What Is Sustainable Farming?
The Focus on Sustainable Farming
Sustainable farming is by no means a new concept. Since the 1960s, advocates have pushed for the adoption of sustainable farming practices. After World War II, new technologies enabled farmers to prioritize efficiency. A growing population encouraged maximizing yield. Unfortunately, some of these conventional practices unknowingly emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, leading to long-term climate damage.
Sustainable farming aims to sustain soil health. In the United States, soil erosion by inclement weather and pollution of water sources are huge problems. Studies indicate that where topsoil is seriously eroded, yields can be decreased by 20 – 65%. The application of synthetic fertilizers can run off into water sources, seriously polluting drinking water and damaging marine life. Both land and water are limited resources – pollution and erosion only serve to rapidly decrease the availability of these resources long-term. There have also been links between fertilizer consumption (when fertilizer runs off into water sources) and cancer. Sustainable farming gained popularity to protect the land and its stewards.
What Are The Differences Between Conventional and Sustainable Farming?
Different Farming Practices and What They Mean
When talking about sustainable farming practices, it’s important to really understand how they differ from conventional farming methods. And sustainable farming is not the same as organic farming. Below, we talk through the main practices found in each method, and we also touch on regenerative farming.
Conventional farming can cover a lot of techniques, but at its core, conventional farmers are focused on maximizing yield. This typically involves chemical fertilizers and genetically modified crops. Conventional farming is efficient farming – getting the most out of each seed at the lowest cost. Given the large chemicals and artificial substances required here, soil quality is often negatively affected by conventional farming practices.
Conventional farmers usually plant one crop (uniformity can help keep labor costs down and keep an operation efficient). Pesticides and herbicides can be applied uniformly across a farm, which can again decrease labor time. Conventional farming is by no means easy – it still takes a lot of time and skill to successfully plant and harvest crops to feed a hungry population. But conventional farming does aim to maximize yield and minimize cost for farmers.
Sustainable farming is focused on maintaining soil health, ecosystem health, and farming community health. Sustainable practices try to literally sustain farming: by enforcing standards that promote farmer and environmental viability long-term. We can look at sustainable farming in three ways:
- Economically viable: practices should be profitable to farming operations
- Socially supportive: farming communities should maintain a healthy standard of life
- Ecologically sound: ecosystems should maintain their biodiversity and health
Typical sustainable practices can include planting cover crops, rotating crops, and controlling fertilizer application. We delve into these topics later in this article.
Organic farming and sustainable farming are often lumped together, though they are NOT the same (see our blog post on the topic here.) While sustainable farming is focused on farmer profitability and long-term health of communities, organic farming is purely concerned with the additives in the soil or crop being grown. Organic produce is grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (the soil needs to be clear of these substances for three years prior to planting organic crop). Organic meat requires that certain living conditions are met for the animals and they be fed an organic diet without antibiotics or hormones. While these practices can be sustainable in nature, it’s important to note that organic farming can use non-sustainable farming methods as well. Large scale organic row crop farms often require tillage for weed control, which we know leads to soil erosion over time.
The USDA closely monitors which crops can be considered organic. Here is a list of permitted and prohibited substances when farming organic.
Unlike sustainable farming, regenerative farming does not just seek to maintain current soil health; it promotes practices that can actively reverse climate change and restore soil health to previous productivity levels. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic system that focuses on long-term health of the plants, animals, and workers within the community. The main sustainable practices are considered regenerative as well (planting cover crops, crop rotation, reduced tillage, etc). The main difference between sustainable and regenerative farming is in goal-setting: regenerative farmers try to renew the productivity of the soil.
Outside of conventional farming, there are a lot of synergies between farming methods. Usually the differentiating factor behind a method is why the farmer is conducting their practice a certain way: for long-term sustainability, for organic certification, or to actively reverse climate change.
Best Practices For Sustainable Farming and Regenerative Farming
Examples of sustainable or regenerative farming practices can include cover crops, crop rotation, reduced or no-tillage, and controlled application of chemical fertilizers. We’ll dive into each of these practices below to better understand their long-term effects on soil.
Cover crops are planted in regions where the normal crop season is less than twelve months. For example, row crops of corn in the Midwest are usually planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. For the remainder of the year, the ground would be bare, leaving the soil open to erosion from heavy rain and snow.
A cover crop protects the soil from increased damage, which greatly reduces soil erosion and runoff. Decreased runoff allows the soil to retain vital nutrients and lessens the ability for harmful pesticides to make their way into water sources. Over time, cover crops increase soil’s organic matter.
