Carbon taxes should be like income taxes — with credits

Diverse management systems are the key to putting more carbon back into the soil, 
and possibly more money into farmers’ wallets

Blain Hjertaas (l) presents on carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture March 21 in Brandon.

Blain Hjertaas says that if you tax use, you should reward storage.

“I believe that if we, as a society, are going to value carbon and tax carbon as a bad behaviour… then we need to reward those who solve the problem and take the carbon from up here and put it back into the soil.”

Hjertaas, a holistic management farmer and educator, told a recent Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association grazing club meeting here that rather than a straight carbon tax, there should also be credits drawn from carbon tax revenues.

He argues that his farm in Redvers, Sask. has seen an average 6.19-tonne-per-hectare-per-year increase in carbon sequestration between 2011 and 2014 through “regenerative agriculture.” Hjertaas says he now sequesters a total 22.88 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year, more than Canada’s annual 20.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita reported by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2014.

Pointing to Alberta’s carbon tax, set to increase to $30 per tonne this year, Hjertaas argued that the 22.88 tonnes sequestered in his soil should be worth an equivalent $686.40.

Making a difference

The argument struck a cord with workshop attendees, many of whom are concerned about a carbon tax.

Dave Bettschen, whose southern Saskatchewan farm has transitioned from grain to forage over the last 20 years, said he was “very doubtful” before the meeting but now intends to implement intensive grazing and rotation into his operation.

“I found this to be very interesting today, very informative,” he said. “It’s really changed my opinion on a lot of things. I came here thinking the carbon tax was a waste of time and, actually, I still think the carbon tax is a waste of time, but I see now that there are some farmers out there doing some things that really can make a difference to sequester carbon.”

Minto-area grain producer David Rourke described carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture as a “grassroots solution that deserves a lot of merit.”

“I keep getting amazed by how fast things are changing and what the potential for agriculture to have a positive influence on global climate is,” he said.

Sequestering carbon played a role in the recently released carbon policy recommendations from Manitoba Beef Producers. The group recommended six points to the government, including tax exemption for its industry, research investment in advanced forages and grazing practices, incentive for farmland to be returned or maintained as pasture, tools to help producers weather climate change and recognition of agriculture for its role in greenhouse gas reduction.

Keystone Agricultural Producers has also called on the province to exempt livestock and crop production from carbon tax and to defer a portion of tax funds back into research or initiatives to help producers cope with climate change.

Rourke, also the founder of agriculture research company AgQuest, said the current policy on carbon sequestration is based on hay, a mechanism he argues is not an efficient vehicle for carbon storage.

“Hay is a nutrient-export business,” he said. “It doesn’t return anything back. The cutting doesn’t stimulate the growth the same way that grazing does.”

‘Four ecosystem processes’

Regenerative agriculture, a series of management practices meant to not only sequester carbon but also rebuild soil health, was the main topic of Hjertaas’s address.

He said “four ecosystem processes” are key: maximizing solar energy capture by maximizing time plants are actively photosynthesizing, maximizing water infiltration, maintaining soil ecosystems and regaining environmental diversity.

“Most of our annual cropping systems only capture energy for about 70 days of the year,” Hjertaas said, adding that he believes capturing up to 220 days’ worth of solar energy should be possible in Manitoba.

“If we really want to be successful in agriculture, we need to capture energy from the time the snow melts to the time the snow comes.”

The argument ties into the themes at previous grazing club workshops, which have stressed maintaining green growth or cover crops to build organic matter as well as increase water infiltration and reduce compaction.

“The way a lot of the surface of the land is farmed today, the water cycle is ineffective,” Hjertaas said. “That’s why we have such massive flooding when we have a three- or a four-inch rain. The agricultural practices have taken a lot of the organic matter out of the soil so the water cannot infiltrate the soil anymore.”

Lack of organic matter, plus removal of the “litter layer” consisting of old growth from previous seasons, also contributes to excess run-off rather than soil infiltration, he said.

Hjertaas criticized contemporary agricultural practices, which he accuses of being overly focused on chemistry rather than biology.

“The only way that we will ever produce nutrient-dense food is we need to have fungi, bacteria, soil particles and plant roots working in symbiotic relationship, and the chemical system prevents that.”

He argued for systems with more crop diversity, either through intercropping or more complex rotations including perennials.

“They’re not as easy to manage, but they make the whole system power up and become regenerative.”

Livestock are essential

Hjertaas substantiated his argument with real-world “success stories,” including an Arizona copper mine which was recovered from barren, unfertile land through regenerative management and livestock, which break up the compacted soil and add nutrients.

“Livestock are critical to long-term regenerative agriculture,” he said. “I do not believe you can be truly regenerative without livestock part of the time.”

However, he said continuous grazing is not necessarily beneficial. “The tool of livestock can be destructive to land or it can be regenerative to land all by how it is managed.”

Hjertaas said livestock should be moved regularly, creating a system where a parcel of land may be grazed intensively, then left to recover after being fertilized by the grazing animals.

He cited another hypothetical example of a field seeded to forage and grazed in spring, followed by a second seeding of a diverse seed mix meant to address deficiencies in the soil, followed by a second grazing. The hypothetical field was then moved back to regular monoculture corn the following year.

Using a real-world example, Hjertaas showed profit margins of a North Dakota cornfield managed under regenerative agriculture in 2012, compared to the county average. The field saw 34 bushels per acre more yield and over $180 less per acre in input costs.

About the author


Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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