Nebraska Soil Carbon Project

Nebraska Soil Carbon Project

The Nebraska Soil Carbon Project is a collaboration with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Upper Big Blue and Central Platte NRDs, The Nature Conservancy, Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), Cargill, Target, and McDonald's. Our goal is to team up with 100 producers to install 100,000 acres of new soil health practices on central Nebraska cropland over five years. In year one, our target acreage enrollment is 20,000 acres. Farmers who enroll will be compensated for adopting cover crops, no till, and/or diverse rotations. 
 

Overview

  • Farmers can adopt new soil health practices that store carbon in the soil. That carbon can be used to offset a private company's emissions.
  • Farmers may qualify for financial assistance to implement one, all, or combination of the following practices: cover crops, no-till, and diverse crop rotations.
  • Farmers can sign up for a joint NRCS and private payment of $9.50 - 45.00 per acre per year, depending on practice(s). Payments are not linked to carbon stored. Ecosystem Services Market Consortium will quantify outcomes. Non-NRCS contracts are non binding. 
  • Year one sign up deadlines will be in the spring and fall of 2021. Sign up deadlines will be be posted once they are released from the NRCS. This program will continue for up to five years or until funds run out. To learn more and enroll, please reach out to John Bush at the Upper Big Blue NRD: jbush@upperbigblue.org or call him at (402) 362-6601.
  • Recruitment and Enrollment Overview Document (PDF)

Why Soil Carbon? Why Now?

Why Soil Carbon? Why Now?
Why Soil Carbon? Why Now?
Increased cropland soil carbon has multiple on and off farm benefits, including more stable yields; improved nutrient, soil, and water status; and environmental stabilization.

Soil health practices increase soil carbon. These practices include no till, cover crops, and diverse rotations.  Markets are emerging to link soil carbon buyers and suppliers. 

What is Unique About this Project?

What is Unique About this Project?
What is Unique About this Project?

The project is paying for practices, not carbon outcomes. This is because linking payments to rate of carbon storage and market rate of carbon payments could be risky to producers while the market is still developing.

Our project team represents a diverse cohort of public and private entities.• This project will provide involved companies (Cargill, Target, and McDonald's) with a way to meet part of their greenhouse gas reduction goals.
 

Project Outcomes

Project Outcomes
Project Outcomes
  • Over five years, estimated equivalent of 150,000 metric tons of CO2 stored
  • Enhanced soil and nutrient retention on-field
  • Getting to scale by linking farmers to new carbon payment opportunities
  • Farmer-centric research, driven by farmer questions and interests

Value to Farmers

Value to Farmers
Value to Farmers

  • $9.50 - 45.00 per acre annually of financial assistance.
    • Payment depends on type of soil health practice and enrollment in the ESMC pilot.
    • Practices can include reduced tillage, diverse rotations, and cover crops according to NRCS practice codes.
  • Opportunity to share conservation stories with a larger audience.
    • Producers can take part in or lead field days, media spots, short project videos, etc.
  • Detailed report on the impact of new soil health practices.
    • Each producer will receive a report on the new practice's soil carbon and water quality outcomes. If they opt in to providing additional economic data, producers can also receive a detailed report on the practice's financial return on investment (ROI).
  • Opportunity to attend training events (post-COVID).
    • With local and national leaders in soil health, agronomy, and other relevant topics. Meals will be included.
  • Connection with emerging carbon markets.
    • Producer payments will not be linked to carbon storage, but will instead be paid by acres of practice adopted. Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) will quantify carbon and water quality outcomes.
  • On demand technical assistance.
    • Year round assistance from NRD, NRCS, and TNC staff to support paperwork/application process and soil health practice management.
  • There is no gross income or acre enrollment cap for NRCS payments.
    • But producers are encouraged to enroll a reasonable number of acres given their operation size and soil health experience. More acres can always be submitted for enrollment in following years.
  • Soil sampling and analysis for ESMC Pilot enrollees.
    • All farms enrolled in the ESMC Pilot will be sampled at the outset of the project and again in year 5 should the producer remain enrolled for the entire 5 years of the project.

