Yesterday I spent a great day at Colorado State University talking to the people that have created a carbon management and accounting programme for farmers and advisors. COMET farm (standing for Carbon management and evaluation tool) is a whole farm and ranch planning programme that can be used to assess GHG balances across operations.
The calculator works using the DayCent model, which was designed by the very clever people here at the university. What’s interesting about this model, is that it is the same model that compiles the greenhouse gas inventory reporting that the USA does to report it’s emissions to the UNFCC. As such they have managed to use a model which will pick up changes in farm management practices and as such, reflect farmer’s efforts up the chain at national level.
What’s also interesting about the tool is that it has a couple of parts. COMET farm is a full on in-depth carbon management programme, which allows farmers to scrutinise business performance and future plan management up to 10 years in the future. A couple of great things about this programme, include:
- once you set up your farm on the software, the soil classification maps that are generated from the web soil survey dataset are pre populated into the tool. (I’m pretty much in awe of this, as its something that would be incredibly useful in what we do).
- As you have to map where you are, the programme pre-selects regional crops, practices and other bits and pieces that are relevant to you, again helping the farmer see the relevance of it and access data that has meaning at the farm level.
- There are also pre populated versions of the tool so if you don’t know your data you can use the data that most fits your system to get an idea.
The other tool that has been developed is the COMET planner. This is really integrated. The COMET planner tool has been designed to help the NRCS agents (Natural Resources Conservation service) who are out in the field helping design programmes and activities that farmers can engage in, assess the impact on GHGs of implementing these practices.
So for example a farmer may go to their local NRCS office to find out about the opportunities open to him in terms of grants, programmes etc. When they are sitting down with the adviser to talk about current farm management and the opportunities to change things and improve environmental or resource protection, the adviser can also highlight to the farmer the impact of those proposed decisions on greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating everything together. Its a great idea. And it works because they have the financial incentive programme that farmers are coming in to find out more about.
We had long discussions all afternoon about the idea of payment for practices, and whether it was a way to drive behavioural change in the long term (for example after the payments have stopped). The team are also working with a few suppliers who are interested in being able to show the environmental impact of their products and this is one thing that was considered to be what will drive this process forward.
“In order to make these things truly sustainable, we need to be able to tie a market signal to the greenhouse gas reduction programmes. When a leader emerges in that space, the process will be driven a lot quicker.” When the consumer starts asking for the information, then the wheels will be put in place to move it forward.
I also asked them about the reliability of using modelling data rather than actual farm data. They spend some of their time verifying the models and updating them as new research emerges, but Mark Easter explained, “When you look at where we are now, and compare the risk from climate to the risk from using models, the risk from climate far outweighs it, we have to start using these models to inform practice and focus attention on those practices that we know work and will benefit not just carbon and greenhouse gases, but also air quality and water quality, for example reducing tillage, using cover crops and reducing fertiliser use.”
So all in all it was an interesting day. A chance to share ideas, ruminate on potential delivery opportunities and focus on what needs to happen next. As always I came away from the day more confused than when I started, but there are definitely opportunities to implement some of the COMET management lessons into UK policy. Watch this space.
So packing up this morning and heading off to Nebraska to talk to NRCS and see their work out on farms. Thank you so much to Mark Easter, Keith Paustian, Amy Swan and Matt Sterner for their amazing hospitality and giving up their whole day to talk carbon.