Crop rotation is a planned succession of different crops. For example, if corn is planted in a field for one season, soybeans would be planted in the following season. As different crops die in the soil each year, their composting will maintain or increase soil health. Different root lengths can also strengthen the topsoil.
Reduced or No-Tillage
Reduced or no-tillage farming methods imply that the soil is minimally disturbed. In conventional tilling practices, the top level of soil is turned over before being planted. This disrupts the soil and leaves it open to higher erosion from weather. Under no-till or reduced tillage, seeds are planted directly into the soil, which does require specific equipment.
Controlled Chemical Fertilizer Application
Chemical fertilizers are typically sprayed across fields. Given the velocity of the spray, much of the fertilizer actually is emitted into the atmosphere instead of being absorbed into the crop and soil. Some sustainable farmers combat this by veering towards animal or plant-based fertilizers (such as manure), or by employing 4R Nutrient Stewardship.
4R Nutrient Stewardship is a framework to promote sustainable farming practices. It incorporates the:
- Right fertilizer source at the
- Right rate at the
- Right time and in the
- Right place
Chemical fertilizers are not prohibited in sustainable farming – rather, the 4Rs contemplate the appropriate use of the fertilizer. Is it being applied directly to the root zone? Have weather conditions been monitored to protect against unwanted runoff? Controlled management of fertilizers can certainly be considered sustainable farming practice.
Buffer strips are areas of land planted with permanent vegetation, standing between farmland and a waterway. Buffer strips help hold topsoil in place and prevent harmful runoff into the water source. They also promote the natural retention of water and can function as vegetation sources for wildlife.
Sustainable farming is not always cheap. As we mentioned above, conventional farming tactics have always focused more on maximizing yields at minimal costs. While sustainable farming does look to increase farmers’ profits in the long run, there can be some upfront costs that deter farmers from implementing these practices, including purchasing or renting no-till equipment and buying manure and additional seed for cover crops. Thankfully, there are some programs that can help compensate farmers for some of this burden.
What are carbon credits? How do carbon credits work?
At their core, a carbon credit is a permit that allows a user (a company or nation) to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere (carbon dioxide is so prevalent that the term “carbon credit” was born). Regulatory agencies set how many carbon credits a user should have for a year, with the goal being the number of credits available decreases slowly every year as companies shift towards lower-emission production.
For some users (large-scale manufacturers and utilities), the number of carbon credits allocated by regulators will not cover near-term greenhouse gas emissions. It could be more profitable to purchase extra carbon credits in the short-term as they scale down emissions long-term.
This is how the carbon credit trading market began. Those users with extra credits could trade them for cash. For example, a small-scale utility company that uses solar energy might not use all the carbon credits allotted. The utility could sell these credits to a manufacturing company for cash. Both companies benefit: the small utility gets cash quickly, and the manufacturer can more profitably scale back emissions over time. The government achieves its goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions (the small utility did not need to use its full carbon allotment). A true win for everyone!
This situation is typically called a “cap and trade”. Emissions have been capped for each party, and they can trade among themselves for an optimal outcome.
Types of Credits
There are two types of credits: Voluntary Emissions Reduction (VER) and Certified Emissions Reduction (CER). VER is a carbon credit exchanged in over-the-counter or voluntary markets. CER is a carbon credit that has been created by a regulatory body and is certified by a third party organization. CER is issued as a compliance measure: nations, states, and cities will have a certain number of credits allotted. The VER market is comprised of companies, nonprofits, and individuals that seek to reduce their own carbon footprint. They can either earn credits through completion of sustainable projects or buy credits and offset their own carbon emissions. We’ll delve more into VER as it’s directly related to farming practices.
Voluntary Emissions Reduction
Voluntary (or verified) emissions reduction is a carbon credit that is generated from an independently verified project. Unlike the CER, the user or organization developing the project is not mandated by a regulatory agency to curb their carbon emissions. A local farming operation is the perfect example of an organization that could benefit from VER. For farmers who choose to employ sustainable practices on their land, the VER provides compensation for each ton of carbon dioxide sequestered. Once the project is verified by an independent third party as abiding by GHG reduction Standards, the credit would be issued. The farmer could then sell the credit to another party (a company or nonprofit) looking to offset carbon emissions.
