Can Agroforestry Breathe New Life Into Carbon Markets? | Civil Eats

Can Agroforestry Breathe New Life Into Carbon Markets?

Most carbon offset programs aimed at farmers have focused on large monocrop corn and soy operations. But in Southern Appalachia, Carbon Harvest is developing an alternative market for small farms that integrates trees.

Michael RiCharde tending trees on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina, part of the Carbon Harvest carbon market. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

Michael RiCharde tends trees on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

The Michael RiCharde of several years ago might be a little confused by the Michael RiCharde of today.

Before RiCharde and his wife, Anna, took over Good Wheel Farm outside of Asheville in 2019, he managed the livestock operations for another farm in Western North Carolina. He used a conventional approach: He diligently mowed his animals’ pastures to control weeds, added lime to make the soil less acidic, and applied fertilizer to boost productivity.

“I’m trying to figure out what it looks like to be wedded to a place with more of a conservation mindset while still producing food.”

“You can tell I just don’t care about that anymore,” RiCharde says with a laugh.

He’s still in the livestock business—cows, chickens, and goats all graze across Good Wheel’s 42 acres. But in mid-June, as RiCharde strolled the grounds with Charlie and Ingrid, two of his massive white sheepdogs, he tromped through tall grasses and chicory flowers instead of neatly maintained pasture.

And everywhere he looked, trees had leafed out. Mulberry and persimmon seedlings stood out from a low-lying field. American chinquapins, a native dwarf chestnut, dotted the hillside below the RiChardes’ farmhouse. A wetland was full of young willow cuttings.

“I’m trying to figure out what it looks like to be wedded to a place with more of a conservation mindset while still producing food. That’s where the tree projects felt natural, because the place wants to grow trees,” RiCharde says, gazing at the forested Appalachian foothills that surround the farm.

His vision has gotten a jump start through a partnership with Carbon Harvest. The Asheville-based initiative seeks to mitigate climate change by helping farmers establish, monitor, and verify carbon sequestration through tactics like agroforestry in the Southern Appalachians, in hopes of creating the country’s first regional carbon market.

As part of a $20 million project led by the Kentucky-based nonprofit Accelerating Appalachia, Carbon Harvest will receive roughly $200,000 over two years to conduct research on the potential for a regional offset market. “The point of this work is to investigate whether alternative markets can be developed with integrity at a different scale and based on updated values,” says Meredith Leigh, one of the initiative’s three partners.

Michael RiCharde herding sheep down a slope on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina, part of the Carbon Harvest carbon market. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

Michael RiCharde herds sheep down a slope on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina, part of the Carbon Harvest carbon market. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

In the meantime, the Carbon Harvest team—which consists of Mari Stuart and Laura Lengnick in addition to Leigh—has been helping farmers establish carbon-capturing practices on their properties, with the goal of setting them up to receive payments in the market once that opportunity comes online.

They have spent the past several years evangelizing about the benefits of agroforestry through workshops and presentations across the region. Trees, they say, can protect farm animals from wind and sun, prevent erosion, stabilize streambanks, and yield marketable products like fruit and nuts.

Earlier this year, the Carbon Harvest partners wrapped up an agroforestry pilot program that helped four local farms, including Good Wheel, integrate trees with their crops and livestock. With the initiative’s help, RiCharde and three other growers were able to map their properties and develop detailed conceptual plans for agroforestry.

The Carbon Harvest team also knows that, by drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into trees and soils, agroforestry can help address the effects of the climate crisis. In the future, they hope to see Appalachian farmers like RiCharde get paid for providing that service—in ways that avoid many of the problems they see with today’s markets for carbon removal.

Traditional Carbon Offset Programs

The concept of compensating people for carbon removal isn’t new. Many companies and governments want to claim that their operations are emissions-free. But rather than reduce fossil fuel use directly in their supply chains, some choose to offset their pollution by buying “carbon credits” designed to reflect greenhouse gasses taken out of the air elsewhere.

It’s a potentially lucrative opportunity. The nonprofit Forest Trends estimated that the global market for voluntary carbon credits—those bought by organizations to meet their own climate pledges—was roughly $2 billion in 2021. By 2030, according to the consulting firm McKinsey, that market could exceed $50 billion.

But as Lengnick with Carbon Harvest points out, small farmers intensively stewarding their land are all but shut out of existing offset programs. For one, those markets are generally designed to reward new projects, rather than farms with regenerative practices already in place. They also cater to big companies that want to buy credits for millions of tons of emissions, and therefore focus on supporting industrial-scale projects.

In many offset programs, that means protecting or planting large tracts of forests; over 85 percent of the 1.5 million tons of offsets purchased by Microsoft in fiscal year 2021–22, for example, were tied to forestry initiatives. (A recent study found that carbon offsets are much less likely to reduce deforestation than they were originally thought to be.) Increasingly, it also means projects that work with very large farms to implement practices such as cover cropping and reduced tillage on tens of thousands of acres of Midwestern corn and soy.

