FFAR Grant Quantifies Organic Carbon to Improve Agricultural Productivity

Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

While also providing environmental benefits, carbon retention in the soil is critical for effective water retention, nutrient absorption and root development. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $1 million grant to the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota to develop an integrated technique to monitor soil organic carbon, a measurable component of soil organic matter, in the U.S. Corn Belt. The University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota and Ag Air Imaging, LLC are providing matching funds for a total $2.07 million investment.

The Corn Belt, which contributes over a third of corn and soybean production globally, is facing increased soil organic carbon losses, soil degradation and soil erosion. These soil disturbances are caused by intensive cultivation, including high inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and labor. Accurate and efficient soil organic carbon monitoring is critical for sustainable climate-resilient soil management. While there are existing methods to measure soil organic carbon, these techniques are time-consuming and unsuitable for large-scale applications.

University of Illinois researchers are developing an innovative Airborne-Satellite-Artificial Intelligence technology to quantify soil organic carbon and track changes annually. This      technology combines airborne hyperspectral imagery, a technique that collects and processes information across the optical electromagnetic spectrum, with satellite data, machine learning and field measurements to monitor soil health. This technology will be available as a service to farmers and practitioners via a cloud-based geospatial visualization platform, strengthening their ability to diagnose soil health and detect emerging agricultural threats.

Using information provided by this proposed technology, farmers can allocate agricultural inputs more effectively. For example, data supplied by this technology can inform farmers of how much carbon is already in the soil, improving their ability to accurately estimate the amount of fertilizer to apply to their crops.

Additionally, accurate soil organic carbon quantification is a prerequisite to participate in agricultural carbon offset markets. These incentive-based programs pay farmers for sequestering additional carbon, also known as carbon credits, by adopting environmentally beneficial management practices. The high-resolution soil organic carbon maps generated by this project will provide independent assessments of carbon sequestration outcomes and thus carbon credits for each individual field.


In addition to improving soil health and helping to mitigate climate change, this research is developing a foundation for increased participation in agricultural carbon credit markets and incentivizing more farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. We are thrilled to support this research that benefits the environment as well as farmer profitability and productivity. Sally Rockey, Ph.D.
Executive Director Emeritus

“We are really encouraged when hearing from the reviewers of the FFAR Seeding Solutions Program that this is a game-changing technology! We are committed to bring in rigorous science with this scalable solution to help farmers and the agricultural value chain achieve higher crop productivity and environmental sustainability,” said Dr. Kaiyu Guan at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the principal investigator of the project.

“We are glad that our contributed airborne high-resolution images will be used to advance the monitoring technology at the University of Illinois,” said Bob Coverdill, CEO of Ag Air Imaging, LLC. “Our unique ability to provide aerial services and engineering support, literally in the backyard of the University of Illinois, makes this a natural partnership.”

“As the process of establishing agricultural carbon markets has begun in the U.S., it is more urgent than ever to develop a credible way to quantify the amount and changes of soil carbon”, said Dr. Zhenong Jin, the institute lead of the project at the University of Minnesota, “These estimates will be the basis for a transparent market that credits mitigation actions fairly and accurately.”


Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

Connect: @FoundationFAR | @RockTalking

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