By Baylee Sweitzer for Kent State News Lab.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.
Jeff Duling's 1,400-acre farm sits at the end of a long and dusty gravel driveway in Northwest Ohio's Putnam County, about halfway between Lima and Defiance. An aluminum-sided grain elevator towers over his fields, where he grows corn, wheat and soybeans.
Duling recently entered the estimated $84 billion carbon market after he purchased 134 new acres of farmland and enrolled them in a program called RegenConnect, which incentivizes farmers to use regenerative agriculture practices that help capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and move it via plants into the soil.
Those 134 acres represent a new revenue stream for Duling: RegenConnect pays him for each acre that helps sequester carbon, using funds from companies seeking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions or declare themselves "net zero."
Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide to help reduce the amount of it in the atmosphere, with the larger goal of reducing global climate change, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
There are two types: geologic, which is where the carbon is stored in underground geologic formations, and biologic, which refers to the storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide in vegetation, soils, woody products, and aquatic environments.
Until he bought the new land, Duling was skeptical about carbon sequestration as a way to make extra money on his farm. "I think the carbon market is so immature, it's like the Wild West," Duling said.
But he already sells a lot of his grain to Cargill, the company that runs RegenConnect, and has a good relationship with his buyer. So when the company created the sequestration program, it asked him to enroll some of his acres.
Regenerative agriculture practices include cover crops, which cover the soil and help reduce erosion, improve fertility and soil quality, among other effects; no-till, which helps decrease erosion because the soil is undisturbed through tillage; or reduced-till, which means the tillage may be less intense, shallower or cover a smaller area in the field or across the farm.
John Davis is a Delaware County farmer who enrolled more than 100 acres in Nutrien's carbon program last year through the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund. Davis is a fourth-generation farmer and has farmed for 35 of his 54 years. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat.
Davis, like Duling, thinks the carbon market is still young. "I don't have any issue with the thought process or the idea behind it. I think there's a lot of unknowns for the producer, for the grower," he said.
The fledgling carbon market
Programs like Cargill's and Nutrien's are part of the carbon market, a trading system where carbon credits are bought and sold with the intent of reducing pollution overall, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Agricultural practices can help capture and/or keep carbon dioxide and other pollutants out of the atmosphere. By using certain management practices, farmers can earn money in the carbon market by selling carbon credits to companies looking to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions.
A carbon credit, also called a carbon offset, is a permit that represents the reduction, sequestration or avoidance of one metric ton, or 1,000 kilograms, of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. If a company emits two metric tons of carbon dioxide and purchases one carbon credit, the company overall produces one ton of carbon dioxide for the purposes of a carbon market.
Most of the carbon market worldwide is a mandatory one, where governments require companies to offset their emissions. In the United States, except for California, the carbon market is voluntary-that means companies are not required to participate. In Ohio, the buying and selling of carbon credits are also unregulated.
Many companies in the United States are looking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, said Brent Sohngen, a professor of environmental and resource economics at The Ohio State University. But to become net zero, they have to buy carbon credits.
"These large companies are looking at their carbon emissions and finding there is no way to avoid carbon emissions from using greenhouse gas-polluting fuels, so they are shifting gears," he said. "They are looking to reduce emissions through the agricultural and forestry sectors and take those emissions and use them towards their net-zero goals."
Since most of the carbon market in the United States is unregulated, companies were created to develop a methodology to make and sell carbon credits. Measuring, reporting and verifying carbon offsets are key to obtaining a carbon credit.
The process of entering into a carbon farming practice plan
Once a farmer enrolls in a carbon program, a carbon farming practice plan is designed based on an initial assessment of the farm.
Farmers implement changes on their farms, such as not tilling their soil and planting cover crops like alfalfa or clover. Then they measure and record data, which is checked and verified by an independent verification body such as Verra or the Gold Standard.
After the farm's carbon offsets are verified, a carbon credit is issued. The project developer or a broker connects the carbon credit with the end buyer, usually a company that purchases the credit to offset carbon dioxide emissions.
When Duling enrolled his acres, it was an easy process. "The guy that signed me up for the carbon came with his laptop," he said. "He just brought my farms up into aerial view, we picked the fields out with satellite imagery. The total time I was with him was 15 minutes."
Carbon programs must look at the history of the acres to determine how to create high-quality carbon credits. Gathering the history of whether or not the fields were tilled or cover-cropped would have been a tedious process for Duling.
