Posts

The Essential Element: Carbon is Key to Life and Hope

News Item: Here’s a fascinating story from Politico this week about the shifting attitude among farmers and ranchers toward regenerative agriculture as the effects of climate change become increasingly troublesome. It demonstrates how fast things are changing! (see)

In the previous issues, I discussed the promise of regenerative agriculture, overcoming entrenched beliefs, and working collaboratively in the radical center. In this issue, I’ll discuss the essential element needed to do all these things: carbon. Understanding carbon’s role as part of a natural, planet-wide cycle is the key to hope, in my opinion.

Carbon is the most important element on Earth and the best way to explain its significance is with the terribly essential carbon cycle. The trouble is whenever I see the word ‘cycle’ my eyes start to glaze over. It doesn’t matter if it is the water, mineral, energy, nutrient, or some other cycle critical to our existence, for some reason my attention begins to wander the instant I see the word.

KEEP READING ON RESILIENCE

How Biochar Is Triggering a New Industrial Revolution

In this interview, Albert Bates, director of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology and author of “Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth,” discusses how biochar can transform agriculture while simultaneously normalize our climate.

Biochar also has a wide range of other industrial uses that can allow us to radically reduce carbon in our atmosphere. Many believe climate change is a fabrication concocted by political scientists with a vested interest.

But the reality is, we have changed our world with pollution and destructive agricultural practices that are devastating the ecosystem and influencing our global weather patterns. The good news is, adding biochar to soil and building materials of all kinds is a simple and inexpensive strategy that can remediate much of this damage.

 

Moments of Revelation

Bates began his investigation into this issue while working as an attorney. He explains:

“I was doing environmental law and represented a group of plaintiffs who were suing a chemical company for polluting a local water supply … an aquifer, which is federally protected. It was kind of a slam-dunk case.

 

KEEP READING ON MERCOLA

Soil: The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change

Agriculture is on the front lines of climate change.  Whether it’s the seven-year drought drying up fields in California, the devastating Midwest flooding in 2019, or hurricane after hurricane hitting the Eastern Shore, agriculture and rural communities are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Scientists expect climate change to make these extreme weather events both more frequent and more intense in coming years.

Agriculture is also an important—in fact a necessarypartner in fighting climate change.  The science is clear: We cannot stay beneath the most dangerous climate thresholds without sequestering a significant amount of carbon in our soils.

Agricultural soils have the potential to sequester, relatively inexpensively, 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gasses annually—equivalent to the annual emissions of 64 coal fired power plants, according to National Academy of Sciences.

But we can’t get there without engaging farmers, turning a source of emissions into a carbon sink.

KEEP READING ON NRDC

 

Saving Oklahoma’s Prairies, a Vital Weapon Against Climate Change

PAWHUSKA, Okla. — The late October morning is so bitterly cold that the vaccine a hardy Oklahoman cowboy is trying to administer to an impatient bison has frozen.

The rancher, Harvey Payne, tries to defrost the liquid against a small heater pumping out hot air in the office that faces the corral, but it’s not working.

“We’ll have to head back in for a couple of hours and wait for the sun to warm up,” Payne says as he squints at the sun rising above the tallgrass prairie. “Can’t vaccinate bison with frozen antibiotics.”

The group that’s gathered at the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve trudges back to headquarters to wait until the temperature rises.

Oklahoma’s 39,650-acre preserve is the world’s biggest protected remnant of a massive grassland ecosystem that once stretched across 14 states, covering 170 million acres. But the grassland has been decimated, and only about 4 percent of the ecosystem remains, most of which is contained in the preserve in Osage County, home to the Native American Osage Nation.

KEEP READING ON NBC NEWS

How to Save the World: Turning a Big Negative into a Big Positive

Whenever speaking at a conference, I would often get the same anguished question from an audience member: what’s the one thing I can do to save the world?

My answer for many years was a recommendation to vote with your pocketbook for local farms and ranches that provided grassfed food, improved their soil health, reduced their carbon footprints, employed predator-friendly practices, were holistically-managed, or did environmental restoration work on their land.

Starting in 2009, however, my answer became much simpler. That’s because I had become aware of the links between land use and climate change via a report from the Worldwatch Institute (see) that changed my life. If you have a chance, take a look at this publication – it’s still totally relevant.

Normally, healthy soils have a healthy fraction of carbon in them (6-8% typically). When land is disturbed or degraded, however, much of that carbon leaves the soil and enters the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

KEEP READING ON RESILIENCE

Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet

The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

Now scientists are documenting how sequestering carbon in soil can produce a double dividend: It reduces climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields. Many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm shift in agriculture, triggering the abandonment of conventional practices like tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and blanket use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide.

 

KEEP READING ON THE NEW YORK TIMES

Can Farmers and Ranchers Pull One Trillion Tons of Carbon Dioxide out of the Atmosphere?

The short answer is yes, they can.

