What does carbon removal look like on the ground?

We visited regenerative farms to give you a closer look

Giovanni Sornatale
Published in
9 min readAug 3, 2022

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Written by Giovanni Sornatale, Account Manager at Nori. FYI: I also created a Video Recap from the farm visits for the audio-visual learners.

As Nori’s account manager, I spend my days selling Nori carbon credits — Nori Removal Tonnes (NRTs) — to individuals, organizations and businesses of all sizes. To date that’s meant over 100K tonnes of carbon removal paid for. When talking with customers, I walk them through the process of how their money funds continued regenerative farming efforts, and answer questions about how, by working directly with farmers, we’re able create NRTs and ensure each one represents carbon sequestered in soil.

During these conversations, I often get questions about what these practices truly mean to the real world, how they work, and why regenerative agriculture is not already commonplace in the industry. So, a little over a month ago, I joined the Nori team on a series of farm visits to find out first hand.

We visited three farms in Nebraska, all at varying stages of working with Nori, these were: Petersen Farms, Knuth Farm, and R&J Wahlgren Farms. On these visits I saw first hand what some of these carbon storing practices look like and met some of the farmers doing this innovative work. Here are some takeaways from this unique experience.

Petersen Farms

Robbie Petersen

Day one of the trip rolled around, and let’s face it, I was pretty nervous. A bit of apprehension set in as I left my cozy, Los Angeles bed at 4:30am for the airport. This city boy from Hollywood who’s never been to a farm would soon be knocking on the door of a man in the middle of Nebraska with a camera in tow, asking to peruse his property and take photographs of everything in sight. I had no idea what to expect!

As it turned out, Robbie Petersen could not have been a more welcoming host. It was 2pm on a Saturday, 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and yet Robbie was out in the field. This was my first glimpse of how much hard work really goes into the business and craft of agriculture. Robbie’s farm has been in his family since 1889. He is the fifth generation to manage the land and business and hopes to pass the baton to one of his children some day.

Robbie answering questions about his machinery.

I was immediately drawn to the vast landscapes of corn fields that Robbie manages. Unlike conventional farmers who use strip-tillage, Robbie cultivates his corn by adopting reduced tillage practices, a method of farming that drastically reduces soil and root disruption on land. Tillage is a farming practice that agitates and disrupts soil beds in order to prep the land for certain crops. Tillage also helps manage weeds. But by reducing tillage, farmers like Robbie allow soil to regenerate and store carbon. In fact, at Nori, we’ve seen that the greatest impact on storing carbon in soil comes from adopting low or no-till practices.

Large machinery on Petersen Farms.

After taking a stroll through Robbie’s corn fields, something that caught my eye were the giant grain bins. Robbie uses these massive bins to store grain until it’s time to sell it. I also stood among millions of dollars of machinery that towered over me, reminding me how technically skilled you must be as a farmer and how incredibly expensive it can be to operate land.

Yet, one of my biggest takeaways is that no matter how skilled you are, mother nature always has the final say.

Grain bins in Fillmore County, Nebraska.

Just a couple of weeks before my arrival in June, a hail storm destroyed a number of Robbie’s fields, taking with it any hopes of a harvest. It was a harsh reminder of the challenges of farming.

Given the uncertainty and realities of farming, any additional form of revenue can help farmers. This is something I appreciate about Nori’s work. Farmers like Robbie can diversify their revenue streams by selling NRTs. While it may not completely mitigate potential loss due to something like a hail storm destroying a harvest of fields, the additional revenue can help.

Robbie’s farm is currently in the process of verification. Once verified and issued, two major steps we take at Nori to ensure your credit are of high quality, we will have a project profile page created where you can track all reporting and sales of his NRTs.

Knuth Farms

Knuth Farms logo on Kerry Knuth’s shirt.

On our second day of the trip, we went to Knuth Farms, a thoughtful regenerative farming operation managed by Angela Knuth, her husband Kerry Knuth, and their family. The Knuth family lives with a beautiful mission of leaving the land in better condition than when it was entrusted to them. They consider themselves stewards of the land, and it shows.

Meet and greet in Knuth Farms equipment shed.

The day started off with Angela and our team breaking the ice in the equipment shed. That day we were joined by CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) commissioner, Caroline Pham, who had reached out to Nori and was interested in learning more about regenerative agriculture and carbon markets. During our time in the shed, Angela spoke to us a bit about their land management practices such as growing organic wherever possible, implementing cover crops, and drastically diversifying what grows on their fields over the years.

