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Meet the Canadian farmers fighting climate change

Conservation and agriculture have often been at odds. But as Ottawa develops the first federal carbon offset standard, farming techniques that reduce greenhouse gas emissions are having a moment

This is the fifth part of Carbon Cache, an ongoing series about nature-based climate solutions.

Paul Thoroughgood doesn’t hear the phone ring because his head is in the freezer. He’s digging out deer steaks to thaw — his daughter wants mule deer wrapped in bacon for dinner. 

I’m calling to ask him about farming and carbon, but he has to catch his breath after running up from the basement.

Thoroughgood and his family farm 2,000 acres just south of Moose Jaw, Sask., — green lentils, canola, flax, spring wheat and winter wheat — on the farm he grew up on. It’s an area of transition, straddling the “corner-to-corner farmland” Saskatchewan is known for and the province’s grasslands and hills so often left out of the flat-farmland stereotypes.

For 23 years, Thoroughgood has been practising, and advocating for, sustainable agriculture. It’s a “buzzword,” he says, noting sustainability is more of a voyage than a place, more of a practice of “continual self improvement.” 

Saskatchewan farm

The view across the road from Thoroughgood’s farm in Saskatchewan. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Paul Thoroughgood

Thoroughgood farms green lentils, canola, flax, spring wheat and winter wheat and says he’s always improving his practices to be more sustainable. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

As conversations have shifted in recent decades, he says, so too have farming practices. 

For many years, farming has been lambasted as being a significant contributor to climate change: the industry has been accused of emitting large amounts of methane from cattle, heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, stripping the land and trending toward increasing industrialization on ever-larger farming operations.

But in recent years the role of farming in reducing emissions — and stewarding the carbon sequestration potential of farmland and ranch land across the Prairies — has been getting more and more attention.

It’s all part of a growing trend of what are known as “nature-based climate solutions,” which a 2017 study found could provide up to one-third of the emissions reductions required under the Paris Accord. 

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A 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine declared that practices that involve removing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the air will have to play a significant part in mitigating global climate change. 

This, the report noted, includes practices that “enhance natural carbon sinks” — like agricultural lands.

And that carbon storage potential is entirely in the hands of farmers and ranchers.

‘If it’s green and growing, it’s sequestering carbon’

Bob Lowe can barely hear the phone either. He’s out branding 400 head of cattle near Nanton, Alta., and they’re making a lot of noise. 

Lowe, the president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, is adamant that ranchers have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to climate change mitigation. In large part, he says it’s inherent in the very nature of ranch land. 

Bob Lowe

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, on his ranch near Nanton, Alta. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Cows Alberta sustainable farming

Grazing plays an important role in the health of native grasslands, which historically were home to bison. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Grasslands like those where Lowe ranches cover approximately a quarter of the earth’s land area — over three billion hectares.

In Canada, it’s thought native grasslands once covered 61 million hectares, covering much of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. Today, less than a fifth remain intact, with some 50 million hectares having been cultivated for crops or converted to urban areas.

Some estimate the uncultivated grasslands of Western Canada may store two to three billion tonnes of carbon. Unlike forests, grasslands store carbon underground, in the deep root systems of the plants that grow there. 

“To put it in a nutshell, if it’s green and growing, it’s sequestering carbon,” Lowe says of the land ranchers use to run cattle. “When you rip it up, that carbon is released and it stores at a very, very slow rate.”

Ranchers don’t rip up the land, he says, and are thus protectors of an important carbon store. 

But even farmers of cultivated crops are adopting new techniques to retain the carbon storage potential of the land and soil.

Bob Lowe sustainable farming

Lowe says ranchers are ahead of the curve when it comes to climate change mitigation, in part because they’re stewards of carbon-rich grasslands. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Tilling ‘detrimental’ to soil — and carbon storage

Ranchers may not rip up the land, but for decades, farmers of crops have churned up the soil after one crop has been harvested to make way for the next season. 

It’s an iconic image: the prairie farmer, ploughing the soil — also known as tilling — by hand, or by ox, or by tractor. 

Cultivation of this sort happened rapidly on the Canadian Prairies once colonial settlers arrived on the land. 

In 1831, just 870 hectares of grasslands were cultivated. Settlers cultivated another 113,000 hectares over the next 50 years, and by 1931 some 24 million hectares of natural grasslands had been converted to croplands.

