Frequently Asked Questions

The following FAQs highlight key aspects of ESMC’s program. If you have additional questions that are not answered here, please reach out.

Who We Are

The following tools, platforms, technologies, and assistance are being developed by ESMC to support Eco-Harvest market participation by producers as well as buyers:

  • Science-based, standards-based, certified protocols for agricultural production systems.
  • Technologically advanced, farm and field specific quantification tools, including new soil carbon testing technologies and methodologies aimed at improving rigor, reducing costs, and streamlining the process.
  • Integrated Enrollment Platform that is user-friendly and allows for data migration from common data collection platforms utilized by producers.
  • Soil Sampling Stratification application to assist in generating and tracking soil sampling locations and results.
  • Certification of ecosystem service projects, protocols, and impact units generated.
  • On-the-ground producer support from multiple ESMC member organizations.

ESMC’s non-profit structure means we minimize costs and maximize stakeholder value for farmers and ranchers, as well as those who invest in the ecosystem services they produce. ESMC’s 70+ members include players across the entire agriculture supply and value chain, including corporate, non-profit, foundation, industry association, and government partners.

ESMC is also a public-private partnership. ESMRC (Ecosystem Services Market Research Consortium), the research arm of ESMC, leverages funding from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) to research and develop solutions that support a technologically advanced ecosystem services market for the agricultural sector. ESMC members also contribute resources to support implementation of agricultural land stewardship practices that improve soil health and related environmental outcomes. Members help govern ESMC’s structure, program development, research investments, and activities. Everything we do serves our mission of incentivizing farmers and ranchers to adopt practices that benefit society.

We base our work on science, widely accepted standards, and outcomes. Our protocols have the strongest scientific basis possible to provide confidence and trust to sellers and buyers as well as the general public. Protocols and our project design are verified by global certification bodies like SustainCERT so buyers of our credits have confidence that their investment is truly having impact.

ESMC works to maximize producer choice, returns, buyer demand, and societal benefits. Farmers and ranchers can manage their operations to improve environmental outcomes through practices that make the most sense for their production system based on Eco-Harvest’s menu of practice change options for both market projects and pilot projects. We look at each field holistically to capture the site characteristics, the entire set of management decisions and the resulting outcomes.

Ecosystem Service Outcomes

ESMC captures and quantifies results from producers’ stewardship practices into ecosystem service outcomes based on the latest science, measurable results, and broadly accepted standards. We measure, monitor, verify and then market ecosystem services outcomes (also called impact units) that capture increases in soil organic carbon, reductions of greenhouse gases, reductions of agricultural water and soil losses that impact water quality (including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment), improved water conservation (in pilot status), as well as biodiversity (in pilot status).  

Benefits to farmers and ranchers don’t stop with ESMC payments. Regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices that increase soil organic carbon also improve overall soil health, structure, fertility, and productivity. This can create more resilient production systems that are less impacted by extreme weather and other environmental conditions. Better soil health, in turn, means reduced soil erosion from wind and water, keeping valuable soil in the field. Improved soil water holding capacity can reduce nutrient losses and lower irrigation requirements. Regenerative practices can also positively impact biodiversity and habitat. 

ESMC’s Eco-Harvest program captures and quantifies results from producers’ stewardship practices into ecosystem services based on the latest science, measurable results, and broadly accepted standards. ESMC is currently providing Scope 3 credits. 

The concept of different “scopes” is based on Greenhouse Gas Protocol nomenclature developed by the World Resources Institute. While this nomenclature is specific to greenhouse gas emissions, it is useful for understanding the difference between these two markets. 

To illustrate, imagine a company operates a processed food factory. The company has a greenhouse gas footprint based on this facility’s emissions. We call these Scope 1 emissions since they result from the company’s main activities. That company may want to offset these emissions by buying carbon offsets from other companies that have reduced their own emissions in ways others have not. This is the Scope 1 market. 

This same food company can also take a broader look at its greenhouse gas footprint, looking beyond its own offices and accounting for the emissions associated with the agricultural goods that it uses for its finished products. 

