Welcome to the People of Soil Health, a podcast that unearths the community, exploring the financial, economic, and environmental benefits of soil health. From farmers to researchers, meet the people committed to understanding soil health practices and improving the land. Here's your host, Senior Director of the Soil Health Partnership, John Mesko.
John Mesko (00:30):
Welcome back to the People of Soil Health Podcast. One of the hottest topics in agriculture today is carbon sequestration and carbon markets. Many people are asking, "What are the ways that farmers can have a positive impact on climate change, and do it in a way that is financially feasible?" Back in episode nine, we talked to Debbie Reed of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium about what it takes to build these markets. Today, we're going to talk to a farmer who's actually been on the cutting edge of these pilot programs. Trey Hill owns and manages Harborview Farms near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. He's been working with SHP since 2017. Trey, welcome to the show.
Trey Hill (01:17):
Hey, thanks. I appreciate it. I'm glad to be here.
John Mesko (01:17):
I've had the good fortune of being to your farm. We had a field day there. Your proximity to Washington DC is very helpful. We actually, as you recall, were able to host a number of congressional office staff there that day, letting them know about real world examples of what cover crops look like, why it's important. It was a very valuable time spent to educate people who have quite a bit of influence on policymakers and policies related to this emerging issue of ecosystem services. But before we get into a lot of that, I'm curious if you could tell us about your farm a little bit.
Trey Hill (02:03):
Yeah. I'm a Midwestern farm trapped in Maryland, I would like to say. We till a little over 10,000 acres. I'm partners with my father. We have a great team of folks that work with us. Very blessed there. We grow corn, soybeans, wheat, and some barley for malting purposes. We've done some vegetables in the past, some sweet corn, and lima beans, and different things, but we haven't done that the last year or two. We're 100% cover cropped. I like to say we're 100% no-tilled, but we're probably 99% or 99.5% no-till. We're still doing a little bit of tillage on some headlands and what not.
Trey Hill (02:41):
Our cover crops, we started about 20 years ago, 25 years ago, planting cover crops. We get paid by our state to do that, which makes it a really easy decision for us. We're very fortunate here to have that program. We started out just planting cereals. It was more just a nutrient uptake thing, an environmental water quality thing. That's why they started the program. Then over the last decade, we've started to introduce a lot more stuff into it. So, now we do a standard three-way mix, which is a legume, mustard, and a cereal, and then what a lot of farmers are trying, upwards of eight and 10-way mixes, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't, but always experimenting and trying to learn and evolve.
John Mesko (03:22):
Having been there, I can say I agree. It's a Midwestern farm in every sense of the word in terms of its size, its scope, in terms of the intensity of the agriculture that you're doing there. For anybody who hasn't been in your neck of the woods, it is a little ... For us Midwesterners, I guess, would be to say it's a little unnerving to step onto the East Coast, and you feel like you're in Indiana, or Illinois, or some place like that.
Trey Hill (03:48):
Yeah. When I go to meetings in the Midwest and tell people I'm from Maryland, it takes a little while to regain my credibility.
John Mesko (03:53):
Yeah. I can imagine that. I can imagine that. You mentioned about the incentive payment that you get from the state to plant cover crops. I'm guessing that's tied to the water quality issue in the Chesapeake Bay. Can you give us a little bit of background on that, how you got started into that, and how that's impacted your farm?
Trey Hill (04:18):
Yeah. It's a long story, but I'll go into it. When I first got out of college, I didn't really view myself as an environmentalist. It never had really crossed my mind. But in any event, we started working together. At the time, it was really antagonistic between the environmentalists and the farm community. No one liked each other. There was a lot of finger pointing. It was awful. There was fighting. So, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wanted to meet some farmers. Luckily, dad and I lived next door to one of the board members. They came out to the farm and we started talking, found out we had a lot of common things. They told us that this cover crop program was what was going to save the Bay.
Trey Hill (04:55):
I didn't really believe it, but they said, "Hey, we'll pay you to do it," or, "We'll get the funding to pay you to do it." I said, "That sounds great. We'll try it." That's where we started. I actually testified with them, along with some other farmers, in Annapolis, and both sides joining together asking for money for water quality. It was the farm community and the environmental community together. I think it was fairly easy for the politicians to fund it. We've had dedicated funding ever since. It's been great for us.