Canada native prairie grasslands map

The original extent of Canada’s native prairie grasslands. Today, less than 20 per cent of these grasslands remain intact. Map: Alicia Carvalho / The Narwhal

“Going back into the 1930s, the farming practices of the day, which included very intensive tillage, were resulting in dust storms and loss of soil,” Jim Tokarchuk, executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, tells The Narwhal.

It’s estimated that approximately 20 per cent of global grasslands have been converted to cultivated crops, making their management more important than ever, including when it comes to carbon storage.

Soil is the key carbon storage mechanism on ranch lands and farmlands. According to some estimates, soil carbon accounts for more than 80 per cent of the total carbon found in grasslands ecosystems.

Sustainable farming grasslands carbon sequestration

Dry mix grass prairie on the Lomond Grazing Association lease in southern Alberta. The grazing reserve harbours untilled native prairie, as well as wetlands, and is a refuge for many endangered species. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

In parts of the U.S., it’s estimated cultivated soil has lost anywhere from a third to half of its carbon as a result of agricultural practices. A study published in the journal Rangeland Ecology and Management notes that between 20 and 60 per cent of soil stored in carbon was lost as Canada’s grasslands were converted to croplands.

“Tillage is detrimental to soil health,” Tokarchuk explains. “In the last 30 years now there’s been this push to reduce tillage.” 

“Tillage, or mixing up the soil, increases the degradation or the decomposition of the organic matter,” Brian McConkey of the Prairie Soils Conservation Project explains. That reduces soil carbon content. 

One of the conservation techniques that has emerged in recent decades is “zero-till.” 

“The name really does the explanation,” Tokarchuk says. Zero-till doesn’t mean an end to growing crops, but it does mean a change to how it’s done.

In essence, instead of tilling the soil every year to prepare the soil for seeding a new crop, farmers can opt instead to leave the remnants of the previous crop in place. Rather than a freshly cultivated field of exposed dirt, the ‘stubble’ of the last crop is left in the soil, along with its roots — and therefore its carbon storage potential.

Paul Thoroughgood zero till farming

Thoroughgood’s flax field, where he shows the results of a zero till farming practice. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Recuperation of the soil, McConkey says, means “carbon dioxide is removed out of the atmosphere.”

Indeed, zero-till has been hailed as a “significant opportunity to offset a portion of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.”

There have been a variety of campaigns in recent years encouraging farmers to adopt no-till farming techniques, including No-Till November, encouraging male farmers to keep the stubble not only on their faces, but in their fields.

According to McConkey, 3.5 megatonnes of carbon dioxide were removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in the soil from the adoption of no-till methods throughout Canada in 2018.  

This, he notes, is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from over a million vehicles.

Barley and flax

Barley and flax grow on Thoroughgood’s farm outside Moose Jaw, Sask. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Soil conservation could sequester three gigatonnes of carbon 

While zero-till holds potential to increase carbon sequestration, there are questions about whether its climate benefits are applicable across a variety of geographic regions and soil types, with some studies suggesting the carbon storage potential may be greater in warmer and wetter climates than dry, colder ones.

Add in the challenges of collecting data on soil organic carbon and getting an accurate picture of the carbon sequestration potential can be tricky.

“Information on carbon is very noisy,” Tokarchuk says. “It’s very hard to capture consistency because soil carbon is very variable. You can take two samples 10 feet apart and get different results.” 

Nevertheless, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that what it dubs “full adoption” of agricultural soil conservation practices could result in the removal of three gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually.

Three gigatonnes would be substantial if it was achieved, given that the International Energy Agency estimates global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were about 33 gigatonnes in 2018. The potential carbon dioxide removal from agricultural and soil conservation is nearly 10 per cent of that total.

Zero-till doesn’t just have carbon storage benefits. Leaving stubble behind prevents the erosion of valuable topsoil, retains important nutrients, prevents water loss and can save farmers time and money.  

sustainable farming

Carbon sequestered on farms is largely in the soil. By not tilling, that carbon remains in the ground. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

sustainable farming

Thoroughgood inspects his barley, one of the crops on his 2,000-acre farm in Saskatchewan. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Rethinking fertilizer use can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Farmers are working to reduce greenhouse gases lost to the atmosphere in other ways, too — and hoping their efforts will be recognized in carbon markets.

One of the significant contributors to the climate impact of farming is fertilizer. According to Statistics Canada, some 70 per cent of crop farms apply fertilizer. 