“It’s a very specific kind of farming operation that is going to benefit from those big international carbon market programs,” Lengnick explains. “They’re going to be much larger-scale than the average farm, and they need to have very simple cropping systems.”

Such systems are relatively easy to manage, but their potential for capturing carbon is still in question.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s COMET-Farm tool, which estimates the effects of agricultural practices on greenhouse gasses, projects that adding legume cover crops to annual crop fields sequesters about a ton of CO2 per acre per year, for instance. On the other hand, COMET shows that planting trees or shrubs in grazed pasture, like RiCharde is doing at Good Wheel, draws down more than four times as much carbon.

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Meanwhile, buyers of carbon credits and the general public are becoming more wary of big projects due to questions about their impact. An analysis published this year by The Guardian found that over 90 percent of rainforest protection offsets approved by Verra, the largest certifier of carbon credits, didn’t actually reduce emissions. While the offsets were described as necessary to prevent deforestation, the journalists determined that many areas would likely have stayed forested without the offset projects.

Meanwhile, a 2019 ProPublica investigation found that other offsets in Brazil and Cambodia had failed to prevent trees from being cut.

Chickens roaming on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

Chickens roam on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

The Carbon Harvest Vision

Instead of a global market backed by questionable offsets, Carbon Harvest imagines a system where companies in the Southern Appalachians would buy their carbon credits from local farmers putting proven agroforestry techniques into practice. Beyond being more effective at capturing CO2, argues Stuart, these projects would also be more accountable.

“A ton of carbon in one place is not the same as a ton of carbon in another place,” Stuart says. “You could drive down the road to a farm to see [the practices] in action and eat fruit from those trees. That transparency, traceability, and relationality are really at the heart of what Carbon Harvest is.”

“The companies who are going to be your biggest customers for these carbon offsets are always going to be exerting pressure to get your prices down and your volumes up.”

While all carbon comes out of the same atmosphere, Stuart continues, offsets for agroforestry work would fund a bevy of other local ecosystem services. By reducing soil runoff and absorbing excess nutrients, trees on farms also improve water quality for everyone downstream. The habitat and food they can provide enriches bird biodiversity at the landscape scale.

And in many cases, agroforestry projects can build resilience to the climate impacts they’re meant to mitigate. RiCharde says his mulberry and persimmon grove was flooded with more than three feet of water during Tropical Storm Fred, an extreme weather event in 2021 that researchers say was made more intense by climate change. While other area farmers lost much of their crop, he says, the trees emerged unscathed.

The Carbon Harvest team isn’t aware of a local agricultural carbon credit market being developed anywhere else in the country. (The most similar effort, says Stuart, is the California-based Zero Foodprint, which awards grants to farms and ranches working to draw down carbon using donations from restaurants and other food businesses.) Their work through the Accelerating Appalachia grant, adds Lengnick, will provide the nation’s first region-specific estimates of potential carbon credit supply and demand.

The Challenges of Developing Small-Scale Carbon Markets

The three Carbon Harvest partners acknowledge they’re still a ways off from selling their first offset, with no public timeline estimated for an initial offering. While their group has spoken with large local businesses eager to buy more meaningful carbon credits and invest in the region, none have made a purchasing commitment.

“There’s a matryoshka of questions that we’re unpacking at the rate we have capacity to address them,” says Leigh.

How they will structure the cost of the credits is one of those questions. Agroforestry projects are labor-intensive to establish and trees take years to mature; they capture carbon over long timescales, but carbon credits generally reflect emissions captured over one year.

For these reasons, the investment to catalyze agroforestry is heavily weighted on the front end. If the entire expense of planting trees along a streambank had to be covered by carbon credits in its first year, Leigh explains, they would have to cost as much as $500 per ton. But if the expense could be averaged over the project’s lifetime offset potential, the cost would go down to $13-$26 per ton. (Voluntary offsets on the global market currently average about $2-$11 per ton.)

Verification is another challenge. Tools like COMET can estimate the carbon benefits of a project, but they’re less accurate on small farms like Good Wheel, which have a mosaic of different soils and agricultural practices. Other tools measure carbon sequestration, but they come with their own costs. One 2021 estimate from the Environmental Defense Fund estimated carbon measurement at about $13 per acre, potentially adding more expense to Carbon Harvest’s credits.

Tying carbon sequestration to the marketplace at all, suggests Larry Lohmann, comes with its own problems, regardless of scale or the type of work being funded. He has studied carbon credits for over two decades as a co-director of The Corner House, a British environmental and social justice research group.