Greenhouse gas emissions that result from the production of its raw materials are considered the food company’s Scope 3 emissions. In other words, Scope 3 represents the emissions that result from the company’s supply chain as the raw materials are produced and make their way to the factory. 

ESMC’s Scope 3 impact units can be used in corporate supply chain reporting. They represent environmental improvements associated with the supply chains of companies within the food, agriculture, and beverage sector. Benefits to Scope 3 impact units include the ability for multiple companies to co-finance and co-claim these improvements to their shared supply chains.

Because ESMC generates verified Scope 3 impact units, buyers from across the value chain can share intervention costs (and therefore co-claim outcomes) to lower their Scope 3 emissions. This cost sharing through co-claiming follows Scope 3 accounting principles for corporate inventories. This allows buyers to scale impact, increase the value of their investments, and co-develop systems for impact unit generation such as sampling technologies and ESMC’s MMRV platform.

How does this work in practice with projects? A producer enrolls with ESMC and makes practice changes. Company A sources corn from the supply shed and cropping system of that participating producer and uses that corn crop as a primary ingredient in their cereal product. Company B may also use the corn silage to feed cattle which are then used for beef in company B’s products. Since the corn ingredient is included in different layers of each company’s production system, both company A and company B can co-invest in practice changes and cost share the Scope 3 impact units. This investment allows buyers to pool resources in a single program for greater impact.

How ESMC's Eco-Harvest Program Works

Food and beverage processors, manufacturers and retailers are the primary buyers of ESMC Scope 3 impact units. Eco-Harvest provides corporate partners and buyers with certified outcomes to meet their own commitments toward carbon neutrality or net-zero carbon goals, commitments to reduce environmental footprints, and efforts to contribute to global Sustainable Development Goals 2030 impacts 

ESMC supports members’ ambitions to continue investing in equitable, just, and environmentally sustainable food systems. We ensure these buyers can meet their goals and obligations through a certified, transparent, science-based, and cost-effective program. We lend credibility to these outcomes, thus meeting consumer and shareholder expectations while avoiding the need for every company to establish its own programs, tools, and metrics to do so. 

ESMC’s market and pilot program, Eco-Harvest, launched in May 2022. Farmers and ranchers in approved ESMC regions can enroll in projects and begin generating ecosystem service impact units. Enrollment occurs through ESMC’s online Producer Portal, where producers create a secure account and identify fields for enrollment. ESMC-approved soil samplers then collect samples from enrolled fields and send them to an accredited laboratory for analysis of soil organic carbon, bulk density, pH, and phosphorus. Required information about a producer’s operations and conservation practices can be imported from other 3rd party platforms or entered directly by the producer or an assigned advisor. Producers may also be selected for on-site verification of the agricultural stewardship practices by ESMC-trained verifiers. 

Farmers and ranchers do not need to enroll all their land in Eco-Harvest; they can enroll as few or as many eligible acres under their management as they like. ESMC quantifies the environmental outcomes and then generates, verifies, and registers the credits – tons of soil carbon sequestered, tons of reduced CO2 equivalent, tons of reduced sediment loss, and pounds of reduced phosphorus or nitrogen losses. 

ESMC arranges for the sale of producer’s impact units. Buyers purchase the impact units through Eco-Harvest, and ESMC deducts a cost-recovery fee for its role in generating the impact units. Farmers and ranchers are paid for producing these ecosystem services via their agricultural stewardship practices. Timing and frequency of payments depends on the impact unit types. 

Carbon and ecosystem services markets, while nascent, are seeing significant growth right now, but there is no market liquidity in any of them. This means that price discovery is still a work in progress. Many programs are still working out pricing and payments. 

ESMC’s Eco-Harvest is an outcomes-based program. Producers are paid based on their outcomes, so the more they do, the more they are paid. Our program measures outcomes – these are based on system changes that result in the desired outcomes (e.g., increased soil carbon, reduced GHG, improved water quality or water use, enhanced habitat and/or biodiversity). We do not pay producers for practice changes. ESMC’s Eco-Harvest program only pays for quantified and verified outcomes.  ESMC calculates ecosystem service impact units based on outcomes of all management practices and site characteristics, not just individual conservation practices a farmer or rancher implements. ESMC’s market program, quantification approach, and models are calibrated and validated by region and by production system to ensure accuracy. In some cases where environmental outcomes can’t be verified, which may be the case in research pilots, payments can instead be based on participation.  