How to Earn and Verify Carbon Credits For My Farm
A carbon credit is issued for each ton of greenhouse gas (GHG) that is pulled from the atmosphere. A project must verify that it has reduced or eliminated one metric ton of GHG to qualify for a credit. To do that, a project must first offer scale and proof of additionality. Scale means the project is large enough to make a difference in GHG emission, and additionality proves that the project is eliminating emissions beyond the status quo.
Carbon offset registries keep track of each credit issued and sold. Here is a list of credits issued by the American Carbon Registry (ACR). ACR is one of several organizations that act as a registry for offset projects and offers oversight of verification of reduced emissions. Other registries can be found here.
To register a project, documentation must be provided to the Registry, detailing the geographic location of the project, its scope, and compliance plan. Here is an overview of the documentation required. While it may seem overwhelming, there are several organizations that assist in document collection, registration, and verification. For farmers, Indigo Ag provides a digital platform to upload data, and Indigo can calculate the carbon emissions reduced.
Once a project is registered, ongoing compliance takes place to ensure the project continues to abide by the original plan submitted to the Registry. Credits are issued for each ton of GHG avoided. The credits are public and can only be sold once before they are retired. This serves to protect the integrity of the program – companies that need to offset significant emissions are required to finance multiple projects to comply.
How To Be Eligible For Carbon Credits
Qualifying Soil Enrichment Projects
Now let’s look specifically at what activities a farmer can take to be eligible for carbon credits. The lists below are included in the Soil Enrichment Protocol, which can be found here. We have included a general overview of what defines a soil enrichment project, but we do encourage everyone to read the full Soil Enrichment Protocol, which goes in-depth into credit calculation and project terms.
A change in any of the below activities are considered practices that may enrich soil:
- Fertilizer (organic or inorganic) application
- The application of soil amendments (organic or inorganic)
- Water management/irrigation
- Tillage and/or residue management
- Crop planting and harvesting (e.g., crop rotations, cover crops)
- Fossil fuel usage
- Grazing practices and emissions
Eligible fields for soil enrichment must adhere to the below criteria:
- Each field must be clearly delineated
- The area within each field must be continuous (except minor breaks)
- The same crop (or crop mix) must be grown throughout each field within a reporting period
- Permanent or improved roads, watercourses, and other physical boundaries must be excluded
- The project area shall not contain any Histosols
- The project may contain tile-drained fields or surface drainage, as long as the drainage was in place during the baseline period (i.e., not installed for the purposes of the project)
- If the project area includes land classified as highly erodible land (HEL), that land must meet federal Highly Erodible Land Conservation provisions to be eligible
- If the project area includes land classified as wetlands, that land must meet federal Wetlands Conservation provisions to be eligible
- Projects may not include areas which have been cleared of native ecosystems, including established and restored grasslands, within the 10 years prior to the project start date
There are also mandatory stakeholders in each project, including:
- Field manager: entity with management control over agricultural management of the fields
- Project developer: entity which manages the monitoring, reporting, and verification of the project on the online registry
- Project owner: entity with legal ownership of the GHG reduction rights for the project
It’s interesting to note here that landowners are not mandated to take part in any part of the process. As long as the landowner signs an Attestation of Title (meaning the landowner allows another party to take full ownership of GHGs saved), the farmer or any other third party can take full ownership of any carbon credits created. However, should landowners want to receive any carbon credits, they must act as a project owner. Project owners are responsible for timely submission of all documentation – however, they can always delegate this responsibility to third parties.
And finally, project eligibility rules are listed below.
- Project must take place in the U.S., its tribal lands, or territories
- Project must commence no more than 24 months prior to submission
- Emissions reductions may be credited up to ten years per field, or if renewable, up to 30 years
- Project must prove additionality, exceeding regulatory requirements in place and meeting the Performance Standard Test (adoption of or cessation of traditional practices on the field)
- Project must display permanence (each ton of GHG reduced would be eliminated from the atmosphere for 100 years)
- Project must comply with all local laws and regulations
This may seem daunting at first, but at its heart, the Soil Enrichment Protocol is user-friendly and encourages gradual practice adoption. In fact, many farmers are already taking the appropriate steps in eligible fields. Providing documentation is just one more simple step to help earn carbon credits.
There are several resources available for farmers and landowners to make the shift from conventional farming to sustainable or organic farming, and Tillable is one of them. Through our Sustainable Flex Lease, landowners and farmers can work together to implement some long-lasting sustainable practices into their land. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to give us a shout, and we’d love to help.