Trey Hill (05:24):
If you come to Maryland, right now, everything's green. I mean, there's some field work being done now, but for the most part, in the wintertime, every field is green. Everything is cover cropped. It's all because we get paid to do it. So, it's worked out well. In time, I learned, through observing our fields and seeing what was going on in our fields, and dug into the whole cover crop and soil health movement, and have enjoyed it, and learned from it. But it really was all initiated. I don't know where I'd be, if it hadn't been for the program paying us to do it. I'd probably still be experimenting with it and trying it. I'm sure I wouldn't be near where I am now, had we not had that.
John Mesko (06:02):
For many reasons, we're thankful to be a part of this on your farm, through the Soil Health Partnership, and you've been working with us since about 2017. Your trial's a little different than what we do in a lot of places. A lot of our trials throughout the areas that we're working are focused on no-till or cover crops, but you're looking at nutrient management. Tell us, what are you testing? What are you testing out there on your farm, as it relates to SHP?
Trey Hill (06:32):
Well, for me, cover crops, planting green, and no-till are the only way I'm going to farm. So, for me, it's not a matter of figuring out is the yield better or worse. I'm convinced that it's the best way to farm, for me, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm not going to go backwards, or what I would view as backwards. So, really, finding that the yield differential and stuff like that is much my prerogative. I'm ready to figure out how to make sure this system works, and makes me money, at least on par, but hopefully more money. Right? It should make me more efficient. As the soil gets healthier, my yields should go up. Or, if they don't go up, I should have better nutrient management. I should have a lot more nitrogen mineralizing in my soil. As I plant legumes, I should get more nitrogen available. I'm getting less phosphorus running through my soil because I'm holding it up.
Trey Hill (07:20):
So, for me, the partnership with Soil Health Partnership is more trying to figure out how much can I drop my nitrogen rates? What's my phosphorus doing? Can I start to drop my phosphorus rates? Am I truly becoming that much more efficient? Just on my own, I've struggled to measure it. We put out trials, but it just seems like something ... unless I have somebody really helping me put it in, and they can make the trial valid, for one, so that mathematically, it comes out ... Usually, we just split a field and we hope for the best. But there's usually something else going on in that field that we split, and all this stuff. So, by working with Soil Health Partnership, we've been able to learn that.
Trey Hill (07:58):
I mean, I'll tell you the best thing I learned, was last year, I've struggled with soil organic matter coming up. Right? We soil sample every year for nutrient management, and then we grid sample every third year. The nutrient management samples are every 20, 25 acres, like your old fashioned-type samples, and then we grid sample every three years. We weren't seeing significant increases in organic matter. It's been driving me nuts. You guys may just go out and sample the top two inches, and then take a true core, I think, to six or seven inches. There, I saw a two or three percent increase in organic matter across the trial.
Trey Hill (08:36):
So, now when we're grid sampling, we actually grid sample fields twice. So, we'll grid sample in two and a halves at our normal depth, for applying nutrients and figuring out prescription maps, and all that kind of thing, but then we've been going back on a five or 10 acre grid, just to lower the frequency and the cost, and just take a two inch core, and see how much of an increase in organic matter we're getting in that top two inches. Since we used to plow everything, everything was homogenized anyway. We don't have an [...], and everything's been the same down to 10 inches. That really showed me where that big bump in organic matter is coming from.
John Mesko (09:12):
That's fantastic. I mean, to be able to dig into what's going on on your farm that closely has got to be really helpful. I'm assuming that this has contributed to the interest that you've got there on the farm as it relates to carbon markets. Now, you were the feature of a Washington Post article recently, and talking about what's going on on your farm, and how you're benefiting from carbon markets. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you got involved in this pursuit of a carbon market?
Trey Hill (09:48):
Is dumb luck an adequate answer? We've been doing the soil health stuff, and we've been doing the cover crops for, I'll say, a decade. I'm planting green. We've slowly initiated into that over 15 years, where we've been 100% planting green the last three or four years. As I learned about climate change, and carbon sequestration, and all that, they all run in parallel. Right? It's all doing the same thing, whether it's keeping nutrients out of the water, building soil health for increased yields, and water infiltration, water quality. All this is the same as sequestering carbon, because the carbon sequestration is a lot of what's doing the soil health and stuff. Fairly simple-minded, or my simple mind's way of thinking about it.