First, a little background: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been rising significantly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In May, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported an average monthly level of carbon dioxide above 415 ppm, the highest concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide in millions of years (I,II). This accumulation represents an additional 135 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, which equates to one trillion tons* of carbon dioxide, or one teraton (III). **

To avoid the harshest effects of these additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we must reduce current emissions – but even that will not be enough. Even if all countries meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement, and all companies meet their individual commitments, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will continue to climb, reaching an estimated 580 ppm by the end of the century (IV). This uncertain future cannot be averted with a business-as-usual mindset, nor a middle of the road effort. Drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide is necessary to begin undoing the damage.
KEEP READING ON INDIGO

Farmers Could Help Solve the Climate Crisis—we Just Don’t Invest in Them

When the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) land use report was released by the United Nations in 2000, cities like Copenhagen and countries like Costa Rica did not have public decrees to become carbon neutral.

You couldn’t yet offset your Lyft ride by a nominal fee, because there was no such thing as Lyft, or such a thing as mobile applications – at least not as we understand them today. And Tesla, the first company to offer a fleet of luxury electric cars, would not be founded for another three years.

As societies, our climate perspectives have changed considerably since then, when a UN climate report was more or less a stand-alone warning. Now the world watches as students walk out of classrooms en masse, calling for better climate policies. Narratives like An Inconvenient TruthDrawdown, and Six Degrees have made their way into popular discourse.

KEEP READING ON QUARTZ

The Solution to Climate Change Is Just below Our Feet

Adam Chappell was in the fight of his life. He and his brother were co-managing the 9,000-acre farm where they grew up in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. They’d each gone off to college to do something different, but couldn’t stay away. Now an invasion of pigweed was threatening to destroy everything.

“We were spraying ourselves broke just to fight this weed,” Chappell says. “We were spending more money than we could ever hope to make. So for the farm to survive, we knew we had to change the entire way we were doing things.”

Chappell turned to YouTube, where he found a guy growing organic pumpkins in a cereal rye cover crop, and was awestruck by the clean, wide rows. “He hadn’t put any herbicides down; all the weed control in that field was the cover crop,” he says. That fall, the Chappell brothers planted cereal rye with their cotton and soybeans, and they kept the farm.

KEEP READING ON NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The Key to Saving Family Farms Is in the Soil

Would it sound too good to be true if I was to say that there was a simple, profitable and underused agricultural method to help feed everybody, cool the planet, and revitalize rural America? I used to think so, until I started visiting farmers who are restoring fertility to their land, stashing a lot of carbon in their soil, and returning healthy profitability to family farms. Now I’ve come to see how restoring soil health would prove as good for farmers and rural economies as it would for the environment.

Over the past several years, I drove through small towns from Ohio to the Dakotas visiting farmers to research Growing A Revolution, my book about restoring soil fertility through regenerative farming practices. Along the way, I saw a microcosm of the national economy in which run-down farms and hollowed-out towns stood in stark contrast to farms and communities thriving with renewed vitality.

These revitalized farms came in all sizes—hand-worked three-acre vegetable farms to horizon-spanning ranches where enormous remote-controlled contraptions seemingly cast out of Star Wars seeded and harvested fields with GPS-guided precision. Yet it was not size or technology that distinguished these places, but how they worked the land.

After the Second World War, an expanded reliance on chemicals boosted the yields from soils degraded during decades of intensive farming. At the same time, American farmers increasingly specialized in and became very good at growing a large amount of a small selection of crops. This newfound bounty manifest as a surplus of corn, wheat, and other agricultural commodities. Over time, this drove down the price farmers got for their harvest as the cost of fertilizer, diesel, and pesticides rose—squeezing farmers in the middle.

From 1960 to 1970 corn prices rose from just over $1 to $2 a bushel—the equivalent of about $8 in inflation adjusted dollars today. In 2019, however, corn prices have stayed around $4 a bushel, so farmers are getting half of the real income for growing the same harvest as they did when we put a man on the Moon. At the same time the inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of oil tripled from about $20 in 1970 to more than $60 today. Over the same period, global fertilizer prices roughly doubled. Today’s conventional farmers spend a lot more to grow crops they can sell for far less than their grandparents did.

The mantra became “get big or get out” as the average size of American farms grew. The number of farms declined as smaller ones were consolidated or went out of business. Small towns struggled to retain people, and economic vitality declined in rural areas as a smaller population supported fewer services and local businesses. Driving through America’s heartland today, it’s hard to miss the fallout: shuttered stores, closed restaurants, and half-vacant mini-malls.

Interviewing farmers who had already improved their soil, I found hope that we might turn around this almost century-long trend and economically revitalize rural America. Their practices not only restored soil health, but returned profitability to family farms in the span of a few years, as opposed to the decades you would expect.

If we restore soil health and save farmers substantial input costs, we can restore smaller farms as a means to a secure living and revive the economic viability of farming communities across small town America.

