No matter their crop of choice, every farmer in Western North Carolina is essentially harvesting air. The photosynthesis that powers each fruit orchard, vegetable patch and grain field pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create the sugars that drive growth. Livestock that eat plants might be considered air twice-removed.
That basic biological fact takes on major importance in light of the commitments local and federal governments have made to fight climate change. Buncombe County’s 2025 strategic plan targets the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide; the city of Asheville’s 2020 climate emergency resolution recognizes the need for a “massive-scale mobilization.” And on April 22, President Joe Biden set a goal of cutting the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution in half compared with 2005 levels by 2030.
Much of the regional conversation about how to achieve those goals has focused on renewable energy, such as solar electricity and wind power. But some local projects now seek to highlight how agriculture can contribute to reducing WNC’s environmental footprint — not just by eliminating emissions, but also by taking carbon out of the skies.
Jennifer Harrison, agriculture and land resource director for Buncombe County, says the idea of local farmers as climate allies isn’t new. Agricultural practices that have been in use for decades, such as no-till farming, cover cropping and rotational grazing, are known to prevent the loss of carbon from soils while building in more organic matter.
“What is emerging is the idea that we’re now able to quantify what’s happening,” Harrison continues. “Now the question is, with these tools that are emerging, how can we use them to better tell the story?”
Making it count
Buncombe is one of five WNC counties participating in a pilot program, funded by the nonprofit N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, to test a carbon farm planning tool this growing season. COMET — the CarbOn Management Evaluation Tool — was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers determine how their approach to the land might release or capture carbon dioxide.
COMET asks farmers what management techniques they plan to use for each part of their farm, then estimates how much carbon will enter or leave the land over time. But the tool hasn’t yet been widely adopted in North Carolina, Harrison says, so agriculture experts aren’t sure how well its assumptions fit local farms.
“Tools aren’t always transferable when you go to a different region, where you have different weather patterns and challenges. We have a lot more sloped land and therefore we manage that very differently than the Midwest,” she explains. “We’re learning the practices that are built into the tool and making suggestions for new practices that should be added.”
Harrison says the county’s test site, Jasperwood Farm in Leicester, is the perfect place to put COMET through its paces. Because farmer Anthony Cole runs an extremely diversified operation, raising corn, Christmas trees, cattle and many other crops on a mix of slopes and flat land, the tool can be tested on most of the agricultural practices found across WNC.
“The benefit for me and others must be that we learn, we increase our understanding, and then we adapt and act on the knowledge we are able to acquire,” Cole says about his participation in the project. “Individual family farms are still the backbone of our food and fiber supply. Now we have to also look at our farm units as places that can sequester carbon and produce oxygen for the public good — not just as greenways, open space and viewsheds.”
As carbon planning tools become more refined, Harrison hopes they’ll help the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District talk through potential management changes with other local farmers. She acknowledges that shifting practices can be scary given the financial risks involved in agriculture but suggests that carbon-conscious approaches often benefit the bottom line as well.
“What we’re really helping our producers to see is how they can build soil health, improve water retention, increase drought resiliency,” Harrison says. “These are called best management practices for a reason: They’re tried and true in terms of improving your on-farm assets, with soil being perhaps the biggest asset that a farmer has.”
Where credit is due
In the near future, however, a farm’s approach to carbon might itself be a financial benefit. That’s the idea underlying Carbon Harvest, an Asheville-based initiative led by ecological designer Mari Stuart and resilience consultant Laura Lengnick.
Carbon Harvest is partnering with Buncombe County on the pilot COMET test, Stuart says, but its vision is much broader: a “multistakeholder carbon cooperative” that would connect regenerative farmers with WNC residents who value the climate benefits of the cooperative’s work. Individuals and businesses might purchase carbon credits, tied to the greenhouse gases sequestered by local agriculture, to offset their own carbon emissions. In turn, that money would give farmers the resources needed to embark on new carbon-capturing projects.
Stuart believes that Carbon Harvest’s local grounding will avoid the problems faced by other offset programs. Nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica reported in 2019 that many carbon credits tied to protection of the Amazon rainforest, for example, failed to prevent deforestation and did not generate any climate benefits.
“They’re big projects, happening elsewhere, that sometimes have been counted twice for the same credits,” Stuart says of many corporate-backed carbon offsets. “In our region, you would offset your carbon at a farm that’s just down the road. You could drive there, see it with your own eyes and talk to the farmer about how it’s going.”
Approximately 40 farmers and landowners have expressed interest in joining Carbon Harvest. Although the complexity of verifying carbon storage means a full-fledged offset system is still some time away, Stuart says, the initiative aims to start planning with individual farms next year.
Another income stream could come from a cooperative Community Supported Agriculture program certified as climate friendly. To help drum up interest within WNC’s culinary scene, Carbon Harvest is partnering with five local chefs for a tasting event on Saturday, Aug. 28, as part of this year’s Chow Chow.
“With carbon farming, it is more labor intensive and intentional, meaning that as consumers, we are getting a really quality, nutritious product that carries positive energy from the soil and from the hands that are tending it,” says Christian Albrecht of Braised & Confit, one of the chefs participating in the Chow Chow event. “The benefit of our air from less carbon dioxide and emissions and the reduction of fuels and heavy machinery benefits all life, which results in happy and healthy minds and hearts — and furthermore, happy bellies.”