Trey Hill (10:30):
We use Granular software. There's a lady there that I'm friendly with. She's a data scientist and an ecologist. She introduced me to the folks at Nori and simply said, "Hey, they want to play with your data and see if they can get it submitted through the COMET-Farm model. Maybe we'll put it into a carbon market or something." That's what they're doing. They want to do all this and help farmers. I said, "Sure. Let's do it." We signed off on it. She sent the data over. Sure enough, a year later, they're like, "Hey, Trey! We're selling carbon credits. Let's go." We did a third-party verification. I mean, I was involved in the whole process.
Trey Hill (11:05):
We were both learning a lot. It took a lot time just to get the first one through, because they had questions, and I had questions, and I'd have things labeled as one thing, and it was hard to figure out what it was in the model, and trying to figure out what's the difference between turbo-till versus a strip-till versus a plow, and just trying to figure all these different things out, or how we seeded the cover crop. I might call it a drill. They might call it a planter. Working through a lot of the nuance. Then I had to hire a third-party verifier. They'd tell you who you could choose from, and work through them. They came through and they spot checked all the data and all this different stuff. Gave them receipts, and GPS maps, and different things, just to verify that everything I said was correct.
Trey Hill (11:54):
They put it through. Came up with the number of credits. I got signed off with the land owners whose farms it was. A lot of it was stuff that was within my family just because of the long-term commitment. They went on and sold the credits, beginning at the end of '19 into '20. Now, we're modeling out some more land and redoing those acres to get another year's worth of credits off of them. So, no. It's been working great. But it was just I happened to know the lady, Emma at Granular, and she happened to know the folks at Nori, and it was just a really good fit. I'm very positive on it. I think it's really good for agriculture. I think it gets us in a whole nother conversation.
Trey Hill (12:36):
To me, the Washington Post article was a great example of that. Right? How hard is it for a farmer to get into the Washington Post with a positive story? Not bragging or being ... I would hope any farmer is. I mean, there was another guy that was in the New York Times, doing the same thing, and how awesome is that? It's getting the folks that produce food in the papers, which is what we need, or getting them in the papers for the right reasons. How about that?
John Mesko (13:01):
Yeah. Right. I agree. I think that's fantastic. Now, we have heard from other farmers who started on this road that the process can be really heavy in paperwork. Some people have questioned the value of investing that time, especially with some uncertainty in the outcome. Do you have any thoughts on that? I know your experience sounds very positive. What are you hearing from other farmers? What do you think the future looks like in this opportunity that farmers have?
Trey Hill (13:31):
I'll probably go a little bit into the weeds on this one. My opinion is a little bit different. I think that, as farmers, we need stacked programs. I'm not sure if that's the right way to say it. But I think that, for me, it's for water quality, I get help with my cover crops. For climate change, I'm going to get help with sequestering carbon into the soil in exchange for doing all no-till, and filling out the paperwork, that sort of thing. But I don't know that any of it really makes you change the way you farm significantly. Right? It's not as much money. I mean, it sounds like the money when you read the Post article. I did get a lot of money. I'm not unappreciative of that. But at $15 an acre, it would be very difficult for someone that's plowing their ground to start doing cover crops, no-till, buy the equipment, really get all their cover crops going.
Trey Hill (14:22):
I think that it's going to be part of the process. Then I think eventually, that the carbon markets, hopefully, will translate into some type of consumer good, whereas if you're in the Nori program, or the Indigo, or FBN, or whatever program that is, this will qualify you to hopefully get more money for your number two yellow corn because you'll know the carbon footprint of it. You'll know the system that did it, so the consumers at the grocery store hopefully may even know the farmer, specifically, but will at least know what they're buying and how it was produced. That'll be another income stream. I think all of those things coupled together will help build the system. Does that make sense? I don't know if I said that right.
John Mesko (15:07):
Yeah. I think it does. I'm just curious though. You said something that caught my ear there. You said that hopefully farms will get more for number two yellow corn. Do you see that as the mechanism for incentivizing or encouraging the adoption of these practices? In other words, is number two yellow corn going to be defined a little differently in the future?