Estimates vary as to how much of it is lost as runoff, which ends up in the environment. In many cases, as with nitrogen, that would mean it ends up as a greenhouse gas. 

It has been estimated that as much as 20 per cent of nitrogen fertilizer is lost as runoff, which can end up being a significant factor in emissions.

But in recent years, farmers have been paying more attention to what’s known as nutrient management, says McKenzie Smith, director of nutrient stewardship of Fertilizer Canada. 

Fertilizer Canada advocates for what it calls the 4Rs, referring to fertilizer being applied keeping in mind the “right source, right rate, right time, right place.” This helps ensure it’s used by the crop and not lost as runoff.

“It’s about a grower who successfully looks at their whole system and manages their nutrients in a way that ensures that their crop gets those nutrients and they’re using the right amount but they’re also utilizing timing and placement and different practices or texts or different sources and technologies.”

“So by using proper nutrient management, they’re able to sustainably grow more crops and also at the same time limit against potential environmental effects.”

“We feel this has a very strong linkage to climate change and protecting our environment because although nutrients are needed for the plant, if they’re applied inappropriately and not in the best manner, they could be lost to the environment,” Smith says.

Fertilizer sustainable farming

Research suggests greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizer application can be reduced by 15 to 25 per cent by using specific methods. Photo: Shutterstock

Research in Canada has estimated greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizer use can be reduced by 15 to 25 per cent when 4R protocols are followed.

“There’s a real potential. These are not small numbers,” Smith says. “Utilizing nutrients in the right way, by following these practices on large amounts of farmland across the country, has a real positive impact.”

Smith adds that these reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have been put forward as a mechanism to be included in a national carbon credit system.

“We have a climate smart strategy, which basically takes the 4R concept and turns it into a carbon credit,” Smith says. 

“We’re working with provincial and federal governments to have that protocol be embedded in their systems so that growers doing this in the future could potentially generate carbon credits by reducing emissions.”

The federal government is currently working to develop a national carbon offset standard, with a design paper released this July. In the meantime, a Canadian Grassland Protocol has been approved for the voluntary carbon market and a Soil Enrichment Protocol is in the works. 

(Carbon credits garnered from offsetting can be sold in two types of carbon market: regulatory compliance or voluntary. On the regulated market, buyers are purchasing credits because of requirements by law to keep their carbon emissions below a certain threshold. On the voluntary market, credits are purchased voluntarily — say, to offset the emissions from a flight or a conference.)

‘There’s a whole world of carbon finance out there’

Karen Haugen-Kozyra, president of environmental consulting firm Viresco Solutions, studied carbon and nitrogen cycling at the University of Alberta back in the ’80s.

“Little did I know that carbon was going to be pretty big,” she says with a chuckle from her home in Edmonton. 

She worked on getting Alberta’s carbon credit trading system up and running in the mid-2000s. Now, through her work with Viresco, she focuses on the intersection between agriculture and carbon, helping companies, NGOs, governments, farmers and ranchers navigate the complex world of carbon credits. 

There’s a whole world of carbon finance out there. Investors are looking for good projects to invest in,” Haugen-Kozyra says. 

There are 25 protocols (including four specific to agriculture) in Alberta’s offset system, which has been in operation since 2007.

Protocols are just the recipes people follow to generate a carbon credit from a particular activity,” Haugen-Kozyra explains. 

“The one that’s had the most traction is the Conservation Cropping Protocol,” she says. “It rewards growers for no-till agriculture.”

“Of all the places in the world, it’s the only one that’s really happened at scale. We’ve had a lot of interest from other countries, other companies, about how we’ve been able to do this at scale. Alberta was the first to innovate on large-scale no-till projects.” 

Between 2007 and 2018, nearly 16 megatonnes of carbon offsets have been generated under the Conservation Cropping Protocol and its earlier versions, injecting more than $200 million into the agricultural sector, Haugen-Kozyra says. 

Aggregator companies work directly with farmers to bundle up offsets to sell on the marketplace. 

“Farmers are doing what they’re doing best — growing their crops, raising their animals,” Haugen-Kozyra says. “They don’t have time to be able to meet the market requirements. Plus, as an individual farm, it’s not viable. Buyers in the marketplace are looking for a minimum of 10,000 megatonnes. To bring a package to the marketplace takes a number of farms.”