"That's why I lost interest with these other companies. I only got 15 minutes invested," with Cargill, he said. "I made $740 in 15 minutes. That made a lot more sense to me."
Duling signed a one-year contract and will be paid $370 in the fall and $370 in the spring to earn about $5.52 per acre.
Carbon credits are issued based on new practices that are implemented on a farm. "To produce a premium, high-quality carbon credit, it would have to come from an additionality, meaning a new practice," said Clay Edwards, the program lead for Cargill's RegenConnect.
Carbon credits encourage change - but don't reward existing sustainable practices
If farmers are already using practices that capture or avoid carbon emissions, then there is not a measurable carbon dioxide savings to count toward a carbon credit.
"We want farmers that have been doing those practices, like no tillage, to continue doing those practices. The carbon market isn't paying farmers enough to stop doing something that is working for them. It just hasn't evolved that way," Edwards said.
Duling is frustrated he can't benefit from his already carbon-friendly acres.
"The problem with carbon-credit programs is that they want us to be doing things like not tilling and planting cover crops. I am already doing all that, but they will not let me in," Duling said.
By tilling his new acreage, the carbon naturally stored in the soil will be released into the atmosphere-avoiding further tillage and planting cover crops will recapture that released carbon, allowing him to earn carbon credits.
"It wasn't ground that I had in my operation for five, 10, 20 years. The acres that's been in my operation, I am not going to till," Duling said.
Prices for a carbon credit vary, but generally, a farmer could earn from $1 to $5 extra per acre on top of what they make for their crop. For example, according to the Farm Office of the Ohio State University Extension Office, Ohio corn should yield a range of return from $260 to $619 per acre in 2022, depending on land production capabilities.
"A lot of programs are asking farmers to do a lot of practices for very little money. When it came down to it, I figured out I had the carbon they wanted, but I was getting the least amount of money," Duling said.
Carbon programs will eventually have to change, he said, because "they're going to run out of farmers."
Duling and Davis think the money from carbon programs helps offset the extra work they have to put into their fields, but ultimately they will not be "a huge money maker" for farms. Instead, they think the companies selling the credits, like Cargill, will benefit most.
Most farmers are eligible for a carbon credit program, Edwards said. The only way a farmer would not be able to participate is if they used best-management practices on all of their acres.
"That's probably less than 1% of the acres in the U.S. Every farmer's field is different; it has its own unique characteristics. It's really got to be a customized approach," he said.
Companies trying to achieve their net-zero emissions goals in the United States are driving the voluntary carbon market, Sohngen said. "If companies continue to get serious about their net-zero goals, and the price of carbon starts to edge up, then we'll see more people jump into it."
Baylee Sweitzer wrote this article for Kent State News Lab. This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.
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By Sky Chadde and Johnathan Heddinger for Investigate Midwest, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Broadcast version by Mark Richardson for Illinois News Connection reporting for Investigate Midwest-Public News Service Collaboration.
In early 2019 in Illinois, a farmworker, his wife and his son lived in a moldy house. Attempting to keep the winter cold at bay, he'd spray-foamed the windows shut. The toilet often malfunctioned. Unlike most farmworker housing, it hadn't been inspected - the employer hadn't registered it with the state.
But the man had another option. He complained to a state employee whose job is to advocate for farmworkers' rights. A crucial component of the advocate's job is visiting fields and housing and forwarding complaints to law enforcement.
Several farmworkers a week were contacted through this outreach. Between 2018 and 2020, Illinois forwarded 10 complaints - ranging from being sprayed twice by pesticides to illegally garnishing wages for medical treatment - to authorities. For example, once the father in the moldy house complained, the state employee informed the U.S. Department of Labor.
However, when farmworkers likely needed this outreach most, Illinois stopped delivering it.
When COVID-19 hit, Illinois barred the outreach workers from traveling and assigned some to other duties, according to state and federal documents. Often living in crowded housing, farmworkers were particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Between the pandemic's first summer and summer 2022, the state contacted zero farmworkers. The state recorded one complaint.
The outreach workers in Illinois are part of a federal and state partnership known as the Monitor Advocate System. U.S. Department of Labor officials oversee state counterparts who are supposed to ensure their states protect farmworkers from unsafe housing, wage theft and other abuses. Outreach is only part of the system's duties, but it's an essential element.
A nationwide problem
The failings in Illinois echo across the country, according to internal program documents obtained by Investigate Midwest, and other state and federal records.