“The companies who are going to be your biggest customers for these carbon offsets are always going to be exerting pressure to get your prices down and your volumes up,” Lohmann says. “Once [farmers] enter into that kind of contract, they’re going to be vulnerable to this constant messing with their work.”

More importantly, Lohmann continues, offsets fail to address the root causes of climate change. He argues that any carbon credit, however well-intentioned, is essentially an accounting trick that legitimizes an unsustainable economy.

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“Through neoliberal ingenuity, they offer a way to continue extracting and using fossil fuels,” he says of offsets. “The people who need them are the people who want to continue using fossil fuels because they’re cheap and energy-dense.”

Growing a Regional Market

Leigh says the Carbon Harvest team shares Lohmann’s concerns. “The direction of the market at present points to the fact that regenerative, nature-based credits are priced artificially low and that valuing mitigation projects based solely on their supposed carbon benefit is neither the proper vehicle to drive drawdown nor to finance better land management,” she acknowledges.

“There’s this concept of ‘carbon tunnel vision,’ where a laser focus on carbon alone leads you to lose sight of all else that matters, like the water cycle, biodiversity, air pollution, and the social and economic well-being of farmers.”

Yet Leigh and her colleagues still believe local offsets are worth exploring. Even as society pressures companies to eliminate their emissions at the source, she argues, some aspects of business will remain almost impossible to decarbonize; to address those residual emissions, she continues, “the smartest corporate leaders will be those who are investing from the ground up in high-integrity, smaller-scale projects.”

If some offsetting is inevitable, Carbon Harvest suggests, its proceeds should be harnessed to boost the growth of sustainable agriculture in places like Southern Appalachia. And agroforestry has broad ecological positives that aren’t necessarily reflected in the raw accounting of carbon offsets.

“There’s this concept of ‘carbon tunnel vision,’ where a laser focus on carbon alone leads you to lose sight of all else that matters, like the water cycle, biodiversity, air pollution, and the social and economic well-being of farmers,” said co-founder Stuart. “I would say all along while harvesting carbon, we have been harvesting all of these other benefits as well.”

The group won’t have to answer all its unresolved questions alone. The Accelerating Appalachia grant, of which Carbon Harvest is a part, is supported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities” program. The massive initiative was launched last year and has allocated more than $3 billion dollars to over 140 projects across the country in an effort to reduce emissions and sequester carbon. Grant recipients include many large agribusinesses, including the likes of the National Corn Growers Association, Cargill, and PepsiCo, as well as some smaller players. One of the larger grants is specifically designed to expand agroforestry, and a group of nonprofits in the eastern half of the U.S. will begin working with farmers on the effort in the coming years.

Agroforestry currently represents less than 1 percent of U.S. agriculture. This project aims to create 30,000 acres of new agroforestry plantings over the next five years. (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

Agroforestry currently represents less than 1 percent of U.S. agriculture. The Nature Conservancy’s Expanding Agroforestry Production and Markets Program, funded by the USDA’s Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative, aims to create 30,000 acres of new agroforestry plantings over the next five years. (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

One of the goals of the USDA’s investment, says Lengnick, “is to stimulate innovation in this space and figure out how we make carbon credits work for farmers, because for most farmers in the U.S., it doesn’t work.”

That’s currently true for RiCharde at Good Wheel Farm; he says he’d need a group like Carbon Harvest to work out the intricacies of calculating and monetizing the carbon he is drawing down. For now, he’s focused on telling the story of his work through meat sales at farmers’ markets and events on the farm.

As he waits for a local carbon market to come online, RiCharde is looking forward to the day when his trees bear fruit in the hope of future jams and wine. Moving into agroforestry, he says, has come with deep lessons in the value of patience.

“There’s a lot of talk in regenerative agriculture about how can we sequester as much carbon as possible now. I get the urgency, but also, that’s not how nature functions, to shove it down its throat,” RiCharde says. “We need to observe and pay attention and take our time. And that’s hard work in a capitalist world.”

Daniel Walton is a freelance journalist based in Western North Carolina covering the environment, sustainability, and political news. His work has appeared in national and regional publications including Sierra, The Guardian, and Ambrook Research. Read more >

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  1. Aaron Joslin
    Agroforestry encompasses many different land-production options, and this story serves as a good introduction to the topic.
    I just want to point out that sequestering carbon via trees, better pasture management, or any other practice that puts carbon in the soil is good not just for removing CO2 from the atmosphere in the short term, but also because soil carbon provides many ecosystem benefits as well. These include increased rainwater infiltration which improves water quality and quantity for human consumption, reduced erosion, increased soil fertility (which leads to greater crop/tree growth), and (depending on whether wastewater is allowed to infiltrate through it) reduced nitrogen inputs into ground and surface water, among others.
    It is well worth our time and money to provide farmers with as many mechanisms as possible to enrich their lands with carbon.

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