We are working with our membership to test multiple methods of price discovery and producer payments that balance providing producers incentive to participate and pay producers for measured outcomes. Some of our members participating in Eco-Harvest projects are paying producers an added incentive for practice changes. This is in addition to the base-level outcomes-based payments producers receive. Our current project payments include:  

  • A combination of incentive payments and outcomes payments. Some of the incentive payments take place of an impact unit payment then may provide ongoing payments for measured outcomes. 
  • Outcomes-based payments to producers once quantification and verification are achieved. 

ESMC will issue payments annually based on market prices. Producers participating in the Eco-Harvest market program will enroll for a 5-year payment period, with payments beginning in the year after the credits are generated. As an example, growers who enroll in 2023 will receive their first payments in early 2024, following the conclusion of the growing season. Producers participating in an Eco-Harvest pilot project will have the option of rolling their enrolled fields over into a scaled market project at the end of the 1–2-year pilot, after the identified research questions have been answered and market readiness criteria are achieved.  

Buyers will arrange individual contracts with sellers, or impact units may be sold in auctions. Some ecosystem services, such as water quality improvements, benefit specific local or regional contexts and communities, so the price will be determined by those localized stakeholders and buyers. Carbon and greenhouse gas markets, on the other hand, are not place-based; their price will be subject to broader market rates, and the pool of interested buyers will be much larger. ESMC uses a price floor of $15/metric tonne CO2e that producers must be notified of if buyer demand does not reach that level 

ESMC will take a per-unit cost recovery fee from ecosystem service outcomes transactions. ESMC’s fees will hold steady or even decrease as market volume grows, since ESMC is a non-profit and only needs to cover its operating expenses. 

ESMC will publish its fees to buyers and sellers. All fees will be deducted from transactions themselves.

ESMC will manage the ledger and execution of transactions. 

ESMC’s role in the market is important because even for an arranged sale, the impact units need to comply with all ESMC program requirements and standards, including assurance that producers’ impact units are not double-counted or sold to more than one buyer. 

ESMC’s standard scope 3 contracting period for the Eco-Harvest market program is 5 years. There is no minimum volume for producers. Producers’ outcomes are calculated annually over the course of a 5-year crediting period, which may be renewed for three additional 5-year contracts for a total of 20 years maximum participation. 

Producers participating in an Eco-Harvest pilot project will have the option of rolling their enrolled fields over into a scaled market project at the end of the 1–2-year pilot, after the identified research questions have been answered and market readiness criteria are achieved.  

How Producers Can Get Involved

Most producers will enroll in a project through an ESMC member or partner organization. ESMC will not have its own field staff, but instead will work through a network of trained ESMC Enrollment Specialists to guide producer participation in the program. 

Producer Eligibility

Whether producers are participating in Eco-Harvest market projects or pilot projects, the general steps are the same and include producer outreach, engagement and technical assistance to enable practice changes, enrollment, soil sampling, impact unit quantification and verification, generation, and sale, resulting in payments.

Market Project Eligibility

Producers interested in Eco-Harvest market project enrollment need to be:

  • Producers who are interested in adopting soil health systems and new conservation practices that benefit their agricultural operations while improving environmental impacts.  
  • Producers interested in implementing improvements that exceed minimum standards set by law.  
  • Producers who can provide proof of land use rights, including explicit authorization from the responsible agency for any rented fields on state or local-government owned land.  
  • Producers managing land that is not federally owned, has not been deforested or previously in natural areas in the past 10 years, and has not been converted from grassland to cropland in the past 10 years.  
  • Producers with fields that are not enrolled in another ecosystem service program that generates credits, offsets, or claims related to soil carbon sequestration and/or changes in GHGs.  
  • Producers operating within specific ESMC Program regions & production systems. Current Eco-Harvest market program regionsinclude the Corn and Soy Belt, Northern Great Plains, Southern Great Plains, and Great Lakes regions for corn, soy, wheat, alfalfa, and oats cropping systems. 
  • Producers who are newly implementing at least one of the following practice changes on a given crop: cover cropping, tillage reduction, and nutrient management. Producers are encouraged to enroll fields that are also eligible for federal, state, and local cost-share programs that incentivize conservation practice implementation. Check with your local NRCS office to see if there are incentives available in your area that can provide up-front financing to lower costs and increase returns.

