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"Got Carbon?"

By Bob Wagner, NEFU Carbon Credit Project Coordinator

Added March 8, 2012. Or more to the point, do your farming practices reduce your carbon footprint or sequester carbon? If so, the New England Farmers Union's Buy Local Carbon Project wants to identify those practices and develop the methodologies so that carbon credits generated by these practices can be sold in the marketplace. Our goal is to create a viable carbon market for New England farmers who participate in conservation practices that benefit the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the collapse of "Cap and Trade" legislation in Washington, which would have mandated a carbon credit market in the US, new markets for carbon have emerged over the last year. General Motors, Bank of America and the state of California have all announced that they want to buy carbon offsets from farmers. Other buyers include New England colleges and universities, such as Green Mountain College, and businesses, such as Ben and Jerry's and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, who are taking steps to become carbon neutral. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of which all the New England states are members has a goal of capping and reducing CO2 emissions from the power sector by 10% by 2018.

Since June of last year, the New England Farmers Union has been working with Winrock International and its American Carbon Registry to research current conservation practices utilized in New England agriculture that reduce carbon loading and have the best chance of being eligible for carbon credits. At present, most carbon credit methodologies applicable to agriculture are skewed toward the larger, commodity-based farms of the Midwest. So far, we have identified four categories of New England farming practices that have best potential for aggregating carbon credits: fertilizer usage and application (corn/silage, potatoes, blueberries); manure management and methane capture (dairy); fuel switching (dairy, greenhouse/nursery); and, pasture management (dairy and livestock).

In the carbon marketplace, a verified reduction of 1 metric ton of CO2 is equal to 1 carbon credit – the more a practice reduces CO2, the more credits a farmer will have to sell in the marketplace. Once recognized and verified by an independent source, like the American Carbon Registry, credits are aggregated from a number of farmers by a carbon credit buyer to be sold on the carbon market, and proceeds of the sale are then returned to the farmers generating the credits. The sale of carbon credits has the potential to create a new revenue source from agricultural practices that themselves reduce environmental impacts and farm operating costs. For example, an input/output analysis conducted by researchers from USDA Agricultural Research Service of switching from a confinement-based dairy operation to a year-round grazing system on a typical 250 acre dairy farm in the Northeast found that among other benefits, the switch could reduce the CO2 output of the farm by more than 435 metric tons per year. This reduction would thus produce 435 carbon credits to be sold each year.

Our Buy Local Carbon Project is endeavoring to collect and document similar data from other agricultural practices in the New England so that we may quantify the potential generation of carbon credits, determine the demand and potential price for these carbon credits in the marketplace both here in the region and across the country, and investigate the development of methodologies for each agricultural practice so that the generated carbon credits can be recognized and verified as eligible for sale in the marketplace.