We always hear, “Well I don’t get paid for soil health.” Traditionally we as farmers have only been paid for the yields produced off of our farms. We try to do things as efficiently as possible while driving for maximum yield. We’ve heard from the ag industry, “We need to feed the world; we need to continue to raise yields.” The current solution has typically been: more chemical inputs, more expensive seed, and more fertilizer. However, there are markets emerging that are going to allow us to finally get paid directly for soil health and focus on desired environmental outcomes. 

What are ecosystem services? 

Ecosystem services are markets that reward farmers for their positive impact on environmental outcomes. The ecosystem services that are being targeted first are carbon, water quality, and water use efficiency. We know that through more sustainable agricultural practices, we can sequester more carbon out of the atmosphere through living roots, pulling in CO2, and storing it in the soil through photosynthesis. 

We know that healthier soils are more successful at recycling nutrients. Microbes help us to free up nutrients in our soil so that we can reduce our synthetic fertilizer inputs and improve our impact on water quality. Through improved organic matter, better water infiltration, more living roots, diverse rotation, and less tillage, we can improve our water holding capacity and overall water use efficiencies which directly impacts flooding or mitigation of environmental risks in times of too much water or too little water. 

How do these markets get set up?

There are a couple of different companies and organizations that are working on actual payment systems to reward farmers for their carbon sequestered, improved impact on water quality and improved water use efficiencies through various practices. Groups such as Indigo Ag, The Ecosystem Service Market Consortium, and Nori are all directly working on some of these markets. 

The first market is carbon. A company who wants to offset their carbon footprint can buy credits from farmers who are actually sequestering that carbon in our soils. This is a huge win-win because we are able to get economic support to help us to adopt more sustainable ag practices while reducing overall atmospheric CO2 levels. We know that sequestering carbon and building up our organic matter is a great thing over time, but it can take multiple years to really see a benefit. Now, there is an opportunity to offset that cash flow unalignment by utilizing some of these carbon credit ecosystem markets.

How do I get paid as a farmer?

You have probably already been making good progress in adopting conservation ag systems, reducing your synthetic fertilizer use, reducing tillage and implementing acres of cover crops. We know that we don’t have all of the issues completely solved when it comes to adopting conservation practices, but through better data, we can really be strategic and move the needle forward in alignment with emerging markets. We need to meet the puck where it’s going. We know we need to improve carbon, water quality, and water use efficiency impacts. We know we can start doing that today! 

Many farmers in the Continuum Ag network are the leaders in this space already. Now it’s time to collect data, document our stories and align with these companies who want to tell our story to the market and up the supply chain. They want to drive the economic value of our farms. Contact us today (mitchell@continuum.ag) to learn more about opportunities to fit into emerging ecosystem markets. This is a potentially massive opportunity for farmers, and it’s worth learning more.