80 Million Reasons Not to Pay for Regenerative Farming
This week, the Good News Network wrote about, “The First Farmer in the US to Sequester Carbon for Cash in Private Marketplace Earns $115,000 For His Planting Strategy.” The long and short of it; a Maryland farmer who owns 10,000 acres of commodity grain cropland (corn, soybeans, and wheat) sold carbon credits to a couple of major groups in exchange for planting cover crops and limiting his tillage.
Not only is this money poorly spent, it’s just the beginning of what could be a decades long boondoggle of pouring “climate investment” money down the drain while actively making our global environment worse.
What’s really going on here?
This Maryland farmer (Trey Hill is his name) got paid by Shopify, the University of Arizona, and others to “offset” their carbon emissions. That means, rather than actually changing anything about their business practices to reduce their own negative climate impact, they’re paying a farm, ostensibly, to suck some of the carbon they’ve emitted out of the atmosphere and sink it into the soil, by way of these “regenerative” practices.
Good deal, right? As long as the net amount of carbon getting pumped into the atmosphere is reduced, things are getting better, correct? No. Because to be able to sell the service of removing carbon from the atmosphere (in other words, selling “negative carbon”), a farm would first have to prove that they are a net negative emitter themselves. To meet the public’s expectations of what “offsets” are, Trey would need to show that in the course of running his business, he’s emitting less carbon than he’s sequestering in the soil with his practices, and thus that he has negative carbon to sell. And that’s a tall order because conventional grain farming emits a lot of carbon — from planting and harvesting crops in giant, diesel-powered steel implements, to trucking grain by the semi-load, drying it by burning propane, and applying fossil fuel-based soil amendments and fertilizers.
In the reading I’ve done, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that this type of accounting been has rigorously and transparently carried out by anyone involved in this deal. Instead, there is simply the assumption that 8,000 pound of carbon will be sequestered due to these practices, and at about $17 a pound, that’s worth about $100k. And that’s suppose to be worth celebrating.
Even a little something is better than nothing?
Maybe you’re thinking that farmers have it pretty tough, and they need to make money too. It’s not so bad, then, to pay out a bit, to encourage these folx to do the right thing. What’s a few $100k in the scope of the planet’s future, right?
Also no. You see, farmers do not have it “pretty tough.” US farmers received something like $46 billion in direct payments from the federal government in 2020 alone (and that’s *without* Farm Bill commodity program payments). Reporters have found that the vast majority of those funds went to giant farms like Trey’s. The average net worth of U.S. farmers is over $1 million, and average farm household income is $10k higher than that of the average American, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. To wit, only 3% of US farms has less wealth or income than the average American.
In other words, the vast majority of farmers can already afford to adopt these practices without the taxpayer (or a greenwashing company) footing the bill. They do not need financial “help” to do the right thing. And when someone demands payment to not cause harm, even when it’s already well within their ability to do so, there’s a word for that. A racket.
Who gets the most benefit from these practices anyway?
That’s the thing, as Trey said in a different article; “Now I spend less on tillage and diesel fuel, because basically all we do is plant, spray and harvest.” Translation: Trey is *already* getting paid for using these practices — he’s experiencing lower costs, he‘s getting good yields, and most importantly of all, the long term value of his private land is likely to grow due to better soil health (and the fact that it’s surrounded by metropolitan areas, beaches, and our beautiful Chesapeake Bay).
Speaking of land value, can we have a record scratch moment for that 10,000 acres? The average price of an acre of farmland in Maryland is $7,900. That’s right, good ol’ farmer Trey here controls $80,000,000 worth of farmland.
Just one more time.
And let’s talk about the $8 million in taxpayer funds the farm has already received in commodity payouts since 1995, including the $1.1 million Trey’s farm received in 2019 alone. These payments are not insurance payouts or “earned” income, that’s $8 million in direct federal payments simply for growing commodity grains, essentially, it guaranteed basic income for the wealthy.
Okay, but this isn’t the norm right? This is a bad apple.
You’d think after last summer, we’d all have learned the inherent fallacy of the bad apple argument. But alas, I hear it All. The. Time. about farmers.
So let’s take a closer look at the precedent being set here, for argument’s sake.
Say I’m a smaller farmer than Trey, owning, say, 1,000 acres of cropland in Kentucky.
I see what Trey’s doing, and I want a piece of that action. I grow commodity corn and soybeans on 800 acres, the other 200 acres of my property are a mix of wetlands, forests, and marginal pasture that isn’t worth farming because I always lose money when I do. I sign up with one of the many currently mysterious and questionably verified carbon farming marketplaces and I start getting paid by the acre for the carbon I “sequester” based on how many acres I plant in cover crops.
In fact, I realize, after a year or two, that this carbon thing has changed the math on those marginal acres. If I clearcut that 40 acres of woods and drain that 80 acres of wet ground by the creek, I can put 120 more acres into corn and soybeans and get paid the market price for grains (which are currently at their highest levels in a decade), plus my federal commodity payments, plus the extra money I get for carbon sequestration. Plus, when a farmer clears a forest, they can get paid for the timber too.
And that’s how “paying for regenerative farming” creates incentives to eliminate perennial carbon sinks like wetlands and forests — both of which sequester significantly more carbon than cover crops in commodity grain systems (which again, likely don’t sequester any *net* carbon at all).
So is Trey a bad apple? No. He’s responding to an inherently bad incentives, and we should more than expect many other farmers to follow in his wake.
Modern Farming’s Three Goals
As Trey points out on his website: “Modern farming has three goals: to be productive, to be efficient, to be profitable.” In other words; profit, profit, profit. Though Trey goes on to say this description isn’t for him, it’s telling that “food” does not appear among these goals.
