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The dairy industry aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. Here's what it means for farms


Ice cream, butter and yogurt sales are up in the U.S. America's dairy consumption has been rising for decades and so has the carbon footprint. The country's dairy habit now accounts for about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A new research project from the dairy industry aims to bring that number down. Rachel Cohen from member station Boise State Public Radio reports.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: It's a few weeks before Kurt Heward will plant corn to feed his company's dairy cows in southern Idaho. He jumps out of his truck to admire the soil.

KURT HEWARD: And when I can just step on that shovel, put it down all the way in there easy, and I can pull it out without all this work, it just makes me happy.

COHEN: Heward will use a no-till planter on this field, just like he's done the past few years. It drives the seeds into the ground more gently versus a tiller that digs it up about a foot deep first. Healthy soil can absorb and hold on to a lot more carbon dioxide than if it's overworked by agriculture. It also saves Heward money because it means fewer drives in his tractor.

HEWARD: If we can get across the field in one pass and get the same result, then we're winning.

COHEN: It saves about $50 an acre, maybe even more with high fuel costs. Heward has also planted triticale as a cover crop to blanket his fields all winter, which he says prevents water and wind erosion.

In the U.S. Department of Agriculture greenhouse in Kimberly, Idaho, Abigail Baxter is researching how practices like Heward's could help the climate. She holds up a white gas chamber that looks like an upside-down mixing bowl.

ABIGAIL BAXTER: We have these little set-sized collars that we put into the soil, and then that sits right on top of it.

COHEN: Figuring out just how much carbon dioxide healthy soil can store is tricky. That's part of what Baxter's measuring when she carts the chamber around southern Idaho farm fields. She's also comparing how fertilizers contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

BAXTER: And then when you go to take a measurement, this part of the chamber closes, and it vents it through these two analyzers to get a measurement of the different gases.

COHEN: Cow burps and manure are the main sources of dairy's emissions, releasing lots of methane. But the dairy industry says growing crops for cows makes up about a quarter of its footprint. So if this research can prove farmers like Kurt Heward are taking more carbon from the air and keeping it in the ground, it could help the dairy industry reach its goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. Farmers could even sell so-called carbon credits to other industries, basically get paid to offset carbon dioxide pollution by maintaining healthy soils that absorb more of the gas. Kurt Heward likes that idea.

HEWARD: I thought, well, I might as well jump on the bandwagon of selling carbon credits to someone that needs them, I guess.

COHEN: Carbon markets are still fairly new in the U.S., and the biggest ones don't currently pay for holding carbon in soil. This year, the Biden administration announced a billion-dollar climate smart commodities program, which includes a goal of expanding carbon markets and specifically for farmers.

Cathy Day, the climate policy coordinator for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, agrees that farmers should be part of the climate change solution, but she says incentives that just focus on one component, like carbon, are not looking at the system as a whole.

CATHY DAY: They can help people to experiment with cover crops the first time, for example, but they're not getting that longer term change to more holistic systems that help farmers to be more resilient to climate change over the longer term.

COHEN: Day says there are government programs that mentor farmers over several years and pay them to adopt more complex cropping systems and to integrate cows onto the landscape, which she says can help with air and water quality. There's just not enough funding for everyone who wants to take part. Groups like hers hope those initiatives get a boost in next year's farm bill.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "MOONCHILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Cohen joined Boise State Public Radio in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is the station's Twin Falls-based reporter, covering the Magic Valley and the Wood River Valley.