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STAFFORD: To farmers, why add carbon to the soil?

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Baling rye straw at Beauregard Farm in Culpeper

Pullen Farms bales rye straw at Beauregard Farm at Brandy Station in Culpeper County, before planting the no-till field back to soybeans.

Carbon sequestration is coming up often in the farm press as we learn about another stream of farm income rising from our land-management practices. Why is adding carbon to the soil worth money to farmers, you might ask?

Increasing organic matter or carbon in the soil improves production traits that farmers need in soil to grow plants. Included are water-holding capacity, nutrient storage and increased microbial activity that improves soil health. But there is more.

It seems that industry and others interested in what happens to carbon released into the air from human activity here on earth want to do something about it. They know carbon dioxide is among several greenhouse gases that scientists say are responsible for climate change.

If you are an industry with a carbon-dioxide emissions problem, purchasing carbon credits from those who remove carbon dioxide from the air is a good idea.

This would be sequestering carbon in the soil—and farmers do this in long-term pastures, forestry and no-till cropping. All of these put carbon into the soil as a result of plant production, adding decaying plant material, which turns into organic matter high in carbon.

Realize that a lot of naturally occurring carbon dioxide release comes from the oceans and plant respiration, the intake and output of gases that plants use—along with water and sunlight—to carry on photosynthesis. These naturally occurring releases of carbon dioxide mean humans are not responsible for all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, actually just a small part, but this is big enough to change climate.

Carbon markets are emerging all over the world, and their values to the landowner are significant and far-ranging. There seem to be a lot of variables, so no numbers will be cited here.

One problem to be solved is to value the good work that farmers are already doing—the no-till planting and long-term pastures, the forests planted and growing to maturity. This means it is more difficult to value existing high-organic-matter soils than to value change in low-organic-matter soils. Surely, a solution will be found as these carbon markets develop further.

We humans exhale carbon dioxide and other gases as we breathe/respire. Our intake need is mostly oxygen, while plants’ intake need is mostly carbon dioxide. These two compliment each other.

Without plants emitting oxygen as part of photosynthesis, our days would be numbered. A big thank-you to those who are managing plant production, mostly farmers and forest landowners.

Farming in the United States manages 915 million acres, providing not only carbon additions to our soil but food needed to sustain our population.

Productivity on U.S. farms increases about 2 percent per year; some figures are higher. Plant genetics play an important role in this, as do animal genetics. Selection alone breeds improvements in production in both. And now, genomics is bringing more change.

Carl C. Stafford is the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s senior agent in Culpeper. Write him at

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