This is what we’re dealing with here. These are the climate champions of farming — 1%ers who will refuse to do business in a way *that’s in their own best interest financially* unless we pay for it, for no other reason than they know we will.
The thing is; we absolutely do not have to pay farmers to adopt climate practices. Just like none of the rest of us get paid to wear seatbelts or to follow the speed limit. That’s right, we could police them instead.
I’m not even talking crazy, actually-ethical-farming regulations or anything. How about a simple; “no more money from the USDA money faucet until you plant cover crops.” Currently, less than 5% of US cropland acres are planted in cover crops, despite the fact that USDA sends direct payments annually to the owners/operators of the vast majority of acres. **Not to mention, there is an existing USDA program that will compensate farmers for planting cover crops.** Before we start paying farmers any more money, how about we start putting some conditions on the annual billions they already get.
I will spare but a moment on this travesty of a sentence in the original story; “Biden wants to ensure that large farms have the opportunity to expand their income and protect the climate in this way, which may boost American yields of root and cover vegetables, increasing food output as well.” First of all, this reporter unwittingly got it right, this program is all about more money for large farms. Period. I don’t know a single small or food producing farm that is looking at these programs, those operations are too focused on feeding people and staying alive. And I’ll just glaze over the middle nonsense to let you know that, no, cover crops are not harvested (essentially ever) to “increase food output.” That’s just a real airball for my guys at Good News.
I panned some of this information on Twitter this week, and fielded some interesting questions I wanted to expand on:
1) There is no “open market” in commodity grain production. Direct commodity payments, subsidized crop insurance, and the ethanol market distort the commodity grain market so much that honestly “market” feels like a generous description.
2) Not one single person, in the Biden administration at least, is talking about making direct payments go away, and they’re at all time highs right now. Tom Vilsack, the new/old Secretary of Agriculture is a veteran ag lobbyist and will not advocate to remove the solid-gold federal farm safety net, and why would he? The mission of the USDA is not to feed Americans or to protect American land, it’s to promote the American agricultural industry.
3) No, it’s not a win-win to pay multi-millionaires to invest in their own land. See above.
Yes, exactly. Paying for carbon sequestration on private land *might* make sense if, and only if, it could not be done otherwise because the land owner could not afford it. And the thing is, if a landowner can’t afford to keep their land safe and healthy, then maybe they shouldn’t get to own it? We have laws like this for structures, in fact, that’s how condemning a building works. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the inherent livability and safety expectations we should have for private farmland, and what the people can do when a landowner fails to meet them.
Speaking of interesting land law and how it might be possible to pry ill-cared for land from the hands of dead-beat landowners, I highly recommend following ag law guy Anthony Schutz on Twitter.
“…and the government foots the bill.” 😂
We haven’t even talked about the actual practices
Luke here is another good follow, especially if you’re looking to stay up with latest on the Canadian ag scene.
Luke makes a good point. Cover cropping and no-till are a part of a wide system of practices that could, collectively, sequester a good amount of atmospheric carbon in the soil when used as a system.
The problem with just about every “carbon farming” program I’ve look at is, not a one is actively encouraging the long term planting of perennial crops (trees, bushes, and perennial grasses), which is one of the most important elements of sequestering carbon in any landscape. This makes sense, because these markets are looking to do business with giant commodity grain farms, and perennials just don’t fit into that system.
Instead what’s happening on farms like Trey is, they’re planting temporary cover crops, which are planted one season and killed a few months later. According to the article, Trey is not killing (or “burning down”) his cover crops with herbicide, but by pressing it into the soil. A green cover over bare soil does store carbon, but when that cover is killed and the plant matter decays, much of that carbon will return immediately to the atmosphere. That’s right. Much of that carbon that Shopify paid this farmer to store will be right back up in the atmosphere a few months after it was “banked.” But Shopify, and the farm, will surely be taking credit for this work much longer than that.
Plants and soil, needless to say, are not the Earth’s crust. They are not capable of trapping carbon for millions of years. The Earth’s crust is where we found most of the carbon we continue to pump into the air. The soil cannot hold all the carbon we found in the crust, and a few-month-old field of radish or rye cannot hold anywhere near the same amount of carbon that the forest that it replaced did. In other words, cover crops are at the very bottom of the list of practices that are good for climate, literally just one step above absolutely nothing. And the idea that we’re planning to start rewarding farmers with hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing it is madness.
From my vantage point, the entire existing system of carbon markets is a slight of hand where a few hundred thousand dollars buys “green credentials” for both a farm and a bunch of companies, and in the end, the exact same amount of carbon, if not more, is finding its way into our atmosphere. This is excusing companies from reducing emission (despite the fact that reductions are much more effective) and mostly just works to redistribute money amongst the ultra-wealthy while creating the appearance of Doing Good.
When crafting programs that encourage and reward regenerative practices, we must realize that by making grain production more lucrative without changing any of the other incentives in the system, all we’re doing is encouraging farmers to cut down more forests, drain more wetlands, and plow more vulnerable soils to be able to cash in on the regenerative farming gravy train. This is not an un-anticipatable outcome. It is an obvious one.
So yes, encourage farmers to utilize regenerative practices — for private landowners, they pay for themselves. In fact, we should seriously consider punishing those who fail to do it with fees and fines, especially commodity grain growers who contribute relatively little to our national food security.
We do not have to capitulate to a population of businesses who until extraordinarily recently prided themselves on climate denial — and they should not get to take the lead, and send us a bill, now that they’ve finally decided to participate.
In short, we should *absolutely not* be paying farmers for regenerative farming.