Expectation of Farmers

Expectation of Farmers
Expectation of Farmers
  • Provide agronomic and soil data to project coordinators.
    • Data privacy protections will be in place; see Data Privacy section below.
  • Enroll in the NRCS RCPP payment program and/or the ESMC pilot.
    • Producers will be encouraged to enroll in both the NRCS RCPP and the ESMC Pilot programs, but will have the option of just enrolling in one of these components and not the other. The NRCS RCPP program has many similarities to a typical EQIP program, and the ESMC Pilot will quantify project outcomes, including carbon generation. To receive soil sampling, farmers must be enrolled in the ESMC Pilot. For more, see the FAQs.
  • Attend at least one field day, educational lunch, or related event per year, post-COVID.
  •  Maintain communications with NRCS regarding project enrollment.
    • To ensure successful implementation of the practice and payment flow.
    • To capture feedback on how the project can be improved.
    • To assist with data collection.
    • Meetings can take place in person, over Zoom, and/or via text as needed.
  • Farmer Info Packet (PDF)

Producer Requirements To Apply

Producer Requirements To Apply
Producer Requirements To Apply
  • Willing to meet project expectations of farmers, to ensure a producer's successful experience in the project. 
  • Acknowledgement that NRCS criteria will be used to rank applications.
    • Generally, we are looking for producers across the spectrum of soil health experience. No prior experience with soil health practices is needed, but willingness to experiment with increasingly sophisticated practices will be prioritized.
    • Not all applications will be approved through the NRCS ranking process on the first attempt, but producers can apply multiple times over the project's life. Additionally, a producer could still enroll in the ESMC portion of the project without being approved by NRCS, but should note ESMC payment rate is much lower than NRCS financial assistance.
    • Unlike other NRCS programs, there is no gross income or acre enrollment cap for NRCS payments in this project.
  • Payments are for new soil health acres only.
    • But a measurable improvement of an existing practice could count, as long as it aligns with NRCS standards. For more on the NRCS standards around what counts as an improved practice contact your local NRCS Office or John Bush at 402 362-6601.
  • The producer must farm in the Upper Big Blue or Central Platte NRDs.
    • The NRCS funds for this project are dedicated to just this region. However, if a farmer outside of this geography wants to be involved in other aspects of the project, like the ESMC portion and training sessions, they are encouraged to reach out to a project coordinator.

NRCS Practices Eligible for Financial Assistance

NRCS Practices Eligible for Financial Assistance
NRCS Practices Eligible for Financial Assistance
The eligible practices, at a glance.
  • 340 - Cover Crops
    • Basic $23.79 (HU $38.66)
    • Multiple Species $32.01 (HU $49.79)
  •  329 - Residue & Tillage Management (No Till)
    • No Till $11.27 {HU $16.90}
  • 328 - Conservation Crop Rotation
    • Basic Rotation $9.42 (HU $11.30) (See graphics below for detailed explaination)
HU is the NRCS designation for Historically Underserved (HU) producers, and includes farmers with limited resources, who are socially disadvantaged, beginning farmers and ranchers, and some US military veterans. If you think you are an HU farmer, please let your NRCS contact or a project coordinator know as you prepare your application.





 

What type of paperwork is involved for producers?

What type of paperwork is involved for producers?
What type of paperwork is involved for producers?
  • NRCS Ranking Form and Form 1200: Completed once at the outset of the project by the producer and NRCS staff. Typically completed in person, but currently done by phone/online due to COVID. Estimated time, 30-90 minutes.
  • Enter field boundaries into ESMC: Completed once, after the NRCS contract is obligated. Completed by the producer, with optional assistance from a project representative. Completed digitally and takes 25-90 minutes.
  • Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) data entry: Completed annually, post harvest. Completed by the producer, with optional assistance from a project representative. The form is electronic and takes 15-90 minutes. 

Why Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC)?

Why Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC)?
Why Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC)?
We encourage all farmers and landowners to seek out the ecosystem and carbon payments platform that works best for their situation. We are collaborating with ESMC on this project because they offer a low-risk way for farmers to explore carbon market payments for new soil health practices. Specifically:
  • The contract is non-binding.
    • Because this is an ESMC pilot program, farmers will sign annual contracts. If they choose to not renew their contracts, they can leave the program without penalty from ESMC. This enables farmers to try out a program without a binding, multi-year contract.
 
