For more than two decades, Colorado State University has been at the forefront of soil carbon science.
“There’s a long history of agroecosystems work here at CSU,” said Keith Paustian, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and senior research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. “It was probably one of the few places in the world that looked at agricultural systems through that lens. In the late 1960s and early ’70s the discipline of ecosystem modeling was almost invented at CSU to some degree.”
These computational and mathematical tools predict the amount of carbon in soil based on various management practices. Paustian, a pioneer in the field, helped develop biogeochemical models that simulate the flow of nitrogen and carbon through agricultural soils and provide guidance in regenerative agricultural practices. In 2019, he and his colleagues founded Soil Metrics. The company quickly became an industry leader in the technology of comprehensive soil carbon and greenhouse gas assessment in agriculture.
Soil Metrics was recently acquired by the Boston-based agricultural technology company, Indigo Agriculture to accelerate progress toward the company’s mission to harness nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet. The investment directly supports Indigo’s industry-leading carbon farming program — Carbon by Indigo — the first high-quality, scalable, registry-approved agricultural carbon credit program for farmers.
Another pioneering moment
In addition, the College of Agricultural Sciences received a $1 million gift from Indigo Ag to advance public understanding and development of soil carbon solutions to the climate crisis.
While Paustian hasn’t specifically earmarked the money for anything yet, he said the unrestricted funding will go a long way in speeding up innovative research efforts that otherwise might have taken years to get through the grant proposal process.
“Our most promising path forward for large-scale adoption of carbon farming and other sustainability practices is through collaboration and collective action from all stakeholders — scientists, farmers, agriculture associations, government bodies, industry participants and consumers,” Paustian said. “These values have been at the forefront of both Soil Metrics’ and Indigo’s work and will continue to carry forward the development of scalable, affordable and scientifically rigorous solutions that advance a climate-smart vision for how we feed and fuel the world.”
“Soil Metrics is world class at modeling all the essential elements we think of when we consider what it would look like for agriculture to achieve meaningful environmental outcomes and deliver new value to farmers,” Global Head of Carbon at Indigo Chris Harbourt said. “We share a rich heritage of scientific excellence and industry collaboration and look forward to continued development of solutions that meet the highest benchmarks for quality while maintaining the choice and flexibility necessary to support every farmer on every field.”
The start of something big
Soil Metrics was born out of a demand for the research and technology that CSU was already developing — just on a larger scale, Paustian said.
“We developed probably the most robust and advanced software platform available to integrate everything from weather and management practices to land-use history and soil types,” he said. “And we’d been doing that for some time.”
It began in part with the University’s collaboration with the USDA on the creation of the CarbOn Management Evaluation Tool (or COMET). The online management tool provides a reliable, real-time method for farmers to estimate changes in soil carbon sequestration, fuel and fertilizer use as the result of changes in land management practices.
But Paustian said the demand for this modeling went beyond individual farms. Corporations were also interested in a commercial-scale version of CSU’s technology, such as the Daily Century (or DayCent) model, which simulates the movement of carbon and nitrogen through agricultural systems and informs the EPA’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
That interest includes current customer consumer goods company Post Holdings. Through Soil Metrics’ innovation accelerator, the company brought Airly® Oat Clouds™ to market. The climate-friendly snack crackers help remove greenhouse gases with every box sold by using carbon farmed oats, in addition to offsetting emissions from its production processes.
“Soil Metrics provides the data and analysis tools that allow Airly to show consumers we can draw down greenhouse gas through our food choices,” said co-founder and President of Airly Foods Mark Izzo. “We’re excited to see Indigo and Soil Metrics partner to expand agriculture modeling as a climate solution.”
The next phase
In this next chapter, CSU will continue to expand its modeling research to address a broader range of sustainability opportunities, including maximizing the role of agricultural lands as a carbon sink and decreasing nitrous oxide and methane outputs in farming.
Paustian, who will serve as a scientific advisor at Indigo Ag, said he’s excited to see Soil Metrics continue to grow and work to improve agricultural practices and environmental outcomes not only across the U.S. but around the world.
“If we can take the idea of regenerative agricultural conservation practices and make them the rule rather than the exception in agricultural systems globally, we’re all going to be better off,” he said.