Cap and Trade Your Cover Crop?

The winds of change certainly have blown strong from Washington, and they are at gale force in the farming industry. President Biden eliminated the Covid relief funding which benefited some growers. But the big news is, he wants to use that money to get growers to idle 50 million acres and plant cover crops. He thinks the cover crop would store carbon. It’s a big part of his campaign against Global Warming.

Cover crops have been contentious for many years. Some growers don’t like them, but others have used them to cut irrigation costs and create a place for beneficial insects to live. They don’t work everywhere or in every crop, but they can be worth the effort, in the right circumstance.

We recently interviewed a citrus grower in Ventura County, who was able improve his farm’s bottom line by substantially cutting his water usage. Every year he planted a new cover crop then plowed it under. After a few years it measurably increased the organic content of his soil and reduced his water demand. He also cut his pesticide applications by stocking specific beneficial insects that helped him with pest control. It was a big win for him.

But cover crops don’t always work. In high heat areas, the carbon might well bake out of the soil unless it is frequently watered. Plus, to sequester carbon it has to be maintained, watered, tilled, and replanted. It could be far more costly than it is worth.

Mr. Biden wants to pay for this 50 million acres of cover crop with a cap and trade program. Companies could buy carbon credits to offset the gases their factories produce. That just feels wrong to me; it seems like that would allow big polluters to buy carbon credits to keep polluting instead of solving the problem at the source.

So it looks like it’s ill advised to grown a cover crop strictly for the purpose of carbon farming. What’s wrong with growing trees and vines instead? Maybe some tomatoes and lettuce?

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