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Yard Stick to receive $18m in USDA funding for low-cost soil carbon measurement

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Massachusetts start-up Yard Stick is set to receive $18 million to fund its low-cost soil carbon measurement technology, as six projects using its technology were awarded $225 million in grants from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

  • Yard Stick has developed a handheld device and data analysis platform, which it claims will reduce the cost of measuring soil carbon by over 90%. 
  • Dedicated farming practices can increase the amount of CO2 sequestered in soils, while also boosting productivity. Small holders have struggled to access financial incentives, however, due to the high costs and resource intensity of measuring soil carbon. 
  • Government funding will support the emergence of new soil carbon measurement technologies, enabling greater participation in voluntary carbon markets. 

The USDA has awarded a combined $225 million in funding to six projects using Yard Stick’s soil carbon monitoring technology. Through this investment, Yard Stick is earmarked to receive around $18 million to go towards further product development and commercialisation. 

The start-up’s offering includes a handheld soil spectroscopy device, partnered with an online platform for planning, monitoring and analysing soil carbon projects. Users are able to evaluate carbon stocks in real-time and access a live dashboard of project measurement data that be shared with external stakeholders. 

Yard Stick co-founder and CEO Chris Tolles said, “our purpose is to show the transformative potential of our partners’ climate-smart agricultural practices, and this grant program will accelerate our mission tremendously.” 

The opportunities and challenges of climate smart farming 

There is a range of sustainable agricultural practices, such as the use of biochar or mineral fines, through which farmers and ranchers can increase the carbon sequestration capacity of their soils while simultaneously improving soil quality, nutrient retention, biodiversity, water quality and crop resilience

With agriculture, land use and deforestation combined representing the second-largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions, such methods have the potential to turn a major problem on its head. 

Voluntary carbon markets, which are projected to reach $190 billion in value by 2030, provide a useful mechanism for incentivising farmers and other landowners to engage in more sustainable practices, but purchasers of carbon credits will need to be assured that an agreed level of carbon has been stored on a credible basis. 

This presents a critical challenge to the soil carbon market, as sequestration capacity varies not just by management practices but also by soil type, rainfall and temperature conditions. 

Conventional methods for measuring soil carbon are expensive, time-consuming, labour intensive and dependent on external laboratory analysis. Such demands have proven to be a barrier to carbon market participation by smallholder farmers, thereby removing the economic incentive to implement sustainable agricultural practices. 

Although a number of large agricultural businesses have launched programmes to support smaller farms in accessing the carbon market, many have fallen under criticism for using such schemes to increase their own profits.  

Biotechnology multinational Bayer, for example, provides payments for carbon sequestration under the condition that participating farmers use its proprietary seeds and chemicals while also granting it access to large amounts of valuable farm data. This means that in addition to facing exclusion, smaller farms are also at risk of exploitation.

Government-backed technology development to provide a solution 

Technologies such as Yard Stick’s will be crucial in enabling smaller farms to provide measured, verifiable carbon offsets and thus gain the financial incentive to engage in more sustainable soil management techniques. 

Its backing from USDA comes under a broader policy initiative, the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, which will invest up to $3 billion in pilot projects that create market opportunities for products made through ‘climate-smart’ production practices. The scheme’s outline includes a specific mention of projects to develop effective methods for quantifying, monitoring, reporting and verifying the greenhouse gas reduction of such products. 

This funding opportunity from the US government reflects a wider trend across the globe, with Australia having awarded feasibility study grants to 16 soil carbon measurement projects under its National Soil Carbon Innovation Challenge while the UK government is backing the development of a Farm and Soil Carbon Code to establish how farmers should measure, record and verify changes in soil carbon stock for the purpose of issuing carbon credits

As this trend continues to grow, it seems likely that government funding will enable the emergence of various technologies for cheaper and more efficient soil carbon measurement.

With this achieved, farmers will be able to participate in voluntary carbon markets and provide the necessary verification to help those markets scale and discover higher prices – creating a growing cycle of value that channels investment into carbon removal projects while raising the stakes for heavy emitters. 

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