What grows on a "carbon farm"

What's a carbon farm, and why does Duke University have one?

December 28, 2019

Locking up carbon

To understand what a carbon farm does and why they're important, you need to rethink your traditional view of farming. Because it’s not so much what grows on a carbon farm that's key. It’s what those farmlands soak into the ground that is so important.

Carbon farming is a new approach to fighting global warming. Carbon farming uses enhanced land management and conservation practices to increase the amount of carbon that is pulled from the air and locked away in soil and vegetation. Current and former agricultural lands are targeted for the practice.

Bringing wetlands back to old farmland

Duke University has acquired the rights to create a 10,000 acre carbon farm on privately owned land in Hyde County, in eastern North Carolina. The tract of land was pocosin peatlands, but it was drained for farming.

“By rewetting and reverting these former peatlands to their natural wetland state, we can significantly increase their long-term carbon storage,” explains Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center. “This could be the largest carbon farm in the eastern United States and it has the potential to offset much of the University’s carbon emissions.” In 2017, Duke University generated about 258,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. The University has set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2024.

Carbon farming practiced worldwide

Carbon farming programs are already underway in Australia, Europe and Canada, as well as in California and the Midwest. Those farms show that a 2.5-acre plot of working rangeland or pasture can store more than one metric ton of carbon annually. Recent studies indicate that Southeastern pocosin peatlands, such as the farm in Hyde County, can store 10-to-15 times more metric tons of carbon.

“Left undisturbed, carbon in pocosins can remain stored for millennia due to the unique natural antimicrobial compounds that prevent the waterlogged peat from rapidly decaying and releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere,” Richardson adds.

In addition to fighting global warming by storing carbon, rewetting the land and restoring the peatland bogs helps to raise the water table and keep salt water from intruding into neighboring farmland. The practice would also help with wildlife conservation.

Duke researchers are already looking for other landowners to work with, because surveys show there are hundreds of thousands of additional acres of pocosin peatlands across eastern North Carolina and other southern coastal states that have been drained for agriculture or forestry, or abandoned.

 —Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.