Regenerative hemp farmer Ben Banks-Dobson of Hudson Carbon, carrying son Benny, measures carbon capture through a soil laboratory and will release a carbon offset market platform next year. Photo courtesy of Hudson Hemp Instagram
By Jean Lotus
Hemp, with its excellent carbon sequestering properties, seems a crop that could benefit from carbon credit programs, which are used by corporations to offset the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted and lower their carbon footprints. Carbon credits might incentivize more farmers to grow the crop, hemp farmers believe.
The sale of agricultural carbon offset credits is becoming more popular, with Microsoft purchasing 193,000 metric tons of soil offset credits in January.
The Biden administration has spurred more interest in agricultural carbon credits by proposing a federal carbon bank, which would guarantee buyers for agricultural credits. The U.S Senate passed the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act in June, proposing that USDA establish science-based standards for carbon-offset claims.
But farmers are finding it difficult to break into the new carbon credit market with complicated and expensive measurement processes and no universally agreed upon standards.
“For row-crop agriculture, the big opportunity it offers is scale. But it also has a measurement and monitoring problem,” Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer told Reuters.
One hemp farmer who’s had a head start is New York’s Ben Banks-Dobson, co-owner of Livingston, NY-based Hudson Hemp and Hudson Carbon, in the Hudson Valley about 120 miles north of New York City.
Banks-Dobson’s company has been refining soil coring and carbon measurement in a soil laboratory for seven years. The company plans to develop a platform to measure and sell carbon offsets directly from regenerative farmers to corporations.
“We’re doing all the expensive work right now, on the ground,” Banks-Dobson told Let’s Talk Hemp.
Banks-Dobson got started measuring carbon capture in an onsite soil laboratory seven years ago as he worked to convert a 500-acre farm to an organic operation from a former testing site studying pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides on corn and soybeans. The lab measured carbon as a means determining how healthy the soil was becoming.
“Carbon in the soil helps transfer nutrients and helps the soil hold water and function naturally,” Banks-Dobson said.
Banks-Dobson’s partner, septuagenarian heiress Abby Rockefeller, a noted environmentalist, bought Old Mud Creek Farm from Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta.
Seven years later, the soil is “about 58% carbon,” Banks-Dobson said.
Even more potential for carbon removal comes from hemp, the farm found.
Hemp is a carbon sequestering heavyweight, one of the most carbon-gobbling crops in agriculture. On average, an acre of hemp sequesters about 11,000 pounds, or 5 metric tons of CO2 throughout photosynthesis during its growth cycle, according to New Frontier Data.
Hudson’s cannabinoid hemp is grown on a 10-acre plot on the property for the company’s CBD lines.
Growing hemp with regenerative farming could unlock carbon credits in the future, Banks-Dobson believes, giving farmers an incentive to consider hemp and eco-farming practices.
Carbon Capture in Agriculture
Each year, 33.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere globally. The United States produces about 5.1 billion.
According to NOAA, about 50% of carbon dioxide (CO2) remains in the atmosphere, while 25% is absorbed by the oceans.
When plants photosynthesize, they capture carbon from the air and bring it into the soil. About 25% of carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants and trees. If farmers and ranchers could absorb at least 10%, greenhouse gasses would be reduced and the soil would be improved.
“The carbon cycle moves between the ground and the air,” Banks-Dobson said. “After 4 billion years of photosynthesis we ended up with a livable planet.”
The secret is to keep the carbon from re-escaping.
Carbon can be trapped in the ground, or sequestered, through regenerative farming principles such as no-till farming, planting cover crops, planting diverse crops, keeping roots in the ground and incorporating livestock.
Hudson Hemp leaves hemp roots in the soil at harvest and plants rows 9 feet apart in a strip tillage system, disturbing the soil in 30-inch strips among perennial beds of cover crops of clover and grasses. The strip soil is enriched with compost, biochar and mulch, Banks-Dobson said.
Regulated grazing of farm livestock and chickens encourages plant growth and distributes natural nutrients (dung) back over the land.
Measuring carbon capture is a growing science, Banks-Dobson said. But putting a price on carbon and creating a new financial instrument is complicated, he added.
Third-party verification is expensive and no one agrees — yet — on how to measure carbon.
Groups such as the non-profit Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) are developing measurement systems. Food companies such as General Mills and McDonalds and Big Ag and medicine companies such as Cargill and Bayer are also developing their own carbon credit measurement systems to offset their carbon footprints.
“There needs to be a real buyer and a real seller, not just two polluters trying to keep their pollution levels lower because of a government mandate,” Banks-Dobson said.
Greenhouse gas pollutants from agriculture upstream and downstream of carbon credit producers need to be taken into account, as well, Banks-Dobson believes. For example if farms are not tilling soil, but still “using Roundup pesticide and (nitrogen heavy) liquid manure, it’s still a problem, not a solution,” he added.
Hudson Carbon’s planned carbon offset platform will combine real-time carbon measurements on the ground calibrated with satellite and drone imagery analyzed with artificial intelligence based on ground topography and geography, he said.
“What we hope for are international carbon quantification standards to create the financial instruments that underwrite the carbon market framework,” he said.
“We’re going to need cooperation from the financial sector, the ag sector, forestry, fishing and the EPA and energy agencies, to work together…The only way to reduce emissions is sequestration. Without sequestration, it’ll be a catastrophe even if we achieve carbon zero,” he added.
# # #
Jean Lotus is a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hempreneur who writes about the American West and sustainable food and technologies.