration. And, I took in a recent podcast entitled: “Is Carbon the New Gold?” My goal was to learn more about this topic and below is what I’ve learned so far.

What is Carbon Sequestration?

Try searching for what is carbon sequestration and you’ll find more than one definition. Here are a few to sink your teeth in:

Wikipedia: Carbon sequestration is the long-term removal, capture, or sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow or reverse atmospheric CO2 pollution and to mitigate or reverse climate change. 

Britannica: Carbon sequestration, the long-term storage of carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean.

ScienceDirect: Carbon sequestration is the removal of carbon from the atmosphere (e.g., by photosynthesis) to relatively stable storage in the terrestrial system (e.g., peatland soils).

Me: a range of things that can be done to reduce CO2 emissions to make our planet better and incent food producers, and farm land owners, to implement sustainable standards and farming practices.

The graphic below paints a picture of carbon capture pretty well and introduces the concept of “regenerative agriculture”. 

Graphic Source: Green America  

Some key nuggets of information from Ken regarding carbon:

  • Traditional farming practices don’t fix the CO2 emissions they cause. They capture carbon during the growing season and then release it after tillage instead of having something growing in the non crop times (cover crops).  Bare soil and tillage releases carbon back into the atmosphere
  • The role of cover crops is, in part, to capture (sequester) carbon using sound farming methods. It’s important to be able to measure the amount of carbon stored and pay farmers to capture it
  • A landowner should be able to benefit from the potential CO2 capturing. But most cash croppers don’t want to even talk about it. Most cash rent cash croppers are interested in renting and mining the land. They seek big rents till the land is depleted. Then move on

Learn more about cover crops from Ken check out his thread below. 

Finally, to help further educate us on carbon farming I wanted to share with you a really good podcast. In this episode of Growing the Future Podcast, Terry Aberhart chats with Bill Dorgan about the benefits of using carbon in agriculture to reduce the impact crops have on the environment and also about tax concerns and other issues associated with using carbon. Bill, born and raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, has an extensive career in agriculture. For the last thirteen years, he’s been part of the carbon and sustainability initiative at Agri Trend. Thanks to Terry and Bill for allowing me to repost this. 

Timeline

00:00 | About Bill and his farming roots and his competencies in chemistry, plant nutrition and genetics and carbon in agriculture.

02:55 | Progress in Alberta on generation of 4 million tonnes of carbon offsets with farmers since 2008 using conservation cropping (zero till protocol), beef feedlot cattle methane and nitrous oxide reductions. Over $50M returned to Alberta producers as a result.

04:03 | “Growing Carbon” and regenerative agriculture. Why now? Is carbon offsetting real and making a difference? 

10:00 | Carbon tax vs. carbon offsets. 

14:30 | Farmers and agriculture are misunderstood when it comes to sustainability of their farm, their soil, their business and their land. Many producers are already focused on sustainability and the long term viability of farms is critical as our population grows. Farmers in Canada must have an equal playing field against other farmers in other countries and be compensated for their work in reducing emissions, capturing carbon and practicing regenerative and sustainable practices.

18:30 |  Where does the rubber hit the road? What’s going on now in carbon offset market and the current opportunities for farmers? The zero till conservation protocal issue (expires end of 2021) in Alberta is discussed and why some farmers qualify for an offset and others don’t.

25:02 | Government of Canada and Department of Agriculture currently developing a soil organic matter protocol which will replace Alberta’s protocol at some point in time. This protocol focuses on measuring the reduction of soil disturbance (from zero tilling for example) resulting in the building of organic matter over time.

25:45 | The Feeding and Efficiency protocol is being applied to feedlot beef cattle. The nitric oxide reduction protocol is coming back to the surface with the nitrogen use efficiency calculation being used on the farm as evidence of emission reductions.  

26:43 | Alberta’s decision to terminate the conservation cropping protocol, while disappointing, there will be other mechanisms to replace it and allow farmers to continue down the mitigation of carbon emissions.

27:03 | Where do farmers go from here? What types of activities should farmers focus on now and in the shorter term? Data capture, integrity, protocol development and then regulatory implementation of policies and protocols. The producer of the greenhouse gases will either pay the government or the farmer. In other words, pay a carbon emission tax or incent the farmer to capture carbon. 

A bit more about the agriculture market in Grey-Bruce

Here’s some interesting stats about Grey Bruce farmers):

  • Beef cattle population: 203,852 (2014)
  • Sheep population: 48,042 (2014)
  • Goats population: 7,085 (2011 Grey County)
  • Bison: 2,360 (2011 Bruce County)

Poultry, Hogs, Turkeys and Ducks data for Grey Bruce not available from source.

Here’s a breakdown of crops being produced by Ontario farms bases on acreage (average 2011 to 2015)

  1. Soybeans: 2,725,000 acres on average between 2011 and 2015
  2. Grain Corn: 2,078,000
  3. Hay: 2,016,000
  4. Winter Wheat: 883,000
  5. Fodder Corn: 266,400
  6. Barley: 116,400
  7. Edible Beans: 112,400
  8. Spring wheat: 98,400
  9. Mixed grain: 98,200
  10. Oats: 82,299
  11. Canola: 58,800

Source: Wegg, T., Sitter, B.,Helwig, F. (2017), Agriculture Today, A Portrait of Family Farms in Ontario. T. Wegg Photography

Some Parting Thoughts

Reducing CO2 falls on all of our shoulders and it’s my view that getting a handle on carbon emissions, capture, offsets and insets will take time. Each industry will need to evolve and innovate along with our tastes and preferences in our food, how we travel and more broadly how we live. I tip my hat to Ken and other farmers who are tackling carbon emissions head on through best practices in farm and land management, carbon capture and sustainability. The lands and pastures they own are vital to carbon capture and strategically tied to those companies, like Amazon, that will need to buy carbon credits. Read this article and you’ll see what I’m referring to.

One More Thing! Learn About Our Carbon Sequestration Pilot

I’m working with a small skunkworks group on implementing a carbon sequestration pilot project in Grey-Bruce. If you’re interested in learning more or participating, contact me