*For Producers operating on newly acquired land who are not aware of prior land practices, remote sensing can be used to ensure cover crops or reduced tillage have not been used in the past 10 years.  

Edge of field practice changes are eligible for the ESMC program when they are implemented within or adjacent to a cropland field enrolled with one or more of the required practice changes above.  

Download Eco-Harvest Market Program eligibility information

Pilot Project Eligibility

The purpose of Eco-Harvest pilot projects is to test and refine processes and methodologies in accordance with the following objectives:  

  • Introduce innovation to Eco-Harvest program operations.  
  • Test and evaluate new tools, technologies, and practice changes.
  • Determine credit quantification processes for new crops, production regions, and practice changes. 
  • Improve cost efficiencies for soil sampling, data collection and processing, and other programmatic activities. 
  • Maintain and enhance scientific rigor of Eco-Harvest program operations. 
  • Incorporate feedback from pilot partners and members.  

Where possible, carbon, greenhouse gas, water quality, and water quantity outcomes are quantified for producers participating in Eco-Harvest pilot projects, and the impact units generated are stacked to provide increased value for both producers and buyers.

Eligibility: Producers interested in participating in an Eco-Harvest pilot project must be: 

  • Interested in adopting soil health systems and new conservation practices that benefit their agricultural operations while improving environmental impacts.  
  • Interested in implementing improvements that exceed minimum standards set by law.  
  • Able to provide proof of land use, including explicit authorization from the responsible agency for any rented fields on state or local-government owned land.  
  • Managing land that is not federally owned, has not been deforested or previously in natural areas in the past 10 years, and has not been converted from grassland to cropland in the past 10 years.  
  • Interested in enrolling fields that are not participating in another ecosystem service program that generates credits, offsets, or claims related to soil carbon sequestration and/or changes in greenhouse gas emissions.  
  • Newly implementing at least one of the following practice changes on cropland: cover cropping, tillage reduction, nutrient management, cropland grazing, prescribed grazing, conversion of cropland to grassland, irrigation water management (case by case), drainage water management, surface water management, or whole orchard recycling. Producers are encouraged to enroll fields that are also eligible for federal, state, and local cost-share programs that incentivize implementation of conservation practices. Check with your local NRCS office to learn if there are incentives available in your area that provide up-front financing to lower costs and increase returns. 

*For Producers operating on newly acquired land who are not aware of prior land practices, remote sensing can be used to ensure cover crops or reduced tillage have not been used in the past 10 years.  

Download Eco-Harvest Pilot Program eligibility information

To contact an ESMC staff person and express interest in enrolling, please complete the producer form here.

Production systems including conventional, regenerative, and organic, can participate in the Eco-Harvest program. Major row crops such as soy, corn, and grains are currently eligible. ESMRC is expanding its research program to include more commodities such as additional row crops, livestock, tree fruits and nuts and select specialty crops as well as additional production regions. Livestock operations that utilize forms of prescribed grazing (e.g., rotational grazing) and other regenerative practice changes are also eligible for the research program. Livestock operations that require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) are not eligible. 

The Eco-Harvest program is largely the same for farmers and ranchers, including producers who manage integrated cropland and livestock systems. The timeline for the reporting year, soil sampling, data collection, and the types of information needed for impact unit generation will differ slightly for cropland versus rangeland systems due to seasonality and the need to track crop yields versus number of cattle in a herd, for instance. Note that grazing systems are only eligible for Eco-Harvest pilot projects currently.

