Jim Whitaker, Sam Whitaker and Ron Chastain at Arkansas Rice Annual Meeting
Jim and Sam Whitaker, right and center, talked with Ron Chastain, left, staff aide to Sen. John Boozman, at the Arkansas Rice Annual Meeting.

Rice farmers relate experiences with carbon credits, sustainability

Can carbon credits help rice farmers navigate the current period of low prices? Three growers are exploring the potential.

They say they haven’t received any checks in the mail yet, but three Arkansas rice farmers experimenting with carbon credits say they’ve seen enough positive benefits to convince them to continue their pursuits.

Mark Isbell, Jim Whitaker and Mike Sullivan participated in a panel discussion on the carbon credit market during the Arkansas Rice Annual Meeting held by the Arkansas Rice Council and Arkansas Rice Farmers in Stuttgart.

All three acknowledge rice farmers face a number of challenges, not the least of which are the low prices being offered for their crop. They hope carbon credits will help their bottom lines at some point, but until then they’re learning about practices that are providing other benefits for their farms.

To watch video of the panel members, visit:





“I don’t know when prices will be better,” said Isbell, a producer who lives in North Little Rock and farms in Lonoke County. “Whether prices are good or whether prices are bad, we have to look for every opportunity out there to become more efficient and find new ways to make a profit.

“Whether or not carbon credits are that, we don’t know yet,” he said. “But what I think those of us on this panel have come to see is that by exploring these it opens up a lot of other opportunities that we believe will be beneficial to the rice industry as a whole.”

Carbon markets expanding

No matter what readers may think about climate change, “the truth of the matter is carbon markets are expanding globally,” said Isbell. “The global marketplace is putting a price on what emissions are.

“As an industry, we can engage in that in one of two ways: We can sit back and potentially be regulated or forced to do things we don’t want to do, or we can try to shape that narrative in a way that lets us potentially profit from that. It may be some time – we haven’t seen any checks in the mail, but we’ve learned a lot and gained a lot of ancillary benefits.”

What are carbon credits? Isbell said they are a way of assigning a price tag to the greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by energy suppliers, industry and others, including agriculture, in the course of their daily activities.

“Those greenhouse gases that are produced, obviously, are a significant issue to some in the world,” said Isbell. “The carbon market emerged as a way to price what that emission is, and so those organizations can either find a way to diminish their emissions or they can find someone else who can diminish or sequester their emissions, and they can pay them to do that.”

Some countries already require industries, such as power plants, to participate in a compliance market; i.e., they either have to reduce emissions or find someone who can produce less than their amount.

$50 billion a year

Canada currently is paying $10 per ton and that market will continue to grow until it reaches $50 per ton in 2022. California also has a compliance market in which power plants and others must go into the marketplace and find credits so they can offset their emissions. Globally, the carbon market was valued at $50 billion in 2016.

“The good news is that agriculture is not being asked to produce less to meet those compliance or regulatory markets,” said Isbell. “We’re being looked at as a possible solution because we all know that farmers have always been conservationists; are those who have found ways to do things more efficiently; and care more about the ground where we grow our crops than anyone else.”

The drive to be more conservation-minded or sustainable has produced tangible benefits for Whitaker, who operates Trinity Farms in partnership with his brother, Sam, in McGehee in southeast Arkansas.

Working with the University of Arkansas Extension Service and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Whitaker has reduced the amount of water used in their rice crop by about 50 percent.

“It’s been a five-year journey to get to this point,” said Whitaker. “Like Mark said we haven’t seen a check, but we got a nice plaque out of the deal so far.”

50 percent savings

Whitaker worked with Merle Anders, a now-retired University of Arkansas agronomist, on watering techniques, land leveling and fertilizer utilization to improve the efficiency – and sustainability – of his farming operation.

“Our two-year data shows we can get by with somewhere between 10 and 15 inches of irrigation water a year, which is very, very low,” he noted. “You’re also using less fertilizer. The California compliance market encourages you to use under 150 units of total N for rice. We found we can grow good rice crops with less fertilizer.

“Using 10 to 15 inches less water saves a lot of money and makes us more sustainable.”

One of the keys to participating in the carbon market as a rice farmer is the practice of alternate wetting and drying or AWD.

“You put on your initial flood at, let’s just say, 4 inches; hold that water for probably 10 to 12 days to let your nitrogen stabilize; and then let it naturally evaporate,” says Whitaker. “I grow zero-grade rice on heavy clay soils in southeast Arkansas so, if I have a 4-inch flood and with a typical evaporation rate of .25 inch a day, I have 16 days of available water in my field.”

Allowing the field to dry down to what Whitaker and others call a “muddy soil,” that is, it’s dry enough to walk on and leave a shallow footprint, is important because that’s when the rice field stops emitting methane gas.

Microbial activity stops

“Flooded environments, whether they’re swamps or anything flooded, have these microbials in the water that emit methane gas,” he said. “As we dry the soil, that microbial community goes dormant, and plants release less methane gas.

“So we’re stretching out our irrigation, and, what I have found is that over time it becomes hard to achieve a dry-down. I don’t know how it is in central Arkansas, but I know in South Arkansas the last two years every two weeks we’re getting 1- to 2- to 10-inch rain events so our fields are continuously reflooding themselves. That’s how we’re getting by with so much less water.”

Sullivan, who farms with his son, Ryan, near Burdette in northeast Arkansas, said he believes he has also benefitted from working with researchers with the University of Arkansas and the USDA Agricultural Research Service at nearby Arkansas State University.

“We’ve pretty well turned over 1,500 to 2,000 acres of our rice farming operation for research to Dr. Michele Reba and Dr. Joe Massey at the ARS Water Resources Research Unit at Arkansas State,” he said. “They’re taking small-scale research to a whole-farm approach. Dr. Reba likes to refer to Ryan and I as her guinea pigs.

“We’re happy to cooperate because I think the key to what we’re trying to do is to be proactive instead of reactive,” he said. I went to the (Arkansas Soil and Water) Resource Conference in Jonesboro, and they spent a whole day talking about how water is a finite resource, and we’ve got to figure out a way to do things differently than we have in the past.”


Sullivan said his son, Ryan, is “a conservation-minded young man, like many of those in his generation,” and that will become increasingly important in the years ahead.

“If we’re not in the forefront of this, cooperating with the researchers and helping them, we’re going to have problems,” he noted. “I hate to think of Ryan having to deal with regulators telling him he has 20 inches of water, and he has to figure out a way to make it work.”

The Sullivans have also worked with alternate wetting and drying on their farm. “It’s almost become comical with us because for years we told our employees they had to make sure they kept a flood on our rice fields. So you can imagine the reaction when you tell them not to turn on the irrigation pump for 10 days.”

To learn more about carbon credits, visit http://bit.ly/2l6C8Lk.

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