Carbon Farming: Marketing Challenges and Communicating Value

Carbon farming is a buzzword right now in agriculture. Recent announcements that the federal government and large ag corporations want to start down the path of carbon neutrality in agriculture has carbon farming — essentially agronomic practices that capture atmospheric carbon and lock it away in the soil, thereby lowering the industry’s carbon footprint — a hot topic in a lot of ag circles from small companies and startups to large conventional farmers. It’s past time for agrimarketers to prepare for the conversations they’ll be having soon and work they’ll be doing. Here’s a little background and some things to think about as you enter the carbon farming fray.

Understand the state of the carbon farming economy.

Ag companies large (like Indigo Ag) and small (like Nori) see carbon farming as a land of opportunity for new products and services, while farmers — their customers — are a little confused and wondering what exactly carbon farming will mean to them in the coming years. Throw in companies like Microsoft and Google. Their corporate motivations are basically unknown at this point (profit or altruism?) — and there’s a lot of confusion around carbon farming. The science is there. But like many segments in agriculture, different companies have their own science. These don’t necessarily agree, which adds to that confusion.

As an agrimarketer, it will soon be your job — if not already — to share companies’ stories about what they’re doing to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. But more importantly, what that means to their customers. Machinery companies want to show how they’re helping capture atmospheric carbon. Seed companies want to share how they have crop varieties that can boost carbon sequestration in the soil. Crop input companies want to show how their products lessen the need for carbon-intensive field practices. Other agribusinesses are even launching efforts in the new “carbon capture and storage” segment to show they’re part of the carbon solution. It will be your job to communicate these things to customers. Find ways that, above the altruistic motivation of improving the environment, offer them financial incentives to stay customers. There’s value in carbon farming. Now ag companies just have to show they can offer some of that value to their customers. This proves if they’re going to be viable participants in the sector.

And at the root of it is the scientific community who readily admits that “the key mechanisms of soil organic matter degradation,” important components of carbon farming, are “still not fully known.” There’s a lot of varying opinion about the success of cap-and-trade systems developed in the 1980s, and much of that is because there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the research community about how to exactly affect the change necessary to move the carbon needle. Based on research going back decades, we know that certain plants can sequester a lot of carbon in the soil, but generally, it’s very much an evolving body of scientific knowledge, and the fact there’s so much product and service development underway right now without some key answers isn’t helping.

It leaves agrimarketers in a precarious spot. How do you get into carbon farming with arms wide-open to all sides of the issue? This is something that right now seems to have a fairly important role in agriculture’s future. The long lead-up to carbon farming becoming standard operating procedure for farmers could make or break companies that want a piece of the burgeoning sector’s action. It will require the right communication that bridges gaps across science, policy, products and farm-level results.

Show you know how farmers feel.

First, as should always be your top priority: Acknowledge your customer, his or her feelings on the issue, and speak in terms that won’t fuel even more skepticism. I recently saw this new sector described as an “ecosystem services market” in a discussion among ag tech and sustainability thinkers on social media. It immediately sent up my “B.S. detector,” so I can imagine what a 5,000-acre row crop or small grain farmer with potentially major skin in the carbon game would think of that term. Hint: It’s not good.

Though it might make you feel like you sound informed about the issue, using terms like that will only widen the chasm between you and your customers. Given the tenuous footing under the carbon farming topic right now, you might not be able to narrow that gap. If you don’t have the answers, say you don’t have the answers. Show farmers you understand their angst and want to partner with them to create shared solutions. In this case, ones for which they’ll be paid.

Some farmers have for decades been integrating things like conservation tillage and more recently cover crops to sustain soil structures. This aids in supporting crop development and long-term soil health. A farmer friend of mine told me the other day he’s been no-tilling for 15 years. But now, he and other farmers are learning those practices may have no value in today’s carbon ag economy since they don’t precisely fall inside the evolving regulatory framework. Those farmers are frustrated: They’ve put in the work but they are getting the feeling that work’s not worth anything. The carbon farming industry wants to create its own value propositions. But doing so at the cost of the efforts of farmers will only make adoption hurdles taller.

Effectively communicate value.

It’s so important to acknowledge frustrations and connect the carbon sequestration practices of the past — and their value to the ecosystem — to the future ag carbon marketplace. Highlight the good stuff that’s happening in farm country in how you approach the topic in campaigns and thought leadership. Then take the next step in showing that the changes required at the farm level may not be major after all. Give a hat tip to the good stuff, then show it can become even better with your help. Don’t thank farmers (we have enough of that going on these days). Show them they’re already doing the right thing. They just need to make minor tweaks to capitalize on new carbon revenue streams.

As with many things we market to farmers and agribusinesses, promises of earth-moving results will fall flat. But farmers need to know they’ll have financial incentives to become carbon farmers. After growing up on a farm and working in agriculture for 20 years, I’ve yet to meet a farmer who doesn’t prioritize the health of his or her natural surroundings. But farmers also aren’t charities. For agriculture to adopt more practices to remove more carbon from the atmosphere, it has to pay. Even if it does so on an incremental basis.

Farmers know markets and the fundamentals underpinning them. Creating a successful carbon farming sector will depend on adequately showing the value of farm-level practices. This includes conservation tillage and cover crops, and how they will pay off. And if those are pie-in-the-sky promises, farmers won’t follow you along on the ride.

Effectively navigating the development of the carbon farming sector as an agrimarketer will require walking a fine line between the advancement of science, the rush of companies carving out space in the marketplace and the ability to provide much-needed assurances to farmer customers. If you’re like just about everyone in the space, you probably don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. Show that you’re willing and able to find those answers in ways that will create revenue opportunities for your customers. You’ll find yourself a place in what will ultimately become a lucrative space for a lot of companies.

If you are entering this space and have questions, you’re not alone. We don’t have all the answers either. So, let’s create some solutions for your business together. Drop us a line to start the conversation.

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