Producers do not need to enroll all their land. They can enroll as many fields under their management as are eligible. Producers generally cannot, however, enroll the same lands in Eco-Harvest that are also enrolled in another ecosystem service program that generates ecosystem service credits, offsets, assets, or claims. 

Producers who either own or lease their land are eligible to participate. Producers who do not own their land will need to demonstrate that they retain land use rights. This can be demonstrated through agreements between the producer and the landowner. ESMC can provide template agreements in this instance. Producers enrolling leased land will also need to demonstrate the time remaining in the lease or rental agreement. 

If enrolled land changes ownership or a producer gets a new property owner mid-contract, the producer will need to provide an updated agreement of landowner acknowledgement to demonstrate that they still have the land use rights necessary to generate and sell impact units. 

Eligibility for market participation varies by impact unit type and market. Market accounting standards in Scope 3 markets allow some flexibility for rewarding early adopters of conservation practices while ensuring the integrity of the ecosystem services generated. ESMC is working to maximize the opportunities for producer participation while maintaining standards for verification and certification. 

Practices Eligible for ESMC’s Market

ESMC is not developing new BMPs; we instead allow producers to decide which management systems are best for their businesses, goals, and circumstances, choosing from a list of widely recognized conservation management practices and industry standards. 

Eligible BMPs are those that ESMC has determined to be supported by peer reviewed studies and scientific demonstration sufficient to ensure they will lead to improvements in soil organic carbon, reductions in greenhouse gases, improvements in water quality, improvements in water use conservation or a combination of those actions. 

ESMC will generate impact units only for real outcomes achieved by the producer. If farmers fail to plant cover crops as planned during one year of the program, for instance, they may remain in the program. The beneficial environmental outcomes from that practice will simply not be realized for that year. Other impact units generated will still be recorded. 

Manure management has the potential to result in ecosystem service impact unit generation. The manure application timing and its incorporation into the soil also impact the potential for beneficial outcomes. ESMC recommends that producers consult with their preferred technical assistance provider to determine which approaches to manure management will work best for their business operations, and which management changes may result in the generation of ecosystem service impact units. 

Activities associated with livestock (such as rotational grazing) are currently eligible for Eco-Harvest pilot projects, as are practices associated with cropping systems that produce animal feed. ESMC is currently working to include other management practices associated with dairy operations and looks to include those in the program at a future date. 

Producers enrolled in Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) cost-share programs (or other NRCS programs that offer a producer payment) can also enroll in ecosystem services markets like ESMC. USDA cost-share programs are a beneficial form of complementary, up-front financing to aid in new conservation practice implementation. They may also enroll land that is enrolled in other state or local cost share programs. 

ESMC recognizes common agricultural practices referenced in NRCS Conservation Practice Standards. Non-NRCS recognized practices may also be used, provided that sufficient published scientific data and outcomes justify their use. Peer reviewed data is necessary to ensure ESMC’s quantification tools can be properly calibrated and validated for a given practice. 

Participant Support

ESMC does not provide practice-specific conservation technical assistance as partner organizations are better positioned to advise farmers and ranchers on which land management practices are best for their operations, goals, and circumstances. ESMC is working with members and collaborators to ensure that producers have the agronomic and technical support they need to participate in Eco-Harvest. 

Impact Unit Generation

ESMC-trained contractors will follow ESMC soil sampling and lab analysis protocols for measuring soil organic carbon, bulk density, pH and phosphorus. Soil carbon measurement protocols differ from normal agronomic sampling protocols. A 2” diameter core to a depth of 30 cm (about 12 inches) in the soil profile is required. Soil sampling locations and density are determined at a field scale through the ESMC Stratification App. Sampling density requirements are likely to be reduced over time, particularly for Scope 3 projects, depending on the outcomes of our pilots, research, demonstration projects, and the protocol refinement process. 

Measurement, Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MMRV) describes the key steps necessary to quantify ecosystem services and sell them as impact units. ESMC’s Eco-Harvest is designed to ensure that these steps are as efficient, streamlined, and seamless as possible for both buyers and sellers. 

