WASHINGTON, March 23, 2016 - This year, about 20 rice growers in the Mid-South and California will be producing another sort of commodity – carbon credits.
It took a long time to develop road-worthy methods for measuring methane off-gassing from rice fields, and the last decade to determine which irrigation practices might curb that methane production, says Robert Parkhurst, agriculture greenhouse gas markets director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
But today, growers in California, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana can use the latest in proven irrigation practices on their rice fields – saving water and generating carbon emissions credits at the same time – now that California’s cap-and-trade program is dealing in farmer-produced credits.
These alternative irrigation methods – such as dry seeding, early draining and a process called alternate wetting and drying (also known as intermittent flooding) – diminish methane production by limiting the amount of time organic matter and water can mix, create anaerobic conditions and ultimately produce the potent greenhouse gas.
One participating farmer, Jim Whitaker, who manages about 6,000 rice acres in Arkansas, the country’s leading rice producer, told Agri-Pulse that he started experimenting with intermittent flooding about four years ago when he was looking for ways to conserve water. He’s been working with EDF, the University of Arkansas, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and others ever since then to erect test plots and complete verification trials on the interaction between methane, water and rice. And “after all these years, I’m seeing it all come together,” he said.
“We didn’t know what we were doing was sustainable, and we surely didn’t know that it was going to go into the carbon market. I was just trying to save water,” he said.
Whitaker said the move to intermittent flooding wasn’t difficult because a few years before, he had leveled his fields and installed drainage to boost equipment efficiencies, save water and create a mechanism by which he could control water levels in the winter, when migratory waterfowl are in need of spots to rest.
“It’s a big deal in the Mid-South to have a farm that you can not only raise a crop on, but all winter it’s a rest area or habitat for waterfowl,” Whitaker said. It’s a big deal, too, that his intermittent flooding technique saved him about 50 percent of the water that conventional irrigation methods would have used last year.
“There’s not really a water credit out there,” Whitaker said, “but I think there could be in the future. There’s definitely a need for it, just like a carbon credit.”
Whitaker said he didn’t expect to make much from the credits he generates, or think that farmers were likely to sign up for the credit generating opportunity alone. It’s about water and waterfowl for him, Whitaker said.
However, credits can fetch anywhere from $3 to $11 per ton of CO2 equivalent averted, depending on market factors and whether the buyers are using them for compliance purposes, or are voluntarily purchasing them. An acre of rice with alternative irrigation practices can avert a half ton of CO2 equivalent, on average.
In total, about 22,000 rice acres – 0.8 percent of the 2.5 million rice acres in the U.S. – have enrolled in the American Carbon Registry and are expected to be producing credits later this year, Parkhurst said. Up next will be fertilizer and rangeland credits, he says.
“We’re looking at how we can eliminate the generation of nitrous oxide through strategic fertilizer use. And in rangelands, we’re looking at trying to keep the carbon in the soil,” he said. All told, 400 million cropland acres and 700 million rangeland acres could be generating carbon credits in the future.
Rice is just “the inflection point” for crop-based carbon credits, Parkhurst said.
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