Farmland offers a benefit beyond food: carbon sequestration. Emerging regenerative agriculture practices have been experimenting with new ways to draw carbon from the air, store it in soil, and help farmers sell this benefit as carbon credits. But until last year, it was impossible to verify how much carbon is being sequestered without collecting soil samples and sending them to a lab, which is expensive, difficult to scale, and doesn’t show how carbon levels vary across a field.
Three-year-old Cloud Agronomics, based in Boulder, Colorado, can assess an entire field using hyperspectral imaging, invented by NASA. Specially equipped aircraft fly over a field twice a year—before planting and after harvest—to measure soil organic carbon. “You can see whether soil is healthy or not, whether it’s carbon rich and dense and dark brown versus if it’s very crumbly,” says cofounder and CEO Jack Roswell. “So imagine what you can do with 300 times the power of the human eye. That’s the technology we’re using.”
Cloud Agronomics detects carbon levels to 30 centimeters deep, along with crop nutrients and agricultural runoff, all remotely. “Consumers and [corporations] are going to start to demand more rigor in carbon offsets,” says company advisor Mark Tracy. The technology is now deployed on hundreds of thousands of acres in four countries.
The process starts with growers who want more insight into their soil and crop health, and how regenerative agriculture is affecting their soil carbon.
Cloud Ag flies aircraft over a field before planting and after harvest, when the instruments, which analyze how much light soil reflects, can see the bare ground.
Measuring the soil twice a year allows Cloud Ag to see which regenerative practices are sequestering the most carbon. Hyperspectral imaging collects granular data on soil carbon, crop nutrients, and runoff.
Growers can learn how regenerative practices such as no-till farming and animal grazing affect their soil carbon levels, and carbon-credit markets can verify their environmental impact.