The technology used here is also quite advanced. The Knuth family uses various software that allows them to analyze the land to optimize water usage, equipment wear, input usage like fertilizers and overall energy consumptions, all with the goal of increasing yields and lowering their carbon footprint.

Angela then took us out to the field to show us what some of this actually looks like. For example, one of the practices they lean heavily on is planting cover crops.

Alfalfa cover crops in a Knuth Farms field.

They plant their corn crops directly into standing alfalfa, which is typically unheard of in conventional farming. What makes this so innovative is that by planting alfalfa into the corn crops, Angela has provided her crops a natural source of nitrogen without the use of fertilizers. This also helps suppress weeds from growing, which means she doesn’t need to use herbicide. The process keeps her corn organic, fetching a premium price and providing more nutrients to the soil. Planting corn directly into a crop like alfalfa might take more work but it leads to healthier crops, healthier soil, and more carbon sequestration!

While roaming through Angela’s fields, it became obvious that the land was teeming with more life than neighboring fields. There was an audible buzz in her fields with many birds, bugs, and butterflies contributing to the ecosystem. While the innovative practices that Angela applies to her land may have garnered some questions and criticism from neighbors in the beginning, they are starting to notice how she is building a more robust ecosystem on her land. Intrigued by the results, neighbors are seeking advice on how they can start incorporating regenerative practices on the land they manage.

Angela Knuth in one of her organic fields.

This goes to show that changing agriculture across a community starts with one person, at one farm. It may be met with skepticism early on, but when the benefits are realized, the community begins to embrace change. We hope to see the same with carbon markets. It takes a few trailblazers in a given county to take the risk and enroll. But once their neighbors see that this is beneficial for the land and for their bottom line, more and more farms will adopt these practices.

Farmers like Angela and buyers like you are the pioneers we need to change agriculture for a more sustainable and resilient future.

At the time of writing this article, Knuth Farm’s NRTs are sold and accounted for and will make a number of buyers quite happy customers!

R & J Wahlgren Farms

Two generations of Wahlgrens. Roger (left) and Joe (right).

The last family we visited on our trip was father and son duo, Roger and Joe Wahlgren. Their large operation is the culmination of years of trial and error, and risk, that has paid off into a well-oiled machine, serving major clients such as Frito-Lay.

Roger and Joe are constantly in search of ways to be better to their land and their bottom line. They’re true businessmen at heart with a strong understanding of the craft that goes into farming. Roger and Joe started making serious changes to their land around 2010 after more intense weather patterns regularly defeated their conventional practices.

The changes they made to their land, such as changing their tillage and irrigation approaches, were, like Angela’s, met with criticism from neighbors and land owners, but have paid off in the long run. They now share their techniques with those same skeptics and continue to be on the cutting edge of their fields. This seems to be a common trend for early adopters of regenerative farming.

Corn stalks of past crops stand among growing soy beans. This was pointed out to me as ‘trash farming.’

Roger and Joe practice something nicknamed ‘trash farming,’ a rotational crop technique that landed them odd looks at first. Trash farming means that they do not disturb the crop residue from the previous harvest. Instead, they let it decompose into the ground between planting soybeans and food-grade corn. The crop residue gives nutrients back to the soil and prevents tilling, which in turn allows them to continue to build their carbon stocks. This practice helps them continually increase their soil organic matter (and carbon!) as opposed to constantly decreasing it as they would have if they had continued operating without the trash farming technique

Corn decomposing back into the soil.

Their bets on regenerative farming have paid off handsomely as they use less inputs such as machinery, fertilizers, and man power with healthy harvests.

At the time of writing this article, Roger and Joe Wahlgren’s NRTs are sold and accounted for.

Recap

Meeting and talking with Robbie, Angela, Kerry, Joe, and Roger was an eye-opening experience. I witnessed the multitude of factors that our farmers work with on a daily basis, and how uncertain it can feel at first for farmers to switch to regenerative practices. It brings me joy to know that farmers who have poured so much into this craft now have at least one more revenue stream through Nori to help them along on this journey.

It’s also rewarding, and motivational, to see how Nori is driving systemic change that will help fight climate change. Buyers of all shapes and sizes are hugely important, especially in these beginning stages, in scaling the carbon removal through solutions like regenerative agriculture.

There is still much progress to be made in transitioning our farming systems to a place that can replenish the land. Farmers like these are leading the way. We at Nori, and I’m sure our buyers of NRTs, are grateful to them.

Are you more of an audio-visual learner? Watch our video recap of the farm visits, narrated by Giovanni.

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