So how did those farmers do it?

The successful regenerative farmers I visited all combined three unconventional practices that cultivate beneficial soil life: They parked their plows, planted cover crops, and grew complex crop rotations. Some also reintroduced livestock to their fields, employing a shifting mosaic of single-wire electric fences to frequently move cattle and implement regenerative grazing methods. These farmers were rethinking how they saw and treated their land.

This combination of unconventional practices—no till, cover crops, and complex rotations—allowed farmers to use far less fertilizer, pesticide, and diesel to grow and harvest as much, if not more, than they did growing one or two crops under conventional farming practices. At conferences, other farmers related how it took just a couple of years for this new farming system to rebuild soil fertility enough to become more profitable than neighboring conventional farms. From then on, these regenerative farmers spent less money to grow more, a surefire recipe for a better bottom line.

Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil.I could see the difference around the countryside. In parts of the Dakotas where no-till and cover crops had been widely adopted, the landscape was dotted with new grain silos and barns. Shiny new pickup trucks streamed by on the roads. But in counties where black dirt fields still marred the view, things looked worn down and worn out, and topsoil blew across the highway. In Kansas, I was struck by the contrast between bright, well-maintained equipment dealerships in counties that had gone no-till, and sad lots of rusting gear in those counties still hitched to the plow.

Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil. By making smaller farms profitable once again, it could bring more people back to the land and thereby boost the economy in small towns across America.

You don’t have to take my word for all this.

These points are backed up by a recent paper by Claire LaCanne and Jonathan Lundgren who compared regenerative and conventional corn fields on 20 farms in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota. They ranked farms from most regenerative to most conventional based on whether farmers tilled, planted cover crops, used insecticides or other pesticides, and let cattle graze off cover crops and crop stubble. They then divided them into two groups of fields: regenerative fields that were not tilled, received no insecticides, and included livestock grazing; and conventional fields that were tilled at least annually, regularly received insecticides, and had bare soil in between cash crops.

For each field, LaCanne and Lundgren measured the amount of organic matter in the soil, pest insect populations, corn yield, expenses, and profit. What they found directly contradicts key tenets of conventional agriculture. They found that pest insects (such as corn rootworms, European corn borers, Western bean cutworm, other caterpillars, and aphids) were 10 times as abundant on conventional farms that used insecticides than on farms that relied on regenerative, pest-resilient cropping systems with no insecticides. The lower pest abundance in regenerative fields was likely due to competition from greater insect diversity, and because insecticide use kills predatory insects (like ladybugs) capable of keeping pests in check. This becomes a problem because pest populations rebound before their predators.

The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. LaCanne and Lundgren also found that regenerative corn fields were almost twice as profitable as conventionally managed corn fields due to lower seed and fertilizer costs, a price premium if the crops are organic, and the added value of cover crop grazing for meat production on the regenerative fields. The profitability was unrelated to grain yield, but positively correlated with soil organic matter. In other words, restoring soil paved the way to restoring farm profitability. A profitable farm was less about how much the farmer grew and more about how they treated their soil.

Other studies have also found higher economic returns from adding cover crops to no-till systems in order to improve soil health. One example comes from a four-year study of the economic impacts of cover crops conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research on a farm in northwestern Missouri. Over the course of the study, cover crops averaged a positive return of $16 per acre among all fields, and reached up to $100 an acre in some places. The cost of cover crop seeds and planting was more than offset by lowering fertilizer costs by up to $50 per acre, increasing corn yields from 120 bushels to 153 bushels per acre, and raising soybean yields from 38 bushels to 52 bushels per acre.

Such results are not an anomaly. In 2019, the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released a report on cover crop economics based on data from several hundred farms that concluded cover crops generally provide a positive return within three years and that profit margins continued to grow for at least seven years. Corn and soybean yields were consistently higher in cover cropped fields, especially in drought years. Such examples show that spending less to grow more is a winning combination for farmers.

Whether on large commodity crop operations or on small boutique farmsteads supplying farmers markets and restaurants, the key to a more profitable farm lay in the health of the soil. And we need more small farms near cities to provide fresh foods and vegetables, much as we need regenerative grain and dairy and grazing farther afield. Bringing life back to the soil can help farm profitability across America’s rural landscapes. It’s time to reverse and revise the “get big or get out” mentality to “get small and get back in.” Restoring the soil on smaller, more profitable farms holds the key to restoring rural communities.

The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. But since the American Revolution, our nation’s soils have lost half their organic matter—half their natural fertility. Policies that promote efforts to rebuild healthy soils offer fertile ground to help restore prosperity to family farms and farming communities. Reinvesting in our soils is a natural infrastructure program, a sound investment in the foundation and future of America. This would not only put a lot of carbon in the ground, it would reduce the environmental damage from agrochemical use and help bring life back to the land and rural communities. Having more people on the land isn’t the problem, it’s the solution.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams