ST. PETER — An area lawmaker wants Minnesota to look into subsidizing so-called “carbon crops,” or crops that capture more carbon under the ground, as part of an agricultural initiative to slow climate change.

Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, said he’s still researching how to create the program but believes the state can work with farmers to encourage more carbon crop production as part of a strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

“Farmers have a role to play in this climate situation too, not just selling their land off for solar or wind,” said Brand, the vice chair of the House agricultural committee.

Using plants to trap carbon in the ground, called carbon sequestration, isn’t a new idea but has gained traction over the past decade as scientists reveal more evidence of climate change. A study published last fall found planting more cover crops and trees could cut the nation’s carbon emissions by about 21 percent.

Other states are pursuing similar initiatives. New York started its Climate Resilient Farming grant program in 2015 and has given out $5.1 million in grants to carbon-reducing projects as of 2019. New Mexico passed a healthy soils bill earlier this year to promote more carbon sequestration, and Massachusetts is looking to do the same.

Brand said his goal is to encourage farmers to plant cash crops such as kernza that have roots that can reach deep into the ground, then sell those crops for a profit while helping the soil and cutting future environmental costs.

“It’s a one-two-three punch,” he said.

While ag groups have expressed interest in cover crops such as rye, experts say there’s not enough market interest for Minnesota farmers to switch from planting primarily corn and soybeans.

Brad Schloesser, director of the Southern Agricultural Center for Excellence, said farmers would likely jump at planting more carbon crops on land set aside for Conservation Reserve Program subsidies.

“There is an opportunity to really store carbon, and I believe we as citizens, we as taxpayers, would be supportive in that,” he said.

Brand plans to work with environmental and agricultural groups through the rest of the year to fine-tune his proposal. He said he’s already received some interest from the Land Stewardship Project, which had hoped to lobby for similar initiatives.

“It’s not going to be a silver bullet for climate change but it can be part of the solution,” Brand said. “If we can keep small farmers on the land, operating on the land producing crops they can get cash for but also reducing our carbon footprint, we win all around.”

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