ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- In Minnesota, a new project aims to accelerate the number of farmers who use environmentally friendly methods.
A number of states and the federal government offer cost-sharing incentives for adopting farming practices such as cover crops. But some observers say more farms need to sign on amid the threat of climate change.
In Stearns County, 50,000 acres of farmland is being used for a pilot project. It allows participating farmers to build up credits for the amount of carbon their land has captured, or for preventing harmful runoff to waterways.
Debbie Reed, executive director for the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) said they can sell those credits to companies trying to meet emission goals.
"The reason those companies are actually part of our program is, they have taken on commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas footprints," Reed explained. "Both within their facilities and then, within their agricultural supply chains."
Organizers suggested in a way, the farmers are selling a new crop. But this one stays in the ground, in hopes of protecting natural resources.
However, they acknowledged similar efforts have failed to take off, because producers weren't seeing enough payoff after all the initial overhead costs.
Officials said this new approach allows closer attention to the price structure for carbon credits.
Steve Peterson is a retired Minnesota farmer and former director of sustainability at General Mills, which has been involved with other carbon markets. He said this program has potential, for its stronger effort to measure progress, both on the farms and within the market.
"You need a system to be able to fairly reimburse the upstream farmer, and also to truly measure the impacts so that money going to it is spent well," Peterson urged.
The project is largely being funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and is being administered by the ESMC and The Nature Conservancy. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Water Quality Certification Program is also a contributor.
Leif Fixen, agriculture strategy manager at The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, said the location in Stearns County is a good spot for the project, because of its proximity to the Sauk River watershed and the abundance of dairy farms.
"We're stacking the deck a little bit," Fixen admitted. "In that working with dairy makes it easier to sell cover crops, and also grasslands."
Fixen said they hope to secure commitments from farmers and corporations in the coming weeks. Their goal is to enroll all 50,000 acres covered by the program over the next year.