The agricultural carbon market is generating buzz across the heartlands. In rural Oklahoma, producers are asking how “carbon farming” works and, importantly, who benefits.
“From the producer’s standpoint, it’s the Wild West,” says Sarah Blaney, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts (OACD). Blaney has been navigating carbon markets for more than a decade.
“I’ve been doing this for ten years and it’s hard for me to figure out,” said Blaney. “You’ve got these independent carbon developers coming in. Every single entity can set their own rules, their own expectations, their own contract agreements.”
The industry is quickly evolving. But the basic idea is the same.
Carbon exchange markets allow corporations, governments, and individuals to purchase units of carbon sequestered elsewhere in order to “offset” the carbon dioxide they emit by fossil fuel combustion. By purchasing these “carbon credits,” a polluter can claim their products generate “net-zero” emissions. The voluntary carbon offset market is booming in the wake of the Paris Climate Accords. Proponents argue the carbon trade will usher in an age of green finance that will protect biodiversity, incentivize conservation, and ease the energy transition.
Now Big Ag wants in. Farmers can generate credits by implementing certain practices, like no-till and cover crops, which theoretically increase carbon sequestration in their soils. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is testing the idea of establishing a federal carbon bank to guarantee farm credit buyers. Groups from Cargill to The Nature Conservancy are running pilot programs. Indigo Ag, a carbon developer, enrolled 6,000 farmers in their program over the past three years. Together, they’ve generated 130,000 carbon credits or tons of sequestered carbon. Indigo Ag aggregates these credits and sells them to companies like North Face and J.P. Morgan Chase. Some Oklahoma producers are already profiting.
Mark Nault, a fourth-generation farmer from Okeene, Oklahoma, wanted to convert his small-grain operation to no-till. But changing is expensive, controversial, and relies on the heavy yearly application of chemicals like glyphosate.
“There was a flyer from Indigo explaining a little about the carbon program,” he said. “For me going from conventional tillage to no-till was my purpose, and Indigo’s program offsets some of the cost … I thought I’d go along for the ride and maybe get some benefit out of it.” For Nault, it worked.
Others face more obstacles. Carbon farming is most profitable at scale. Developers and “carbon aggregators” offer to solve this problem. But each middleman takes a chunk of the revenue. This makes it harder for smaller producers to benefit. For some in Oklahoma, this follows a pattern of discrimination against historically disenfranchised rural peoples.
“We work with limited resource, socially disadvantaged farmers and producers,” said David Stephens of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project (OBHRPI). “Our community has zero knowledge of carbon credits.”
The Indian County Agriculture & Resource Development Organization (ICARDS) works with 250 farming families in Southeastern Oklahoma. Many are tribal members, nearly all farm less than 100 acres. ICARDS’s Bernard Allen-Bey shares Stephens’s concerns. “I’m worried about minority producers getting unfair deals. They’ll give you $3 for the credit and turn around and sell it for $300.”
In response, ICARDS is taking action. It takes many acres to sequester enough carbon in the soil to produce a single credit. So Allen-Bey is organizing his members as a collective to negotiate directly with buyers. “We’re trying to ensure our people benefit. The small people, the disadvantaged farmers, the people who have been taking care of their land, the people who have not created the pollution” said Allen-Bey. “The intention is small producers don’t get left behind.”
Carbon farming is controversial. Critics question whether sequestering carbon in the soil, an actively cycling biological carbon pool, really offsets permanent fossil carbon release. Some claim it’s mere corporate greenwashing. Recent studies challenge the idea “one ton in equals one ton out.”
Allen-Bey acknowledges the moral conundrum. “Some people in our group don’t want to participate at all, because they feel it’s an endorsement—you’re allowing big polluters to continue polluting. And that’s probably true.”
These barriers to entry, combined with legacies of inequity, bring carbon farming to the frontline of social, economic, and environmental justice.
“That, to me, is the issue—are rural communities of Oklahoma again being short-changed in the renewable energy boom?” Stephens asked.
Allen-Bey agreed. “Rural areas are at the forefront of this. We just have to get organized.”
Blaney hopes others will join the grassroots effort underway in Oklahoma. “That’s the way rural communities are. That’s the best things about small towns: people help each other out.”
Emily Rose Soreghan is a writer from Oklahoma. During the day she helps run Oklahoma’s first worker-owned cooperative coffee shop and bakery.