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Carbon credits: Cash crop?

A collection of concerned citizens are hoping to translate the practice of carbon sequestration into economic development for Wadena farmers while benefiting the global environment.

The unnamed group meets regularly in the Village Emporium, said member Kent Scheer. Members include local clergy, small business owners, retirees, farmers and anyone else who would like to participate. One of the groups' goals is to find ways to improve the local agriculture economy, he said. They are also interested in preventing the effects of global warming.

Carbon sequestration involves the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into plants and soils. The purpose is to offset the greenhouse gases caused by the burning of oil, coal and forests.

Terrestrial carbon sequestration can be grown off of unproductive farm land, Scheer said.

"We have a lot of this land in Wadena County," he said. "A lot of jack pine forests, a lot of scrub bottom land, a lot of bogs."

The compensation for carbon credits is low now, but will shoot up if the United States signs the Kyoto Accord, Scheer said. And somebody will find a way to make money off of carbon sequestration.

"Let's see if we can figure it out," he said. "This is something that's developing. Why not us be one of the first ... places doing it and reaping the benefits."

The National Farmer's Union is already buying carbon credits in southern Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa, Scheer said.

"We want to move that boundary so it's up here," he said.

Farmers acquire credit for the carbon they sequester in soil. The credits are evaluated with standards set by the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's only legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction and trading system.

"A carbon credit is nothing that you can hold in your hand," Scheer said. "Basically you get a conceptual exchange. You're paying for someone to lock that carbon up so it doesn't go into the atmosphere."

Carbon sequestration is done for both "do-good" environmental reasons and to boost economies in underdeveloped nations, Scheer said. It is practiced in the European Union as part of the Kyoto Accord.

Carbon credits are a way to give landowners an incentive to practice more sustainable land use, according to Dean Current, manager of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management at the University of Minnesota. The Wadena group is the only Minnesota Citizen's organization outside of the Twin Cities that is taking concrete steps toward developing a carbon sequestration program.

"I think this is a great project," said member Val Burkman. "Sometimes we think that we have no power, there's nothing we can do to change the culture. It's really empowering for a group of people to get together and work as a group."

The University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Partnership has provided start-up funds for the Wadena group, according to CRSP Executive Director Linda Ulland. In addition to carbon sequestration, they are interested in developing locally based energy and an expanded local foods program.