* The pandemic either impaired or completely shut down required outreach to farmworkers. States are supposed to have full-time outreach staff during harvest season. Personnel at some local job centers - mainly known for providing career counseling and job referrals - also chip in.
But in the pandemic's first years, some states - including Illinois, Ohio and Kansas - closed job centers or reassigned staff. Across the country, the number of contacts with farmworkers fell, according to the system's latest annual report.
Meanwhile, more than 90,000 farmworkers contracted the virus, and at least 100 died during the pandemic, according to tracking by the Food and Environmental Reporting Network, a nonprofit newsroom.
* The monitor advocate system has convulsed with turnover in recent years. The system has about 60 positions: a national monitor advocate, six DOL officials overseeing states in different regions, an advocate in each state and some support staff. Since 2020, 37 people have cycled through the system, according to Investigate Midwest's review of staff directories.
Since 2020, four states, including Illinois, have had three different people employed in the monitor advocate role. Some who technically served in the role did not perform its duties full-time. For instance, between 2016 and 2018, Iowa's monitor advocate spent less than half of her time performing monitoring duties. (The state said this is currently not the case.)
Janie Claytor-Woodson, the longtime state monitor advocate for West Virginia who retired in 2020, said many monitor advocates she worked with were dedicated and caring individuals who had farmworkers' best interests in mind.
"Most of the people I worked with were outstanding. They took their jobs to heart," she said. But, she added, "You can't just put somebody in that seat. You got to have somebody who has some interest or background (with farmworkers). Otherwise, the program's going to suffer."
* Even before COVID-19, some states did not perform the required outreach to farmworkers. The year before the pandemic started, 16 states failed to do so, according to a recent annual report. The annual reports note little contact with farmworkers generally means fewer complaints.
Yu-Mon "Luis" Chang, Connecticut's state monitor advocate, said in a video for the National Center for Farmworker Health that frequent visits are essential to building trust with farmworkers. (He did not return repeated requests for an interview.)
"If you're just showing up once every two years to the farm, you're not going to gain the trust of the workers," he said. "But if they see you out there all the time, and they start talking to you, they'll get comfortable enough to disclose something that may be bothering them. That's the key."
In a statement to Investigate Midwest, the labor department said it disagreed with any characterization that the program wasn't successful. The statement said the oversight the monitor advocate system provides focuses on reviewing states' protections of farmworkers, the functionality of their complaint process and their compliance with regulations and directives: "This system is successful when Monitor Advocates effectively perform their specific duties," the statement reads.
On a national level, several of the performance indicators the labor department uses to determine the program's success are being met. But, the agency acknowledged, "state-level data shows that not all (local job centers) are meeting all measures."
The system's most recent annual report notes weekly contacts increased after the pandemic's first year. However, it reads, "it is critical to understand that the pre-pandemic contact rate may not have been adequate."
When asked what kind of accountability existed for states not meeting the required standards, the labor department said, "Continued non-compliance can result in (the agency) formally noting deficiencies in a monitoring report and requiring a corrective action plan. Most states can resolve compliance issues through these steps."
In more extreme cases, funding can be withheld, the agency said.
But, the labor department said, it was "not aware" of an instance where funding related to farmworker services was withheld.
For example, Indiana has been cited repeatedly since 2009 for inadequate outreach staff, according to a copy of the labor department's corrective action plan for the state. Indiana said it is "currently in compliance" with staffing regulations.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security, which houses Illinois's part of the monitor advocate system, originally said it would answer Investigate Midwest's questions about its role in the system and its decisions during the pandemic. It did not respond prior to publication.
The monitor advocate system was in the headlines recently because of a possible connection between its representative in Georgia and a human trafficking operation, according to reporting by USA TODAY.
The operation forced farmworkers to dig for onions with their bare hands, and to live in housing with limited plumbing and no safe water, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. According to testimony related to the case, the traffickers paid off a state official who inspected and approved farmworker housing.
The person who inspected housing was the state monitor advocate for Georgia, who retired in the wake of the DOJ's investigation. The advocate's sister was indicted in the DOJ's case, and several of his family members owned companies that employed farmworkers, USA TODAY reported.
The Georgia Department of Labor did not respond to requests for comment.
