December 22, 20225 Minutes

Fuel for thought: Riding out the energy crisis with carbon farming

Crop establishment requires heavy use of machinery, which in turn requires a high demand for, you guessed it, fuel. But the exploding energy crisis is further causing the costs of fertiliser and diesel to rise, jeopardising margins. When paired with high-input costs and goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, farmers are all thinking carefully about what practices they use in the fields. 

Where some farmers are thinking of abandoning certain fields or even halting their activities altogether, others are turning to regenerative agriculture practices as an opportunity to start reducing GHG emissions and using soil as natural carbon sinks to mitigate the climate crisis. Farmers are minimising soil disturbance and adopting practices, such as cover cropping, careful residue management and direct drilling, which can all contribute to soil health and reduced running costs, among other co-benefits

Employing carbon farming as an extra revenue stream in these troubled times

What might seem to be too good to be true for some is actually something farmers can get started doing today. By concentrating on conservation agriculture practices, which amplify the sequestration of carbon into the soil and overall soil health, running costs are not only reduced, but those putting regenerative practices into action can also be rewarded for their decarbonisation efforts through the issuance of carbon certificates. This, in turn, can be used as an extra revenue stream.

These may seem like bold claims, so let’s break them down. In effect, when only looking at cost reduction, regenerative agriculture practices for carbon farming reduce the number of passes needed for crop establishment. After all, the aim is to disturb less, and hence do less, to the soil. Additionally, rather than using various machines, regenerative agriculture generally requires less machinery and tools that are lighter and more flexible, and can perform three to four different duties while out in the field.

“With carbon farming, we reduced our overheads from £715/ha and 121L/ha of diesel in 2018 to £494/ha and 47L/ha of diesel.”

– Ed Reynolds, Agreena Farmer (Cambridgeshire, UK)

Driving down costs by saving time

When we start considering time management, tilling demands roughly double the overall time spent in the field. In their 2019 study, the sustainability farming consultant Agrovi found that the time spent on the field dropped from 3.14 hours per hectare per year on a field of rapeseed farmed with conventional practices down to 1.85 hours when farmed via regenerative agriculture. And let’s face it, we all know time is money. 

Additionally, Agrovi found that the amount of fuel needed to drive up and down the field, combined with the added resistance and work needed by the machine to turn over the soil, leads to 43x more fuel being burned compared to regenerative farming.

Taking a field of wheat as an exemple, the study also found that the diesel consumption drops from 111.3L/ha per year with conventional farming to 65.6L/ha per year when regenerative practices are adopted.

“The farming industry is undeniably under constant pressure”

The present and future of farming

Resilience is perhaps the #1 line of defence farmers cannot live without. The added pressure brought on by the energy crisis is testing our ability to adapt and find new ways to manage with these invasive factors at hand. The farming industry is undeniably under constant pressure – from being susceptible to energy and financial shocks and increasingly unexpected weather conditions to being expected to answer the growing cries for more sustainability – while at the same time single handedly ensuring the world’s food security. The stakes are high and any threat to the bottom line is a serious concern. 

But building soil resilience through carbon farming can be the path forward to not only survive, but thrive. By thinking about how efficient and effective current farming processes actually are, farmers can switch gears and adopt practices that foster more co-benefits to both planet and profit.

Farmers need to decide whether they’re choosing agricultural practices simply based on what they know and are used to or because they’re the best method for farm management holistically now and in the future? Definitely some fuel for thought.