Thoroughgood with his son Nolan, who wasn’t interested in farming even a year ago, but now hopes to move back home to help. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Carbon offset revenues from no-till methods aren’t a panacea for Alberta farmers, however. Haugen-Kozyra says the carbon yield calculated by the protocol averages about 0.08 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per acre using no-till methods, depending on the region. At today’s ceiling price of $30/tonne, that means a farmer might make $1.80 to $2.10/acre after negotiating with an aggregator and paying a 15 per cent commission. 

“We always say offsets are kind of like Air Miles. You might have been going to fly anyway …  It’s not a windfall.” 

Carbon credits can also be earned for following 4R protocols for fertilizer as well as for using advanced feeding techniques to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fed cattle. Two projects to reduce emissions in cattle were just certified in Alberta.

“It’s the first beef carbon in the world,” Haugen-Kozyra says. “People like beef carbon. It’s kinda sexy.” 

Sustainable farming

Advanced feeding techniques can reduce the amount of methane cows belch into the atmosphere. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

When cows digest food, they create what’s known as enteric methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Viresco recently wrapped up a study using a feed additive called 3-NOP in 12,000 head of cattle, which reduced methane emissions by between 17 and 70 per cent, depending on the exact diet. 

“It’s like Beano for cattle,” Haugen-Kozyra says.

Haugen-Kozyra has been working on carbon offset protocols since 2001, when she was employed in Alberta’s agriculture ministry and Paul Martin was prime minister. During the ensuing Harper years, federal interest waned. Now, with the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change mandating a price on carbon nation-wide, the file is moving again. 

“I’m not getting any younger. I’d really like to see some stuff take off in a big way in this country,” Haugen-Kozyra says. “We need everyone to roll up their sleeves.”

Will early adopters be left out?

While Thoroughgood is excited about the potential for carbon markets, he is concerned that the program still has some kinks.

“We’ve been very frustrated trying to engage on getting zero-till farmers some credit for the carbon we sequester, or have sequestered,” he tells me.

Paul Thoroughgood sustainable farming

Thoroughgood has been working with Ducks Unlimited as an agrologist for 23 years. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

He’s concerned that those in the agriculture industry that are already sequestering carbon, either deliberately or as a side effect of their operations, are not going to be rewarded.

“Ranchers who have all this carbon sequestered, because they ranch, probably are not likely going to get a reward,” he says.

“We’re not rewarding the early adopters, which is, you know, what often happens, but I think that this has driven a wedge in the discussion around how agriculture can be more productively engaged in Canada’s climate adaptation and mitigation strategy.”

Indeed, farmers in Saskatchewan, where there hasn’t been a carbon market to date, have been missing out on earning carbon credits thus far. And given the way carbon markets work, it’s tricky to earn credit for something you’re already doing, because a key hallmark of a carbon credit is it must be additional — in other words, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. 

‘We were more efficient and we made more money’

Both Thoroughgood and Lowe acknowledge there has been tension between some farmers and those pushing for discussions about climate solutions.

“Too often we see conservation and agriculture as being at odds,” Thoroughgood  says. “And too often there hasn’t been a discussion about what it is we disagree on.” As it turns out, he says, the disagreements don’t amount to as much as one may have thought.

Saskatchewan farm

A combine is makes its way through Thoroughgood’s barley crop in Saskatchewan. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Thoroughgood has also been working with Ducks Unlimited for 23 years, as a regional agrologist. In recent years, the idea of farming practices going hand in hand with climate change mitigation has become more prevalent. And that, Thoroughgood says, is only natural. 

“A lot [of new farming practices] have been adopted because they’re financially sound,” he says. “We didn’t adopt that because it reduced our greenhouse gas emissions … we were more efficient and we made more money.”

“As a farmer, I’m not sure that I do anything with climate as my first motivator,” Thoroughgood says, though it is important to him that new farming technologies and practices have a climate benefit. 

But farmers have to be pragmatic, and economics do matter. Thoroughgood says that means benefits to the climate aren’t always the first priority. “It’s an ancillary benefit, not the primary.”

It’s an ancillary benefit — with big potential impacts on carbon storage.

— With files from Zoë Yunker and Emma Gilchrist

The Carbon Cache series is funded by Metcalf Foundation. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, the foundation has no editorial input into the articles.

Sharon is The Narwhal's Alberta-based investigative journalist. Her essays, interviews and long-form nonfiction have also been published by The Walrus,…

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