November 16, 2007: Farmers interested in
opening up a new revenue stream by selling carbon credits
for proven soil-building practices may soon have a new technology
to document their carbon-sequestration success.
The Rodale Institute has received funding to develop a way
to do “Rapid, Cost-Effective Soil Measurements for Accurate
Agricultural Carbon Crediting.” Granting $208,000 for
the work was the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority
(PEDA), a division of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Previous research at The Rodale Institute has demonstrated
that the use of cover crops and diversified production crops
in a multi-year organic crop rotation can sequester up to
1,000 pounds of atmospheric carbon per acre per year, and
that the incorporation of compost can sequester up 2,000 pounds
of carbon per acre annually.
These carbon sequestration rates are more than twice that
of conventional (non-organic) no-till management, which typically
uses no overwintering cover crop but utilizes a thick layer
of residue on the surface. The Institute wishes to promote
these sustainable agriculture practices as substantial, largely-untapped
vehicles to sequester greenhouse gases in the form of beneficial
soil organic matter, especially if they can be applied to
most or all of Pennsylvania’s five million farm acres.
In order for Pennsylvania’s farmers to measure how
much carbon they’re trapping in their soils for carbon-credit
programs, they need a quick, cost-effective, accurate method
to measure soil organic constituents at their farms—preferably
right in their fields.
Current soil carbon and nitrogen measurement techniques involve
either high-temperature combustion and gas spectrographic
analysis, or expensive and hazardous chemical digestion and
neutralization. Neither of these methods can be done practically
on the farm; farmers must send their soil samples to a testing
lab, which often requires more time and money than most farmers
can spare. Without a significant improvement in testing, tracking
soil carbon changes won’t be practical enough to help
farmers learn what is working on their farms. The change will
better track what works to build soil organic matter and to
offset atmospheric carbon.
Checking new technology
To address this problem, The Rodale Institute will evaluate
a new piece of soil-testing equipment. The Near Infrared Reflectance
Spectrometer (NIRS) shows promise to be a safer, less expensive,
more flexible alternative for soil carbon testing than current
lab work. With this equipment, our goal is to streamline soil
carbon testing enough to bring it on-farm and in-field to
support a verifiable agricultural carbon crediting program.
The PEDA grant will allow the institute to 1) establish an
NIRS laboratory facility at The Rodale Institute, 2) test
NIRS accuracy in measuring soil carbon and nitrogen by comparing
their readings against standard independent lab analyses,
and 3) calculate sampling and analysis expenses to determine
the economic viability of the new system.
If the results are sufficiently positive, the Institute will
proceed to evaluate a mobile soil-testing unit, mounted on
a field implement or vehicle, to assess its ability to perform
rapid on-farm soil evaluation.
By bringing this location-specific, on-the-go assessment
capacity into the field, the hope is to get farmers thinking
and talking about how different farming practices can increase
or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as discussing
the ways carbon-crediting programs might work for them.
The objectives of this project are to
- Create a NIRS soil-testing laboratory to assess the technology’s
speed, accuracy and costs in measuring soil organic matter.
- Measure and compare soil carbon changes under organic
and conventional agricultural production practices, including
standard tillage and no-till systems.
- Design and test mobile NIRS equipment to assess its accuracy
in measuring soil organic matter in the field.
- Outline business models that will encourage Pennsylvania
farmers and other agricultural entrepreneurs to develop
this new technology as a means to help farmers improve their
management practices and enter the emerging nationwide carbon
The focus of the project is carbon sequestration in agricultural
soils, but it will also help to reduce on-farm energy use
and improve livestock manure management. Carbon sequestration
directly correlates with increased soil organic matter, a
key factor in soil quality and agronomic performance. Soils
high in organic matter are easier to work, produce healthier,
higher-yielding crops and are more resistant to erosion and
Carbon sequestration is also becoming a saleable commodity
itself, thanks to a market
for carbon credits, providing potential for additional
farm revenue via best management practices such as conservation
tillage, composting and the use of cover crops. Accurately
quantifying the levels of carbon sequestration will demonstrate
the benefits of integrating these practices in multi-year
rotations, as required in certified-organic systems.
For any carbon crediting program to be effective, it has
to be backed up by "a [soil] sampling program that achieves
a level of precision high enough to detect tons of sequestered
carbon without incurring untenable costs" (Willey, 2007).
The Rodale Institute researchers want to establish if NIRS
soil measurement will do just that: reduce costs, maintain
precision and make carbon crediting options available to a
wider segment of farmers.
Veris Technologies (www.veristech.com),
an agricultural engineering firm based in Salina, Kansas,
will supply equipment for the project and offer technical
assistance in the development of experimental protocols. Veris
Technologies developed the first commercially available NIRS
unit adapted and integrated for mobile, in-field testing,
enabling detailed mapping of carbon variability and more accurate
values for fields as a whole. Alain Plante, PhD., a biogeochemist
in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the
University of Pennsylvania, will also collaborate on the project.
Possessing a keen interest in developing alternative soil
measurement methods, Dr. Plainte will provide expertise on
the quantification and characterization of soil organic matter.
The Rodale Institute will post bi-annual project updates
of research results on The New Farm website. We will also
host annual field days in 2008 and 2009 to outreach agricultural
carbon sequestration practices, as well as carbon measuring
and crediting information, to farmers. Finally, we will produce
a printed fact sheet or small booklet to provide similar information
to farmers and agricultural professionals, in hard copy and
If the technology proves to be successful and practical for
the task, the printed materials will include a report outlining
ways for entrepreneurs to develop the mobile NIRS equipment
into a soil carbon measurement/crediting business.
Work will begin in early 2008. For comments or questions,