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Can Agroforestry Breathe New Life Into Carbon Markets?

The Michael RiCharde of several years ago might be a little confused by the Michael RiCharde of today.

Before RiCharde and his wife, Anna, took over Good Wheel Farm outside of Asheville in 2019, he managed the livestock operations for another farm in Western North Carolina. He used a conventional approach: He diligently mowed his animals’ pastures to control weeds, added lime to make the soil less acidic, and applied fertilizer to boost productivity.

“I’m trying to figure out what it looks like to be wedded to a place with more of a conservation mindset while still producing food.”

“You can tell I just don’t care about that anymore,” RiCharde says with a laugh.

He’s still in the livestock business—cows, chickens, and goats all graze across Good Wheel’s 42 acres. But in mid-June, as RiCharde strolled the grounds with Charlie and Ingrid, two of his massive white sheepdogs, he tromped through tall grasses and chicory flowers instead of neatly maintained pasture.

And everywhere he looked, trees had leafed out. Mulberry and persimmon seedlings stood out from a low-lying field. American chinquapins, a native dwarf chestnut, dotted the hillside below the RiChardes’ farmhouse. A wetland was full of young willow cuttings.

“I’m trying to figure out what it looks like to be wedded to a place with more of a conservation mindset while still producing food. That’s where the tree projects felt natural, because the place wants to grow trees,” RiCharde says, gazing at the forested Appalachian foothills that surround the farm.

His vision has gotten a jump start through a partnership with Carbon Harvest. The Asheville-based initiative seeks to mitigate climate change by helping farmers establish, monitor, and verify carbon sequestration through tactics like agroforestry in the Southern Appalachians, in hopes of creating the country’s first regional carbon market.

As part of a $20 million project led by the Kentucky-based nonprofit Accelerating Appalachia, Carbon Harvest will receive roughly $200,000 over two years to conduct research on the potential for a regional offset market. “The point of this work is to investigate whether alternative markets can be developed with integrity at a different scale and based on updated values,” says Meredith Leigh, one of the initiative’s three partners.

Michael RiCharde herds sheep down a slope on Good Wheel Farm in North Carolina, part of the Carbon Harvest carbon market. (Photo courtesy of Good Wheel Farm)

In the meantime, the Carbon Harvest team—which consists of Mari Stuart and Laura Lengnick in addition to Leigh—has been helping farmers establish carbon-capturing practices on their properties, with the goal of setting them up to receive payments in the market once that opportunity comes online.

They have spent the past several years evangelizing about the benefits of agroforestry through workshops and presentations across the region. Trees, they say, can protect farm animals from wind and sun, prevent erosion, stabilize streambanks, and yield marketable products like fruit and nuts.

Earlier this year, the Carbon Harvest partners wrapped up an agroforestry pilot program that helped four local farms, including Good Wheel, integrate trees with their crops and livestock. With the initiative’s help, RiCharde and three other growers were able to map their properties and develop detailed conceptual plans for agroforestry.

The Carbon Harvest team also knows that, by drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into trees and soils, agroforestry can help address the effects of the climate crisis. In the future, they hope to see Appalachian farmers like RiCharde get paid for providing that service—in ways that avoid many of the problems they see with today’s markets for carbon removal.

Traditional Carbon Offset Programs

The concept of compensating people for carbon removal isn’t new. Many companies and governments want to claim that their operations are emissions-free. But rather than reduce fossil fuel use directly in their supply chains, some choose to offset their pollution by buying “carbon credits” designed to reflect greenhouse gasses taken out of the air elsewhere.

It’s a potentially lucrative opportunity. The nonprofit Forest Trends estimated that the global market for voluntary carbon credits—those bought by organizations to meet their own climate pledges—was roughly $2 billion in 2021. By 2030, according to the consulting firm McKinsey, that market could exceed $50 billion.

But as Lengnick with Carbon Harvest points out, small farmers intensively stewarding their land are all but shut out of existing offset programs. For one, those markets are generally designed to reward new projects, rather than farms with regenerative practices already in place. They also cater to big companies that want to buy credits for millions of tons of emissions, and therefore focus on supporting industrial-scale projects.

In many offset programs, that means protecting or planting large tracts of forests; over 85 percent of the 1.5 million tons of offsets purchased by Microsoft in fiscal year 2021–22, for example, were tied to forestry initiatives. (A recent study found that carbon offsets are much less likely to reduce deforestation than they were originally thought to be.) Increasingly, it also means projects that work with very large farms to implement practices such as cover cropping and reduced tillage on tens of thousands of acres of Midwestern corn and soy.

“It’s a very specific kind of farming operation that is going to benefit from those big international carbon market programs,” Lengnick explains. “They’re going to be much larger-scale than the average farm, and they need to have very simple cropping systems.”

Such systems are relatively easy to manage, but their potential for capturing carbon is still in question.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s COMET-Farm tool, which estimates the effects of agricultural practices on greenhouse gasses, projects that adding legume cover crops to annual crop fields sequesters about a ton of CO2 per acre per year, for instance. On the other hand, COMET shows that planting trees or shrubs in grazed pasture, like RiCharde is doing at Good Wheel, draws down more than four times as much carbon.

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