The sun sets over a hazy mountain ridge in Highland County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Robert Whitescarver

At last, farmers and foresters might have a seat at the carbon market table. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House to create incentives and remove barriers for farmers and foresters to receive credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing soil organic matter – carbon.

The “Growing Climate Solutions Act” will empower the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a suite of programs for farmers and foresters that support greenhouse gas reductions and carbon sequestration. This bipartisan legislation was introduced on the House side by U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, and Don Bacon, R-Neb. In the Senate it was introduced by Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

As a long-time soil health professional, farmer and an environmentalist who cares about the future of our planet, I totally support the legislation and encourage others to study and support it, as well.

If enacted and carried out, it will reduce greenhouse gases, improve soil health, reduce soil erosion and give those who work the land credits and payments for good stewardship —  creating a pathway to address climate change while ensuring more sustainable farms and forests.

Oceans are the largest carbon sink on Earth, followed by our soil and forests. Plants — trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, corn, soybeans, seaweed, algae — all of them literally take carbon out of the atmosphere (sequestration) and store it in their tissue. Yep, good ol’ photosynthesis. Plant residues left on the land or incorporated into the land put that carbon into the soil – the second largest carbon sink on earth. Trees of course, the third largest carbon sink, store carbon as wood and roots.

Sustainably raised livestock also play a key role in advancing carbon sequestration. Grazing cattle and other ruminants are essentially mobile carbon sequestration enhancers and fertilizer factories. When the plants they eat come out the back end they are placing digested grass back on the land, carbon and all. 

Putting carbon on and in the soil increases soil organic matter. That’s a good thing because soils higher in organic matter can retain more moisture, resist erosion more efficiently and recycle nutrients faster. Generally speaking, the higher the soil organic matter, the healthier the soil. 

It has been shown that a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can sequester about 8 tons of carbon per acre. Using plants to take carbon out of the air and then leaving most of the plant on the land will increase soil organic matter. For example, a farmer that grows corn for grain can harvest the ear of corn and leave the cornstalk on the land. That dead cornstalk is loaded with carbon. Left on the land it will intercept the erosive energy of raindrops, helping reduce soil erosion. When the cornstalk decomposes it adds organic matter to the soil. In soil conservation speak this is referred to as plant residue use.

Other plant residue use practices include leaving wheat straw and soybean stubble on the land after the grain is harvested and feeding hay to cows.

The “Growing Climate Solutions Act” lists the following practices that may qualify for greenhouse gas reduction credits or carbon sequestration: plant residue use, emissions reductions derived from fuel choice or reduced fuel use, livestock emissions reductions, on-farm energy generation, energy feedstock production, fertilizer reductions, reforestation, forest management, avoidance of forest conversion, grassland management including rotational grazing and other practices deemed appropriate by a newly formed advisory council.

Overall, U.S. farmland soil is capable of sequestering 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, offsetting 11 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report published by the Soil Science Society of America.

The soil and forests are the most practical and available carbon sinks. And it makes sense to motivate those with the most soil – farmers and foresters – to use plants to capture carbon from the air and store it. 

The “Growing Climate Solutions Act” is supported by a wide range of farm, environment and industry organizations including the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, United States Cattleman’s Association, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and many others.

I urge my fellow Virginians who are concerned about the future of agriculture and our planet to contact your representatives in Congress and encourage them to support this commonsense legislation.

Robert “Bobby” Whitescarver was named “soil health champion” in the National Association of Conservation Districts Soil Health Network, author, farmer and educator at James Madison University. He can be reached through his website at http://www.gettingmoreontheground.com