Trey Hill (15:31):
That's just my opinion. That's what I'm hoping for. Right? I mean, I want that differentiation. I think that the corn that's grown with the lower carbon footprint should be more valuable. Does that mean every farmer is going to adopt it and go to those practices, and it becomes standardized again? Maybe. I think that will provide value as we get more social pressure, corporate pressure. All these corporations are going to have to lower their carbon footprint. I think a lot of it, or the people we sell to, are going to depend on us for that, as farmers. So, to me, that implies value added. Hopefully to the farmer, not ... I don't want it to be a point of entry to a market. Right? That's the worst case scenario.
Trey Hill (16:10):
We have to do all the stuff just to be able to sell. That's where I don't want it to go. Hopefully, once we're in the marketplace, they say, "Hey! Oh, okay. You're qualified to sell here. What's your carbon footprint?" "Well, mine's lower than that." Then I think even as it passes through animals in the form of feed, it could be done in the aggregate. Right? It could be my 50,000 bushels of corn would be delegated to this 25,000 pounds of chicken. That chicken's sold differently. Because really, if it's price per bushel and not price per acre, we don't need much money to have a big impact. Right? A nickel on corn is a lot. 20 cents on corn is huge. So, I think that, coupled with the carbon market, coupled with maybe some environmental improvements ... All of a sudden, you're starting to talk about substantive change economically for a farmer, or for me. I mean, that's just using my own story.
John Mesko (17:08):
I think there's a lot of discussion in this conversation about how do we reward farmers for the types of practices and the types of impacts on carbon footprint that has? Taking it to the marketplace, and really, I think it's almost like the way we think of test weight in corn. Right?
Trey Hill (17:31):
John Mesko (17:31):
So, if your test weight isn't at a certain level, you're going to get docked on that price of corn. Just talking about opinions, that is something that I've thought of. Well, maybe this carbon footprint, or the measurement of the impact, could somehow be tied into the price that way, too.
Trey Hill (17:50):
Yeah. With wheat, it would be fairly much easier than stuff that goes through an animal. Right? The going through an animal part is very difficult. But wheat, could we group farmers together, or have two or three farmers that farm with partnerships, so you have enough volume, and then put your batch through a flour mill? I haven't been able to get that done. I've been trying to for a couple years, to see if there's value there. I don't know if the market's quite ready. I think as people get more and more impacted by climate change, I think that they're going to make different decisions based on the impact on the climate.
Trey Hill (18:26):
As more and more people get impacted, they're going to be willing to pay two or three percent more for food. Rather than just having organic versus non-organic, it'll be, "Hey, this was raised cover crops and no-till," and there'll be some type of affiliation with it, hopefully. I think that facilitator, hopefully, would be the carbon markets. Right? They're paying us to get all of this data straight and organized in a way that's easy to understand.
John Mesko (18:53):
Yeah. I think easy to understand and easy to implement this market. At SHP, we've been working with a lot of different organizations to try and figure out the right way to measure those carbon credits, whether it's like what you experienced, a third party audit, or a model. Other folks are working more directly off measuring the soil. What are your thoughts on how we measure carbon and determine its final disposition? In other words, is it staying in the soil? How does that factor into this? What does that look like when we talk about moving from a small set of trial farms, or prototype farms, pilot projects, to 100 million acres in the Corn Belt, or something like that?
Trey Hill (19:43):
If I could answer that, I think I'd be making a lot more money. Didn't agree with the modeling approach that Nori had until they explained it to me. Once they explained to me the philosophy behind it, I've become more ... I like the modeling. In college, decades ago, I did an experiment where we grid sampled a field twice. I had two different people do it, different depths and different lines, but I correlated the samples together to try to figure out what the best way to variable rate apply stuff. This was when variable rate application was just starting.
Trey Hill (20:20):
It was very difficult to find any positive correlations to anything going on in the soil. That really stuck with me. I think that there's so much variability in the soil. There's so many different things going on that you can sample the soil in one spot, move 50 feet, and get an entirely different thing. To me, the analysis takes a lot of that out of it by having a model. I mean, it's got to be proof tested, and it's got to be verified on the ground. But I think that model gives us a much better idea, and probably more accurately, than an actual sample. I could be wrong on that, but the sample, I don't know how you ever sampled the soil accurately enough.
