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Corn, Carbon, Cash - Carbon trading program could help local farmers

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By Nathan L. McBroom

If the weather holds, Paul Hornback is set to bring in a healthy crop of corn this fall.

Hornback, who farms 1,700 acres of corn locally, said the corn fields in Shelby County not only produce a great product, but also help remove harmful carbon emissions from the air.

Previously, Hornback had viewed the environmental benefits of farming as an added benefit, but this year, he is set to profit from the amount of carbon that the corn consumes.

The concept is called carbon sequestering and selling. And the basic idea behind it is simple: factories, who create excess carbon emission, buy carbon credits from farmers, whose crops help take those emissions out of the air, in an effort to balance the emissions in the environment.

Hornback and fellow local farmer, Mike Roberts, have signed up for a new statewide program that helps them earn and sell these carbon credits on the market.

Adam Andrews, director of programs for Kentucky Corn Growers, said the program is designed to help farmers capitalize on the good they are doing for the environment.

The program, which was established by the Kentucky Corn Growers Association, recently distributed $250,000 to 100 farmers across the state that had earned carbon credits.

In order to be accepted into the program and earn carbon credits, the farmers have to adhere to various conservation practices. The main sticking point for farmers is the prohibition against tilling under the soil in preparation for planting crops. By turning under the topsoil, much of the fodder that takes in carbon emissions is lost, Andrews said.

Andrews said any farmer could benefit from the program. However, it would easier and perhaps more profitable for farms that have already adapted to no-till farming. For 90 percent of Shelby County, this would not be an issue, he said.

For Hornback, the decision was easy. He said he had no-till farmed for 20 years and the only thing he actually had to do was spend 15 minutes filling out paper work.

"I make my living not only on the soil, but on the climate," he said. "Regulating the environment is important to all of us."

For every 1,000 acres of corn, 600 carbon credits are earned a year. Like other tradeable commodities, the price of these credits changes with the market. At the current price of $3 dollars a credit, a 1,000 acre farm would yield close to $1,900.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency does not require companies or factories to buy carbon credits if they are producing excess emissions.

However, companies such as Ford Motor Company, Dupont Plastics and others commonly buy these credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange as a token of public relations.

The U.S. Congress has previously debated changing climate regulations in order to require companies to buy such carbon credits. And while no such bill has yet been passed, both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have pledged support for stronger environmental regulations.

If the government passes such legislation, Andrews said the price of carbon credits would skyrocket and become even more profitable for farmers.