Chronic issues in farmworker housing
In an ongoing series on farmworker housing, Investigate Midwest is examining chronic issues and the systems created to uphold farmworker rights. Ensuring safe living conditions is not the Monitor Advocate System's only responsibility, but protecting farmworkers from substandard housing - an entrenched problem - has been part of its mission since its start.
Across the country, examples of poor housing abound. In Iowa, authorities have found housing with holes in the wall and floor. In Missouri, farmworkers were forced to live in an old jail. One farmworker complained to an advocacy group of living in an "iron chicken coop" with bunk beds.
"Farmworkers are one of the worst housed groups in the United States," said Lance George, director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council, which studied the issue in 2002. "This is a group in the shadows."
Oversight and enforcement need to improve for conditions to change, said Antonio De Loera-Brust, communications director for United Farm Workers, a California labor union.
"There's one law on the books," he said. "There's another law in the fields."
Research, government data and previous reporting show farmworkers are also vulnerable to labor abuses, human trafficking and legal violations - necessitating a government position like the monitor advocate.
Sky Chadde and Johnathan Heddinger wrote this article for the Investigate Midwest.
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When one advocacy organization, Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, conducted a survey of farmworkers recently, 100% of respondents said they faced at least one serious legal violation.
Matt Boles, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, represents five clients on H-2A visas who worked on farms connected to the Georgia trafficking case. They've applied to stay in the U.S. on T visas, which are for victims of human trafficking.
"People just have so much fear," he said. "They think, 'If I say something or I speak out, however bad I'm treated now or however bad the conditions are, it may actually then (get) worse.'"
Just last year brought other examples of farmworkers being trafficked. In January 2022, a South Carolina grand jury indicted two people on labor trafficking charges involving the H-2A program. In April, a Florida woman pleaded guilty to a multi-state racketeering conspiracy involving trafficking farmworkers. In December, a farm labor contractor was sentenced to almost 10 years in prison for leading a multi-state conspiracy to traffic Mexican seasonal farmworkers.
Stolen wages is also a chronic issue. The DOL has recovered more than $82 million in back wages due to farmworkers since 2000. In the most recent fiscal year, the DOL assessed a record $7.9 million in fines.
The Richey order
The monitor advocate system grew from the complaints of farmworkers about 50 years ago.
Job centers, created in the depths of the Great Depression, were supposed to facilitate the same career prospects for all workers. However, the centers referred farmworkers to employers that stole their wages and provided unsafe housing, the workers alleged.
In 1974, Charles R. Richey, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in the case. (More famously, he ruled the tapes Richard Nixon created while president were not personal records.) Finding the DOL infringed the farmworkers' rights, he laid out the federal and state partnership that would become the monitor advocate system.
One element essential to the system's success is outreach. Many farmworkers do not walk through the job centers' doors.
Under the Richey order, states are required to provide the same services to farmworkers as non-farmworkers. This means states are supposed to employ dedicated outreach staff who alert farmworkers to the resources available to them.
Outreach staffers are also supposed to document any apparent violations they see while visiting farmworkers and send any complaints to agencies that can investigate, usually the DOL.
But many of the issues Richey identified decades ago continue to vex states, according to internal reviews and corrective action plans.
The order stipulated states should hire bilingual staff and, if possible, members of the farmworker community. States have largely failed.
In Illinois, for instance, five offices are located near large populations of farmworkers. Only three employ bilingual staff, and just one employs someone with a farmworker background, state records show.
The judge also required states to employ enough staff to conduct "random field checks ... to determine whether wages, working and housing conditions" do not violate state and federal laws, Richey wrote.
In recent years, staffing shortages have bedeviled states.
During Missouri's peak harvesting season in 2019, about 9,000 farmworkers were in the state; Missouri had no assigned outreach staff. (It has since hired full-time outreach staff.) The same year, Nebraska outreach staff "did not spend the majority of (their) time in the field." In 2021, Indiana's one outreach staffer split time with other duties during peak harvesting time.
Missouri and Indiana did not return requests for comment. A 2021 labor department review of services in Nebraska found no issues, and a state spokesperson said Nebraska, as a state with few farmworkers, is not required to have full-time outreach staff most of the year. Indiana said it is now compliant with staffing regulations.
Seeing the individual
Claytor-Woodson and her colleague walked through a tin shed that housed giant tractors. At the back, a man who worked for a Florida company showed them where the farmworkers would would sleep. The "very crude" beds, with no mattresses, were constructed with 2x4s and chicken wire, she recalled recently.