Measurement refers to the information gathered from, and self-certified by, the producer. This includes information related to crop and livestock management (e.g., crop rotation; fertilizer use; number of days the herd grazed in a particular field; crop yield) as well as ongoing program eligibility (e.g., whether producers continue to implement conservation practices as planned, and whether the land has changed ownership over the previous year). 

Reporting includes compiling the management and project eligibility information for use in both quantifying ecosystem services generated, and for ease of checking the accuracy of this information for verification. 

Verification is the process of confirming that the information is complete and accurately represents what happened on the ground so that the impact units can be generated, certified, and sold. 

ESMC takes data privacy and producer information seriously. As stated in the ESMC Producer Privacy Policy, producers’ individual personal information, e-mail address, field and management data, and modeling results will be kept secure and confidential until and unless the producer provides explicit permission for that information to be shared. ESMC staff and contractors are bound by a Data Usage Agreement and are only allowed access to information necessary to generate impact units. ESMC will not share or sell any producer information with any third party unless producers specifically agree to a data-sharing option. All producer data is owned by the producer not ESMC.  

The producer will be held accountable for intentional reversals of soil organic carbon gains. If producers have received payments for soil carbon sequestered, for instance, and then intentionally till that soil and release the carbon, they may be responsible for either sequestering that carbon again through the rest of the contract or paying back the ecosystem service payments already received. Unintentional reversals due to natural causes are not a producer liability. 

ESMC imposes no enrollment fees and requires no purchase of any agricultural products or services to participate. Conservation practices that result in ecosystem service outcomes typically come with operational costs to the producer. These may include the cost of cover crop seed, new planting or cultivation equipment, different labor requirements, etc. Some of the expense of implementing different conservation practices may be eligible for NRCS or state cost-share programs. Producers are encouraged to consider such programs to help offset costs of these conservation practices. Improvements in soil health provide benefits to producers, such as increased resilience to extreme weather events, increased soil fertility and productivity, improved water holding capacity, and reduced need for purchased inputs, all of which can reduce operating costs and increase profits. 

Soil sampling costs will be incorporated into ESMC operating costs. ESMC or Eco-Harvest project partners incur the cost of soil sampling and analysis, monitoring, reporting, and verification. As a non-profit, ESMC will not charge more than is required to cover the expenses associated with generating the ecosystem service outcomes for producers. 

Science Supporting ESMC’s Program

The validation of ESMC’s quantification approaches is based on peer reviewed research specific to each of the 12 program regions. This ensures that model performance is informed by data and scientific demonstration for each of the conservation practices and production systems present in each ESMC program region. These program regions were defined based on shared agroecological zones and characteristics. 

ESMC is committed to using strong, peer reviewed science when developing protocols and quantification techniques to provide confidence and trust to both sellers and buyers of agricultural ecosystem services. The market program is both science- and outcomes-based, following International Standards Organization (ISO) approaches for protocol development. ESMC’s program, protocols and resulting impact units are aligned with the relevant standards for each market, such as the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol guidance for the Scope 3 corporate reporting market. 

ESMC relies on the latest available knowledge and technologies to quantify the recognized ecosystem service benefits resulting from conservation practices. For carbon, GHG, and compliance-grade water impact units, process-based models are used to quantify the dynamic biogeochemical and hydrological interactions that occur within agricultural soils and systems. The models are validated on a region-by-region and production system-specific basis to account for the different agronomic and ecological systems of the continental United States. The models were originally developed at public land-grant universities and have been used in hundreds of peer reviewed studies. 

ESMC’s Eco-Harvest ecosystem services market program is science-based, outcomes-based and creates Scope 3 (supply chain) impact units from agricultural farm and ranch operations.

On-farm greenhouse gas reductions and removals generated by ESMC’s Eco-Harvest program, prior to sale and purchase by corporations to help meet their annual scope 3 accounting and reporting requirements, are fully validated and verified through global 3rd party SustainCERT. SustainCERT, like all independent third-party carbon and ecosystem services market program registries, requires program transparency of the validation and verification of our program and outcomes, and all public-facing protocol documents are posted as required on SustainCERT’s website.

Additionally, ESMC’s protocol summary is available on our website.

© 2023 Ecosystem Services Market Consortium

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?