Carbon Farming Comes to North Carolina

Duke University has acquired rights to create a 10,000-acre “carbon farm” on privately owned land in eastern North Carolina.

When fully operational, the farm, located in Hyde County on a tract of pocosin peatlands formerly drained for agriculture, could potentially store enough carbon to offset much of the university’s carbon emissions and help Duke meet its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2024. Offset credits not used by the university could be sold to others.

Carbon farming is a new approach for fighting global warming that uses enhanced land management and conservation practices to increase the amount of carbon that current or former agricultural lands pull out of the air and lock in their soil and vegetation.

“By reverting these former peatlands to their natural wetland state, we can increase their capacity for long-term carbon storage,” said Curtis J. Richardson, diarector of the Duke University Wetland Center, who is directing the project.

The freshwater marshland will also protect local groundwater supplies and provide wildlife habitat.

In 2017, Duke generated about 258,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. If possible carbon storage rates at the new 10,000-acre farm are similar to those documented by Richardson at nearby sites, “we could offset much of the university’s carbon footprint in one fell swoop,” Richardson said. “Duke will likely also have thousands of tons of carbon credits to sell.”

He and his team recently began a two-year pilot program on 300 acres of the farm to identify the best ways to restore the former fields to their original wetland state and measure how much carbon their soil can store. If enough carbon credits can be generated at a cost-effective rate, production will then expand to the other 9,700 acres.

Recent studies indicate that Southeastern pocosin peatlands such as those found in Hyde County have some of the highest potential for carbon storage on Earth.

“When restored to their natural state as shrub-dominated bog wetlands, they can potentially store 10 to 15 times more metric tons of carbon per year than drained or unrestored agricultural lands,” Richardson said. “Left undisturbed, carbon in pocosins can remain stored for millennia.”

Restoring pocosin peatlands across the Southeast so they can be managed as productive carbon farms could provide a new source of revenue for landowners and yield long-term environmental benefits above and beyond carbon storage, he said.