When she saw dead rats and their droppings, she faced her colleague.
"Are you kidding me?" she thought.
Most farmworker housing she inspected proved satisfactory, she said. But no one should live in the "awful" tin shed, she decided.
Though not the state monitor advocate at the time of this inspection, Claytor-Woodson, now 75, served in the role for more than a decade before her retirement in 2020. Previously, she was a child welfare administrator in California. She approached both duties the same way, she said.
She told her employees who removed kids from dangerous situations to always act in the child's interest, she said.
"I don't care who the mama is, who the daddy is, a political leader, whatever, none of that stuff - your job is to make sure that that child is safe," she said. "That's the way I approached" the monitor advocate role.
She'd meet farmworkers early in the morning, at lunch, or late at night to not interfere with their work. With a translator in tow, she'd let them know that the employer knew she was there and that she'd be asking questions. In small groups away from the employer, she'd ask them where they were from, whether they had kids, how they came to the job - "I just wanted to see who they were as individuals," she said.
She also observed body language, she said, to understand whether she needed to engage one-on-one.
Once, she said, a young farmworker told her about his father. Also a farmworker, he was injured on the job in Ohio. The injuries prevented him from working, and his employer refused to pay his medical bills, Claytor-Woodson remembered.
"They sent him home (to Mexico) with this enormous hospital bill," she said. The "father was worried to death that somebody was going to put him in jail."
She worked with Ohio's state monitor advocate to have a local charity to pay for his medical care. When the young farmworker returned the next season, he sought her out and thanked her.
While turnover has plagued the system, some monitor advocates have been in their position for years. Olga Ruiz, who did not respond to questions from Investigate Midwest, has worked for the system for more than 30 years in Colorado. Her state is often cited in the system's annual reports as a success story.
Since Claytor-Woodson retired, two people in West Virginia have held the monitor advocate position, staff listings show. An email to Steven Sansom, who was most recently listed as working in the position, bounced back.
In her experience, Claytor-Woodson said, many monitor advocates she worked with wanted to make a difference. This includes Laura Tramontana, now the National Monitor Advocate, charged with marshaling the DOL's resources to aid farmworkers. Tramontana did not respond to an interview request to her government email.
But Claytor-Woodson also struggled with some of her colleagues' apathy toward farmworkers.
"You have people who see a benefit of getting out of the office," she said, "but not necessarily in providing the services that the employer or the farmworkers might require or need."
Creating a 'baseline' in Illinois
In May 2021, Myriam Diaz Rutland video-conferenced, through a malfunctioning camera, with state employees at a job center in Mt. Vernon.
The rural town in southern Illinois sits within an hours' drive in either direction of six migrant labor camps. As many as 200 workers cycle through the area each year, according to state records.
Each year, state monitor advocates are supposed to review how job centers provide services to farmworkers, including the quality and amount of outreach they do. Because Illinois had failed to keep the role filled, Diaz Rutland's review, held over the internet due to COVID-19, was the first one in years.
Her notes show Illinois's program was essentially starting from scratch.
"This period of monitoring is being established as a 'baseline,'" she wrote, according to records Investigate Midwest obtained through a public records request. "The State Monitor Advocate has been vacant in an official capacity for several years leading up to this review."
The last review, in fact, was performed in 2018 by Diaz Rutland, during her first stint as the state monitor advocate.
She didn't return requests for an interview. When contacted for a previous story about Illinois farmworkers, she'd directed Investigate Midwest to the spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
Diaz Rutland went through her review:
- No farmworkers had received any services in the past year, let alone been contacted through outreach.
- The office had one bilingual employee who was not trained to assist farmworkers.
- The office had received no training on how to intake complaints from farmworkers and get them to the proper authorities.
When she finished, she concluded the office was "not equipped" to ensure farmworkers were protected.
Mt. Vernon had company. Four of the five offices near known populations of farmworkers did not meet the requirements of the monitor advocate system, according to state records.
In response, the Mt. Vernon office manager said she "should not be held accountable" for how the office handled farmworker outreach before she took over. She said the office would begin conducting outreach when the state allowed.
About a month after finishing the reviews, Diaz Rutland vacated the position, according to federal records. She remains with the employment security agency, and it's unclear how or why she was reassigned.
The change left Illinois, in the middle of peak harvest season, with no federally-required monitor advocate. As the state transitioned to a new hire - its third since 2020 - no one reviewed how the state protected farmworkers last year.