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Agricultural Soil Carbon in the Palouse Region

Developing an Agricultural Soil Carbon Transaction in the Palouse Region

Project Timeline: August 2011 - August 2014

Applied Ecological Services, Inc. (AES), in partnership with The Earth Partners, LP (TEP), and a consortium of secondary partners (the AES/TEP Team) seek to develop a large-scale agricultural carbon project in partnership with Shepherd’s Grain members and surrounding farmers in the loess hills of the Palouse and Columbia Plateau region. Intensive farming across the region has resulted in the near extinction of the native grasslands, and the exhaustion of the soil and hydrological resources of the region.

Building off literature reviews and preliminary sampling completed in 2009, we propose to further develop and extrapolate these models at a larger, landscape scale across the entire Columbia Plateau eco-region. Utilizing TEP’s Soil Carbon Quantification Methodology, we seek to measure, monitor, validate, and monetize carbon credits stemming from low carbon agricultural practices such as no-till, direct seeding, crop rotation, and improved soil management. We believe that this project demonstrates both the importance of large-scale low carbon farming practices to Greenhouse Gas reduction policies and the role of quantitative soil carbon methodologies in creating compliance-grade offset credits. It will also provide a roadmap for aggregating landowners over large areas at low cost. We seek to demonstrate a model for marketing and monetizing the resulting carbon credits. This will be one of the largest land-based carbon projects to date.

We seek to achieve the following outcomes in this project:

  • Demonstrate the model at scale. Our proposed project is broken into two phases: In Phase 1, we intend to develop a low-carbon agricultural partnership with landowners on 300,000 acres (to be revised) of Shepherd’s Grain land. In Phase 2, we intend to partner with landowners on over 1,000,000 acres (to be revised) across the Palouse and larger Columbia Plateau eco-region. This can be expanded at a much larger scale because the project can build off of the analytic and technical work we will have done (GIS mapping, stratification, soil sampling, model projections, etc.).
  • Demonstrate a low-cost aggregation model. Assembling landowners over large acreages at a relatively low cost is perceived by the market as a major challenge in developing cost-effective land-based carbon projects. Through our planned work with landowners on 1 million acres, the AES/TEP team will develop, test, and refine a low-cost aggregation model. To this end, the AES/TEP team is building on significant existing experience in aggregating landowners, developing standard partnership structures, and streamlining landowner interactions and engagement.
  • Showcase a successful land-based carbon transaction. While agricultural carbon credits cannot currently be monetized in the marketplace, this project seeks to ensure that credits derived from this project will be accepted by the CA Air Resources Board (ARB) under AB-32 or other emerging compliance markets, as well as voluntary markets like VCS and ACR. To this end, we have developed a unique partnership of farmers, project developers, carbon investors, scientists, and government.
  • Develop data, maps and templates that will inform policy and support further research. We will utilize GIS landform and geomorphic modeling and mapping to design, evaluate, and implement a regional, on-the-ground baseline analysis of soil carbon levels across the Palouse and Columbia Plateau eco-region. The resulting data and maps will represent a type of integrated information that is lacking in the region, which will be useful for government agencies, scientists, universities, and other researchers.

Third-party verification is the core of quality assurance, and under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) Program, all projects must be validated and all emission reductions must be verified by approved validation / verification bodies. The methodologies verified by VCS have been used by over 600 projects quantifying emission reductions and issuing GHG credits in the voluntary markets. 

The Earth Partners have developed the first modular soil carbon quantification methodology to be validated under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS). The Methodology can be used to quantify the emission reduction and carbon sequestration benefits of projects such as this project. In order to create carbon offset credits certified under the VCS, the methodology had to undergo a public review process as well as a double validation process by two separate accredited independent validators/certification bodies.

The methodology will be officially validated in 2012 under the VCS standard Version 3.2 and can be used by projects that would like to quantify and monetize the GHG benefit their project cause. The formal announcement of the TEP Soil Carbon Methodology will be announced with a press release. We anticipate that this will provide momentum in the enrollment process as well as the cultivation of potential voluntary buyers. No formal estimates of anticipated tons have been developed to date. We anticipate this will come in late 2012 once the soil sampling results are received for the 2012 field season.


Project Summary

The introduction and widespread application of sustainable, low-carbon farming practices have the potential to restore the fertility and ensure the longevity of one of the United States’ most important breadbaskets. Demonstrating the value to landowners of increased soil carbon stemming from these improved agricultural practices is a critical component in facilitating the large-scale adoption of such practices. To this end, this project seeks to provide a roadmap for developing large-scale, high-quality, and low-cost soil carbon transactions.

Successes & Challenges

During the enrollment process, it became clear that there was a misrepresentation of the total acreage available for aggregation amongst the Shepherd’s Grain producers, which was informally reported as 300,000 acres in the CIG grant application. These turned out to be anecdotal estimates, as the actual acreage where the team acquired geospatial data was about 150,000 acres, or half of what was projected in the grant. There may be a few reasons for this: 1) acreages were estimated for grant purposes; 2) producers chose not to include acreage of landlords that were not or wouldn’t be interested in the program; 3) some producers were not interested in the participating themselves; and 4) some field data may not have been acquired through the FSA data release process. 

In addition, the actual amount of land in wheat production (which would be included in the PDD and subsequent carbon project) is only about 2/3 of the total acreage owned or rented by each of the producers.  The remaining acreage is composed of CRP, pasture, other cropland, etc—some of which may go back into crop production over time. So in total, there is about 100,000 acres of cropland among the Shepherd’s Grain producers.

Due to the reduction in total acreage available and enrolled for Phase One of the program, as described in Task 1 above, the project team adapted the field portion of the project accordingly.  Based on the acreage available for sampling in Phase One, the team chose to split the sampling season between 2012 and 2013.  Assuming 1,500 soil cores will be collected for the entire project, the revised goal for 2012 was 700 soil cores from a mix of conventional tillage, no till, CRP, Reference Natural Areas and miscellaneous sites.  With the 45 samples collected during the pre-sampling trip in November 2011, that brought the first year total to ~750 samples.

Despite the challenge in the achieving the original acreage targets, this program will still be one of the largest, if not the largest, land-based carbon projects with private producers in the world. 


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