  • The payments are non-variable.
    • Many other carbon payments are variable year to year and based on actual carbon storage rates. This pilot will pay farmers a flat rate of $3 per acre/per year regardless of current market payment rates or the amount of carbon stored per year. This is intended to give farmers certainty around the level of revenue they'll generate through this project.
 
  • Simplified data collection
    • ESMC is piloting multiple data collection methods, including remote imaging, to reduce the data burden placed on farmers.
 
  • “Stacked" payments
    • ESMC is developing ways to compensate farmers for multiple benefits from the same practice on the same acres. In addition to soil carbon storage, benefits include water quality improvements and biodiversity.
 
  • ESMC is a not-for-profit company.
    • ESMC's non-profit structure minimizes transaction costs and maximizes value for farmers. They are a private-public partnership, with backing from Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. 

Data Privacy

Data Privacy
Data Privacy
Our project is committed to ensuring that farmers are the primary beneficiaries of any value derived from their data.

Privacy
  • Farmers own their raw data and control the fate of their data including who sees it, how it's used, and where and how long it's stored. Rights to their carbon are only transferred when they sign up with ESMC and complete data entry.
  • Data will be stored by ESMC on a secure server for the duration of the producer's enrollment plus three additional years.
  • The only entities automatically able to view farmer names, locations, and project data are TNC and ESMC. Their privacy policies can be found on their websites. Other project coordinators will not have access to raw farmer data without the express consent from the farmer.
  • The only publicly shared data will be around whole-project outcomes, i.e., no publicly available information can be linked to any one farmer or location.
 
Transparency
  • Farmers can choose to share their data with other project partners.
  • Additional project partners could include The Upper Big Blue and Central Platte NRDs, The Nature Conservancy, and/or Colorado State University.
  • Farmers will not be penalized in any way by not opting in to sharing their data with additional project partners.
 
