Adam Chappell was in the fight of his life. He and his brother were co-managing the 9,000-acre farm where they grew up in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. They’d each gone off to college to do something different, but couldn’t stay away. Now an invasion of pigweed was threatening to destroy everything.
“We were spraying ourselves broke just to fight this weed,” Chappell says. “We were spending more money than we could ever hope to make. So for the farm to survive, we knew we had to change the entire way we were doing things.”
Chappell turned to YouTube, where he found a guy growing organic pumpkins in a cereal rye cover crop, and was awestruck by the clean, wide rows. “He hadn’t put any herbicides down; all the weed control in that field was the cover crop,” he says. That fall, the Chappell brothers planted cereal rye with their cotton and soybeans, and they kept the farm.
Chappell’s triumph over pigweed made him a proponent of regenerative farming practices. He stopped tilling most of the soil, which depletes it, and he’s nearly eliminated pesticide and synthetic fertilizer. His soil has become healthy and dark, alive with earthworms, rich with carbon. That’s good for Chappell, and even better for the rest of us. It means that, aside from producing more nutritious food, his farm is helping to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Agriculture has played a major role in the climate crisis—about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land use and agriculture combined—but farmers are uniquely situated to be part of the solution. While the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its highest level in human history, plants can draw down the carbon and restore the soil’s organic carbon content—in the right conditions. If enough farmers adopted regenerative farming practices, they could begin to reverse the effects of climate change.
That’s the vision guiding The Terraton Initiative, a global movement with an ambitious goal: to capture one trillion tons (a teraton) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and restore carbon to the soil through regenerative farming practices. The effort is the brainchild of agriculture-tech startup Indigo Ag.
“There are many solutions we should be pursuing to reduce and reverse the effect of climate change,” says Indigo CEO David Perry. “But sequestering atmospheric carbon in agricultural soils represents the only solution I know of that is scalable, affordable, and immediate.”
Author and environmentalist Paul Hawken, one of the leading voices on sustainability, backs this up. His recent book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, outlines 100 solutions to climate change. Regenerative farming practices ranked No. 11 on his list—though for his next book, he plans to move it to No. 1. “There are at least twenty different practices that constitute regenerative agriculture in its fullest scope and when all of these practices are added together, it represents by far the single greatest solution to the climate crisis,” Hawken says.
“The relationship between regenerative agriculture and the climate is an intimate one that has been forgotten,” Hawken says. “Really, it’s a path to walking back the carbon we have placed in the air. We placed it by industrial agriculture, deforestation, and combustion of fossil fuels. Those three together have nearly [destroyed] the planet. What we’re talking about is bringing carbon back home.”
So how do we bring one trillion tons of carbon home? Plants pull carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and deposit it in the soil through their roots. Regenerative farming practices like no-till cultivation, cover crops, and crop rotation keep the carbon in the soil, where it builds over time. In turn, carbon-rich organic matter feeds healthy plants.
Conventional agriculture has the opposite effect. Plowing, using synthetic fertilizer and chemical pesticides, and growing the same crop year after year degrade the soil and release carbon into the atmosphere. Globally, cropland soils have lost a significant percentage of their organic carbon content.
The Terraton Initiative is grounded in the idea that if we could restore organic carbon content to all 3.6 billion acres of crop-producing farmland worldwide, we’d effectively be drawing about a trillion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and depositing it into the soil, where it can do some good.
On a smaller scale, it’s already working. Farmers who use regenerative practices are seeing their soil carbon levels rise significantly. They’re also harvesting healthier crops that contain more nutrients and are more resistant to drought and other stress factors. But despite the clear benefits, they’re still in the minority.
Perry points out that most farmers get paid for volume rather than quality or sustainability. “The adoption of regenerative farming practices will happen pretty slowly unless there are incentives put in place,” he says.
The Terraton Initiative helps farmers access an entirely new revenue stream for carbon credits. When they sign up for Indigo Carbon, they’re given tools and advice to support their transition to regenerative practices. Indigo verifies the amount of carbon captured in the soil, then issues carbon credits to the farmers. Buyers could be any business or consumer looking to offset their own carbon footprints.
Angela “Annie” Dee, a second-generation farmer in Aliceville, Alabama, has been using regenerative farming practices for almost 30 years. Her 10,000-acre ranch is a beautiful, remote place where ancient shark teeth are found in river sediment, and she often moves her cattle without encountering anyone. “You do not accidentally come across this spot on the planet,” she says. “You mean to come here.”
In the last three decades, Dee says she’s observed an increase in organic matter, microbes, and earthworms, which improve soil health and structure. She isn’t sure why more growers aren’t doing the same. “I see a lot of people right here in my own area who aren’t using cover crops or no-till, and I don’t understand it,” she says. “It’s just had so many positive benefits.”
Ben Riensche, a fifth-generation farmer in Jesup, Iowa, hadn’t given much thought to regenerative farming practices until two years ago, when Indigo began using his 15,000-acre farm for testing and research. “Indigo identified things that would improve the sustainability of how we farm,” Riensche says. “That’s why I started rolling with them.”
He planted a “cocktail” of cover crops—including radishes, turnips, and sunflowers—to improve the biome of his field. And he provides grazing for his neighbor’s cattle, who in turn provide natural fertilizer. Taking steps to enhance the quality of his soil should ultimately increase crop yield, but then, “not everything is about yield,” Riensche says. He has set his sights higher.
“I hope we don’t degrade our land,” he says. “I hope that we can de-commoditize agriculture via tech so small farms become more viable. I hope we have less impact on the environment, and the food we raise is more healthful.”
For his part, Chappell says he’s glad that a new company is “putting some fight in the game” for sustainable agriculture. “I really think that Indigo’s deal’s got some teeth in it and they’re going to see it through,” he says.
Regenerative farming practices have real potential to change the course of climate change, but it’s not only up to farmers. Businesses and consumers can help by purchasing carbon credits, buying sustainably grown food, pushing for policy changes, and spreading the message.
“Success in The Terraton Initiative will require collaboration from within the agricultural industry and from outside of the industry, but it’s completely within our hands,” says Perry. “We’re not waiting for a new technical breakthrough. We don’t need advances that aren’t here today. We just have to decide collectively that we’re going to make it happen.”