WASHINGTON, August 5, 2015 – Arkansas rice growers hope to enter carbon offset exchanges with the help of a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service funded project to combat climate change.

The $1 million 2011 Conservation Innovation Grant demonstrated practices designed to curb emissions from rice fields of methane and nitrous oxide, both of which have considerably stronger heat trapping properties than does carbon dioxide. Dennis Carman, chief engineer of the White River Irrigation District, tells Agri-Pulse there are more than 24 growers participating. The ultimate goal is to enroll 200,000 acres by 2017, but this year they're going to try to get 500 acres into the California Air Resource Board's (CARB) program, which adopted its rice protocols in early July. Carman says about 10 Delta producers can submit 2013-14 data to meet the agency's criteria.

There is a second market under the American Carbon Registry, but CARB's market is seen as more lucrative.  California law requires greenhouse gas emissions to be cut to 99 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, so industry needs to acquire offset credits. Carman says they believe the carbon trading rates will be about $10 per ton of verified reductions through the voluntary market, and are hoping for slightly higher rates on the California Cap and Trade Market.  He says, “After verification and trading costs are subtracted, this will result in about $7 to the grower,” adding they believe the value will increase significantly as the market matures. $15, he says, is “realistic,” as is a goal of one ton of carbon reduction per acre of rice.

Carman says, to be honest, CARB's documentation requirements “are probably more than the payment itself would be worth.”  A team from USDA's Agricultural Research Service is measuring emissions at participating farms, including that of Mark Isbell, who tells Agri-Pulse, “Hopefully, that data will be useful as we're moving forward to come up with more affordable verification opportunities, so we can say this practice does in fact do 'X' amount of GHG mitigation.”

One of the emissions reduction practices is alternative wetting and drying (AWD). Rice fields in the Mid-South are normally flooded until just before harvest, which Isbell says causes soil bacteria to turn anaerobic and influence the plant's methane emissions.  In allowing the field to drain and then reflooding it, the Humnoke, Ark. farmer says they're “trying to find the 'sweet spot,' get it dry enough to have a big enough greenhouse gas impact to matter, but not so dry that you negatively affect the yield.”  Isbell says they've tried a second practice, reduced nitrogen applications, “to some degree,” but the protocol is still being developed.

Isbell says skepticism over climate science is “potentially” holding back involvement, and Carman says there were questions initially about why the project was being launched, and what the agenda was. “One of the comments that I hear,” he says, “is this might be something that has some benefits, and rather than having a choice of doing it, they're going to force us to,” adding he and most of the growers he works with do not believe the fear of a mandate to be valid.

Walt Delp, Arkansas NRCS state conservation engineer, says in addition to reducing water costs, AWD improves downstream water quality, because rain collects in the dried down fields rather than running off with sediment and farm inputs. “They also basically showed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” he tells Agri-Pulse, which “is a goal of the administration, it's a goal of USDA, it's a goal of NRCS.”


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