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
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 Protection.
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
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
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
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 crediting market.
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 drought.
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 online versions.
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, click