Simplicity
  • We are committed to collecting only the data needed to meet project outcomes - no more, no less.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions
  • Who owns my data when I enter it into the ESMC portal? How will my data be stored? Who will have access to my data?
    • Farmers enrolled in this project will retain ownership over their raw data. They will also control the fate of their data including who sees it, how it's used, and where and how long it's stored. 
    • Data will be stored on a secure server for the farmer's duration of enrollment in ESMC plus three years, unless a farmer requests deletion of their records.
    • The only entities automatically able to view farmer names, locations, and project data are ESMC and The Nature Conservancy.
    • The only publicly shared data will be around whole-project outcomes, i.e., no publicly available information can be linked to any one farmer or location. (For more on this, see privacy tab above.)
  • What is Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC)?
    • Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) is one of the many entities quantifying soil carbon, ensuring carbon quantification is aligned with third  party  quality  standards, and conducting high impact science to ensure both buyers (companies) and sellers (farmers and ranchers) can confidently transact carbon in a way that benefits both sides.
    • Members of ESMC include project partners Cargill, McDonald's, and The Nature Conservancy. ESMC is still in pilot mode, and this project will provide critical insights and science needed to develop effective markets. In this project, ESMC is going to document resulting carbon and water quality assets for the funding companies. (For more, see Why Ecosystem Services Market Consortium? tab above.)
  • What rights do I have to carbon outcomes from my enrolled acres?
    • A producer retains their rights to project carbon until they sign The Producer Agreement with ESMC and receive the $3/acre payment, at which point ESMC will transfer rights to the producer's carbon to project buyers (McDonald’s, Target, and Cargill).
    • We estimate that the project will generate 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (C02-e), but the final tally will depend on calculations done by ESMC based on soil sampling and model estimates.
    • In this project, any resulting carbon was "prepaid" for by the funding companies. Farmers will be paid for acres of practices adopted and not based on rate of carbon storage. This means that the companies have already taken a risk that the project's enrolled acres may not generate the entire 150,000 metric tons of C02-e they paid for. This was done to shift the risk of under-storing carbon to the companies and not the farmers.
  • I am a producer who already uses soil health practices. Am I eligible?
    • To be eligible, a producer must either newly implement a project practice (no till, cover crops, diversified rotations) OR "meaningfully improve upon an existing practice", e.g., shift from a single species to multi (3+) species cover crop mix or take the next step from strip-till to no-till. The definition of meaningfully improve upon an existing practice is based on NRCS guidelines and cannot be adjusted by the rest of the project team. For more information on what qualifies, please speak to your local NRCS Office or John Bush at 402 362-6601.
  • How does this project differ from other carbon payments?
    • One major difference between this project and others is that payments will be tied to the total acres of soil health practices and not soil carbon stored. We did this because we want farmers to know the costs and benefits of the project at the outset. Carbon storage, and the associated payments, could be highly variable.
    • While this pilot will pay farmers $3/acre up front for their potential carbon, the eventual ESMC marketplace will compensate farmers for the actual quantity of carbon stored, one year post-quantification.
    • As the science improves, it will be less risky to link payments to carbon. But for now, we did not want producers to take on the risk of unknown payments by signing up for this project.
    • Another difference between this project and others is that we have no acreage minimums for enrollment.
    • Finally, farmers will retain ownership over their raw data.
  • What payments can I receive as an enrolled producer?
    • Producers will be paid by NRCS according to the NRCS Nebraska payment schedule for no till, cover crops, and/or diversified rotation practices. These payment rates range from $9.50 - 42.00 per acre.
    • Upon enrolling in the ESMC pilot, producers will also begin receiving a flat $3/acre annual payment. Finally, producers will receive complimentary soil sampling and analysis.
  • What is the expected timeline for payments?
    • Producers will receive their first payments from NRCS the fall after they first enroll, and once practices are installed. If Congress fails to pass a budget, these payments could be delayed until a budget is finalized.
    • To receive the funds for ESMC enrollment, farmers will enter year-end data to be submitted to ESMC. These payments will occur in October - December the year of enrollment.
  • I am already enrolled or plan to enroll with lndigoAg, Nori, Bayer, TruCarbon, or a similar entity. Am I still eligible for this ESMC program?
    • Yes. A producer can participate in multiple programs at the same time. You can't, however, enroll the same acres in more than one carbon payment program. Once this pilot ends, farmers can choose to automatically enroll into the ESMC marketplace.
  • Is there a maximum dollar amount that one farm operation can receive total?
    • No, but it's important that a producer doesn't take on more acres in one year than they can reasonably manage. Producers who want to start with just a part of their farm and then expand their enrolled acreage each year will be eligible to do so.
  • What if I am not interested applying for both the NRCS funding and the ESMC pilot component?
    • A producer can choose to enroll in just the NRCS component or just the ESMC component if they choose. However, to receive the full payments and benefits of the project, we encourage them to enroll in both aspects of the project if they are able.
  • What happens if I leave the project early?
    • There will be no repercussions from TNC, the NRDs, or the other private companies if a farmer leaves the project early for whatever reason.
  • What happens if I leave my ESMC contract early?
    • Because this is an ESMC Pilot project, there will be no repercussions if a producer chooses not to renew their annual contract with ESMC.
  • What happens if I need to end my contract with NRCS early?
If a producer wants to end their NRCS contract early, NRCS first attempts to work with them to find resolution. If they fall behind on the contract schedule and the reason is not within their control (beyond normal farming risks}, NRCS will do a rescheduling modification, i.e., extend out the contract a year or two. If the farmer is still unable to complete their commitments due to reasons outside of their control, the contract can be cancelled with no penalty to the producer. If the reason is within their control, NRCS will allow one rescheduling modification with a notice of contract violation using form CPA-153, giving the producer up to 12 months to correct the violation. If the producer has not completed a practice within the specified time frame on the CPA-153, NRCS would reassess the situation. Continued violation may result in termination.
  • Cancellation: If a farmer exits their NRCS contract before the expiration date with incomplete items and the reason is in good faith or for circumstances that occurred not within the producer's control (death, repeated weather events, etc} and NRCS/Partners are in agreement, NRCS can cancel the contract and with no penalty.
  • Termination: If a farmer exits their NRCS contract before the expiration date with incomplete items and the reason is not in good faith (stops corresponding with NRCS/partners, voluntary sale of land with no notice, unwilling to continue the scope of the project} NRCS can terminate the contract. Termination may result in liquidated damage assessment of 10% of the total obligation, depending on the reason.
  • What if I am unable to implement practices due to factors out of my control (e.g., weather)?

