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Regenerative Agriculture: How Remote Soil Sensing Can Enhance Carbon Management

Farmers, take note: Carbon stored in soil could soon become its own commodity crop. That’s the message from developers, corporations, and legislators pushing for new carbon markets specifically tailored to agriculture.

The idea is that soils farmed in a regenerative manner can act as a vast carbon sink that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping reverse climate change. In return for switching to regenerative practices, new carbon markets aimed at providing a financial incentive to shrink the world’s carbon footprint would allow farmers and farm managers to get paid for the carbon they store by companies and even other countries wanting to offset their emissions. In the U.S. new legislation has been proposed to help farmers access those markets. President Biden has referenced the idea in his plan to tackle climate change.

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Farmers were previously limited from participating in carbon markets due to a lack of tools to accurately quantify soil’s changing carbon content. Carbon management requires understanding soil at increasingly finer scales. Conventional soil sampling and laboratory analyses often lack this granularity and can be time consuming and expensive. Remote soil sensing overcomes these shortcomings. Through its collection of spatial data with quicker, cheaper, and less laborious techniques, remote soil sensing has the opportunity to enhance carbon management.

For example, Persistence Data Mining’s Soilytics uses remote sensed hyper-spectral imaging to map soil carbon with a consistently calibrated remote sensor. The technology creates a Normalized Difference Elemental Index (NDEI) map from the imagery. The NDEI relates the reflectance in the near-infrared (NIR) region and short-wave infrared (SWIR) to determine concentration of total soil carbon, organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

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The remote soil sensing data can also be used to develop variable rate nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium application maps. Variable rate application will enhance carbon management efforts. Farmers achieve fertilizer savings of $15 to $20 per acre using systems such as Persistence Data Mining’s Soilytics, as well as 10% to 15% yield increases. These types of systems are also environmentally effective in reducing fertilizer over-application, which leads to runoff and leaching into groundwater.

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