While others debate how to reduce carbon emissions, students at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, are calculating the carbon footprint of their activities, then paying local farmers to offset those emissions with healthy farming practices that capture carbon and preserve the land.
The initiative, organized as StoCarb (St. Olaf Carbon Offsets: Seeking Forgiveness for Our Carbon Sins) is just one in a series of St. Olaf student environmental projects that combine education, research, personal responsibility and partnership with area farmers.
“We have an ideal situation, because St. Olaf owns 400 acres that it rents to local farmers,” explains Dr. Kathleen Shea, field ecology research supervisor and curator of natural lands. “We’ve had student projects lead the college to a change in land use that will be better for the land.”
As an example, she cites Megan Gregory’s semester-long monitoring of the effects of cropping and tillage patterns on soil, water, energy use and productivity, which demonstrated that local farmers could make a better income and better protect the land with no-till planting techniques that disturb the earth much less than traditional plowing methods. No-till traps greater amounts of carbon in the soil, a process known as carbon sequestration.
“The upshot of that project is that the college decided all contracts for its land would require either no-till or low-till practices,” Shea says.
Students have determined that no-till technology sequesters about 0.6 metric tons of carbon per acre – but they aren’t limiting their research to what farmers can do about carbon emissions.
They are also looking at the carbon cost of some prized college activities, such as the St. Olaf Band’s annual tour. For the 2008-09 season, a group of band members calculated the carbon implications of the 100-member unit traveling to California and back with its instruments and gear at 171.6 metric tons of carbon.
Erin Fulton, a senior, organized the St. Olaf Band Eco-Crew, which educated fellow band members about the issue and presented the idea of offsetting the band’s carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits.
Band members bought the idea, making personal contributions to purchase carbon credits on 286 no-till acres – enough to make their tour carbon-neutral. Students and farmers used Chicago Climate Exchange data to agree on a price of $1.40 per ton. In March, students hosted farmers at the college for a business lunch on the project – and the farmers surprised them by donating their carbon checks back to StoCarb to help continue the initiative.
Keeping up the momentum will be challenging. This year, the St. Olaf Band toured Japan, a trip with a huge carbon footprint, and there is talk of purchasing credits to make all St. Olaf international study programs carbon-neutral, with students encouraged to base carbon emissions paybacks on the length of flights.
Still, farmer Dave Legvold sees great potential in the St. Olaf approach, not only to manage carbon but for a stronger partnership in general: “It’s a great method to bring students and farmers together. You wouldn’t think of a college band working with local farmers to offset carbon emissions, but that’s what we have here.
“We have a great relationship between students and real ‘I farm for a living’ farmers.”