If a producer falls behind on the  contract schedule and  the  reason  is not within their control (beyond normal farming risks), NRCS will do a rescheduling modification, i.e., extend out the contract a year or two. If the reason is within their control, NRCS will allow one rescheduling modification with a  notice of contract violation  using form CPA-153, giving the  producer up to 12 months to correct the violation. If the producer has not completed a practice within the specified time frame on the  CPA-153,  NRCS would reassess the  situation. Continued  violation  may  result  in  contract termination. If a farmer exits their NRCS contract before the expiration date with incomplete items and  the  reason  is in good  faith  or for circumstances that occurred not within the  producer's control  (death,  repeated  weather events, etc) and NRCS/Partners are in agreement, we can cancel the  contract and with no penalty.

Similarly, a producer will not be eligible for the $3/acre annual payment in years they are unable to implement the practice, but they will have the option of extending their enrollment to make up for that payment at the end of the  project.

Producers are, however, still encouraged to access other project features during years that they are unable to implement the practice(s). Those benefits include lunch events, opportunities to speak with the press, and technical assistance.

  • Will I need to meet anyone in person to participate?
Producers unable or uncomfortable meeting in person will have the option of participating in this project remotely (i.e., over the phone, text, email and Zoom). Currently  NRCS does not allow the  general public (including producers) in their service centers due to COVID 19. They are instead engaging with producers online (e.g., Zoom) and occasionally in person when it can be done outside and using social distancing. The data collection and ESMC portions of the project are already designed to be completed online. Project coordinators will reach out to producers as needed via text, email, or phone until it is safe to meet in person.
  • I sometimes hear about cropland soil carbon being unscientific or illegitimate. What is the project doing to ensure that carbon outcomes are real and science-based?
Anytime a project involves claims about carbon or greenhouse gas reduction or sequestration, The Nature Conservancy requires that outcomes are 3rd party verified to a rigorous carbon accounting standard.

In this case, the 3rd party accounting standard we're using is from Gold Standard, with Ecosystem Services Market Consortium {ESMC) serving as an intermediary to ensure protocols are adequately followed. In this project, Gold Standard requires soil sampling, which serves to "ground truth" model-estimated carbon storage. Other entities in this space are using model estimates only, i.e., without soil sampling. Neither approach has been universally embraced, but for now we think that soil sampling adds necessary rigor even though it's more costly.

We are also working with Colorado State University to conduct additional investigations into the efficacy of soil carbon payments to store carbon on working farms in a way that is both scientifically defensible and cost effective.
  • What does the soil sampling entail? 
The project coordinators will be collecting soil samples from project farmers to analyze total soil organic carbon, pH, and bulk density. Those results will be shared with the farmer. Macronutrient analysis may be included, but we are still finalizing protocols.

For those producers who opt in, Colorado State University will be conducting an additional analysis on the samples to assess whether the type of soil carbon changes over the course of the project. Freshly inputted carbon is good microbial food, while older carbon can support better aggregation and infiltration.

Understanding both the amount and type of soil carbon change can be more meaningful than either alone.
  • What if I don't own the land I farm?
Both NRCS and ESMC have processes for working with leassees and landowners together to facilitate enrollment in the project. Please let us know as soon as possible if you plan to enroll leased acres.
  • What if I don't farm in one of the two NRDs?
The NRCS RCPP funds for technical and financial assistance are dedicated for growers in the Central Platte and Upper Big Blue NRDs only. For those outside of this geography interested in enrolling in the ESMC pilot, reach out to Jacob Fritton at jfritton@tnc.org or (308) 529-2636.