Trey Hill (21:01):
Like I said, what I've learned from you guys is how do you measure the difference in organic matter when, if you're taking an eight-inch core, there's ... I'm struggling to find a difference after five years of cover crop. Now, I could go to two inches and find a two percent gain in organic matter. There's just so many questions that pop into mind, that if they can make sure that the model's right, you can authenticate the modeling, a lot of stuff, just through satellite imagery. Right? You know if the guy plowed the field. You know if he seeded the cover crops when he said he did. You know if the field was green in the spring and when it was killed off. You can see it all. It's public information.
Trey Hill (21:35):
We don't like to think about it because we want to have our privacy and all that stuff, but I mean, you can pull up satellite images. So, I think that finding that stuff out would be pretty simple. You've got Microsoft working on it. You've got all these different ... USDA is working on it, how to correlate biomass accumulation to satellite imagery. I don't think we're that far out on it. So, that would actually be more accurate, if they can get it calibrated, than me going out in the field and pulling biomass samples, because they're going to do the whole field analysis. I would have to know the seeds and what was out there. So, I'm very comfortable with the model, but a lot of folks aren't.
John Mesko (22:12):
Yeah. Well, you've been working with it for a long time. One of the things that we have learned through our work is when it comes to conservation practices in general, those farmers that we work with that have more experience are more successful. Their costs are lower. Their returns are higher. They're seeing the impact in the soil more readily. It's just like anything else. There's a learning curve, and that takes time and energy to digest all that information.
John Mesko (22:43):
This particular issue is a big one. If every farmer had to get to where you are, in terms of your knowledge, and understanding, and contacts, it's taken a while for this to develop for you. I think that's the challenge, as I see it, for a farmer that's new to this conversation. How do I get all the information I need to make a decision? How do I get myself connected to Nori, or one of these other groups that are looking at ways to incentivize farmers?
Trey Hill (23:16):
Yeah. It's tough. There's additionality to it. The folks that are already doing it, and cover cropping, and no-till, it's very difficult to qualify for these programs. Then you've got the folks that haven't been doing it. Then it's very difficult to change the way you farm. So, it's a double edged sword there. For me, it's taken me 20 years to get comfortable with cover crops and planting green. I move pretty slow. There's still times I'm uncomfortable. Right? There's a lot of discomfort there, and you don't want to risk the farm, trying to change overnight, because it's something you have to get comfortable with. Financially, psychologically, everything. It's a lot to take on.
John Mesko (23:58):
Yeah. Absolutely. Well, certainly appreciate all that you're doing, not only from the perspective of working with us on the partnership on your farm, and benefits that we have been able to learn from you, and you've been able to benefit from us. That's a great relationship. Stepping out as a leader in this, and being willing to be interviewed for this podcast, or for a Washington Post article, or any number of other media things you've been involved in. That also takes a lot of time. We're certainly grateful for your role as a leader in this community, as well.
Trey Hill (24:34):
Yeah. I mean, for me, it's all been fun. I mean, it's how I learn. I encourage all farmers to get out there when you have the option. It's a risk. You can get attacked. You have to be somewhat careful of what you say and how you say it, which I struggle with. I tend to be more unfiltered, at times. I think that's what we need. If you have a good story to tell, you have to tell it. There's so many different ways to get it out there, but getting it off the farm and outside of agriculture to other folks has always been our struggle.
Trey Hill (25:03):
We read farming magazines. We read stories about one another. We see all these great stories, and we have such a great community. It's just a shame that there's distrust and political discourse with urban versus rural and everything else. As people get to know one another, there's just so many things in common and common passions. I've learned that working with the environmentalists here. We just have a really strong relationship now, built around the prosperity of the community.
John Mesko (25:30):
Yeah. I think that's really in concert with my own values, with my own set of priorities in this work that I enjoy doing so much. The Soil Health Partnership is a partnership. You've referenced the relationships and the things that people do to carry on relationships. That's really where the core of this development takes place. Farmers working with farmers, working with environmentalists, working with nonprofits, working with government agencies or commercial organizations that are in this space. Everybody working together to make improvements, and hopefully, benefiting along the way. I really appreciate the time today, Trey. I appreciate your work. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck with your growing season this year.
Trey Hill (26:17):
Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate all that you guys have done with me. I've really learned a lot.
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