The Agriculture of Hope: Climate Farmers of North America

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Authors: Seth Itzkan, Karl Thidemann, and Steven Keleti | Published: September 18, 2017

A new and growing movement is inspiring farmers to produce food in a manner that can mitigate and even help reverse global warming. We call this “climate farming, the agriculture of hope.”

At the core of this movement is the understanding that soil health and climate stability are closely linked. The condition of one impacts the other. In the atmosphere, carbon exists as carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas warming the planet. But in plants, carbon forms a sugary liquid (like maple sap) that is exuded through the roots and gobbled up by microscopic critters at the foundation of what soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham calls the “Soil Food Web.” This infusion of carbon and the microbial activity it supports gives structure to soil, improves the nutrient density of food, and, perhaps most importantly, increases soil’s capacity to hold water.

Working to put more carbon into the soil, the climate farmer is thereby enhancing the productivity of soil while contributing to the long- term welfare of the planet. Regenerative farmer Jesse McDougall, of Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, shares, “Carbon is the world’s best fertilizer. Our goal in farming is to pass on to the next generation land that is outrageously fertile.”

Photosynthesis is nature’s invention for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and giving it to plants and soils. Respiration and decay then return the carbon to the air. In a natural state, this exchange is in balance. However, as soil is degraded through industrial farming practices, including plowing and the use of fossil fuel- intensive fertilizers, more carbon is released to the air than is absorbed in the soil. Fortunately, this process can be reversed. Soil can be a carbon sink. There are many methods to achieve soil carbon sequestration.

Courageous climate farmers are at the forefront of experimentation. Cover crops and no-till farming are recognized as core methodologies for improving soil health, and thus, improving carbon content. Organic farmer Kate Duesterberg states, “We have a pretty hard- and-fast rule to never allow bare soil after harvest. To the extent possible, we always have a cover crop. We are also experimenting with no-till farming.”

For grazing operations, mixed species, bunched herding, and well-timed animal movement are helpful approaches to aid in carbon sequestration. According to McDougall, “We chose to raise animals here for their amazing natural ability to revitalize the soil under their feet. The chickens, turkeys, and sheep that move through our rolling pastures every day are the central component of our regenerative farming practices. The animals, when allowed to act naturally in nature, restart the downward swing of the carbon cycle.” Improving the soil enables the grass to sequester more carbon, explains McDougall, who concludes, “It’s a food-producing,
carbon-sequestering, positive- feedback loop.”

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