Written by Ellen Farmer,  Photo by Joana Ogorek

Courtney Lindhorst.WakingBear, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery
Courtney Lindhorst.WakingBear, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery

Nobody was more surprised than me about the direction my research took for this article.

I have been focusing on balancing soil biology as a healthy environment for nutritious plants for the last several years.

I’ve found excellent new books guiding farmers and gardeners to radically change the way they manage food production. This article is not about the food system, however – it goes a little deeper.

There is an intelligence in soil much like the intelligence of our own bodies where trillions of cells work together to be a person. This includes human cells as well as communities of microbes that colonize each one of us. Soil matter is also full of colonies of microbes.

How do those microbes do their jobs? And exactly what jobs are they responsible for? When you start looking at the ground formerly known as dirt this way, everything changes.

You have to ask yourself: is our built environment – freeways, parking lots, skyscrapers, industrial parks, factory farms, and the economy embedded in it -- capable of sustaining life for the long haul? Or is our soil, much like human skin, a living breathing membrane needing our continuous care, appreciation and understanding?

And if we learn the secrets of the soil, can we begin to work in concert with its capacity to provide balance for the biosphere and cool the planet down?

Dilka Bear Death is Not the End, Courtesy of Arch Enemy Gallery
Dilka Bear Death is Not the End, Courtesy of Arch Enemy Gallery

Is it possible that this expertise is coming to us right on time?

Because it’s only within the last 5 years that we humans have had the special DNA scanning techniques to map specific colonies of bacteria and fungi in the rhizosphere** (the root zone), and prove their enormous potential for soil health as well as sequestering carbon.

The earth we have been walking around on all our lives ideally performs in concert with the air we breathe to balance CO2 carbon emissions.

People have been worrying about how much CO2 we pump into the air via transportation and industry without paying enough attention to how we can help get it back into the ground.

A dramatic change is at hand as various branches of science, business, government, and non-profits collaborate and re-discover the rapid carbon cycle.

“Keep it in the ground!” say the protestors trying to dismantle the world’s coal and oil industry. Their work is critical. But there’s more to it than that. And the big surprise – we can all participate pretty easily by changing our ways of soil stewardship.

It’s not just dinosaur bones and fossils that are important.

Although it’s interesting to imagine their contribution to our modern world, it is quickly becoming just as exciting to get to know the tiny microorganisms responsible for re-capturing carbon in the first few inches of soil right now.

CarlyJanine Mazur-Dream-Predation, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery
CarlyJanine Mazur-Dream-Predation, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery

Soil is an amazing world of hungry creatures that must be fed with carbon that plants take from the air. The plants, through the photosynthesis** process in their leaves and solar energy, take CO2 from the air and make food (sugars, carbohydrates) and these sugars are transported to the roots where they feed the microbial communities.

“Microbes in the ground upload the majority of the nutrients a plant needs. Plants give microbes sugar in exchange for nutrients and minerals. The microbes are not being altruistic. They upload the nutrients so the plants will be healthier and grow bigger and give them more sugar. Nature is so abundant and self-serving at the same time,” explains David Rose, an entrepreneur from JustOneOrganics.com who wants to rebuild the world’s agricultural economy based on these principles.

-- David Rose

Rancher Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, introduced to the world when Michael Pollan made him famous in Omnivore’s Dilemma a decade ago, preaches this: “We practice mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization with the cattle. The Eggmobiles follow them, mimicking egrets on the rhinos’ nose.”**

When the grasses are pruned by the herbivores, some of their roots die and become carbon in the soil. And it stays there in the ground if managed properly, with sequestering carbon in mind. You have to move the herds around, using electric fencing. And what about those of us who don’t want to raise farm animals? We participate by purchasing only grassfed meats and poultry. It’s that simple.

Grass Fed Chianina Cattle, Photo Credit" Judith Klinger
Grass Fed Chianina Cattle, Photo Credit" Judith Klinger

Never ever get taken in by the moniker “corn-fed beef” again.

With grassfed systems, you won’t have to use up your good soil growing feed for animals or cut down your rain forest to make more pasture.

There is definitely a balance to be maintained, and that can happen on the farm or ranch and also in the larger society by making sustainable land management public policy. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is concerned with the effect of agriculture on climate change, the impact of climate change on agriculture and with the role that agriculture can play in mitigating climate change. Historically, land-use conversion and soil cultivation have been an important source of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere. It is estimated that they [agriculture and forestry combined] are responsible for about one-third of GHG emissions.

Tilling soil releases carbon, and tilling is how agriculture has usually been done, whether with oxen, hand plows, or giant tractors. Animals also release methane, a secondary greenhouse gas.

“Of the 400,000 people who hit the NYC streets in September, 2014 in the Peoples’ Climate March, about 98 percent of them are likely convinced that beef production is inherently a potent contributor to climate change.”

“When considering intensive corn production and deforestation for grazing land, they make a strong case. So for them, it is especially counterintuitive that Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing actually could be a great climate solution that produces healthy food, clean water and vibrant ecosystems.”

“There are 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land on earth. If — and this is a big if — we could store just one ton of additional carbon per hectare annually over all 3.5 billion hectares, then we would be able to draw down just about the same amount of carbon we emit each year that doesn’t get absorbed by the oceans, trees, plants and soils — nearly cancelling out the leftover carbon that’s causing climate change,” Peter Byck, professor at Arizona State University and maker of theys film Soil Carbon Cowboys.

Longhorn, Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith
Longhorn, Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith

Many other respected voices are turning their attention downward.

Our biggest surprise was soil,” says Paul Hawken, describing his new collaborative, Project Drawdown at the Bioneers conference in October.

The goal of the project is to compile a list of the 100 most promising tactics for reversing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and then keep track of the data, measuring their effects to accurately show human beings that we’re not doomed.

It’s optimistic and practical at the same time, and just the antidote us 7+ billion souls need to come out of the apocalypse mentality that is fueling our bad behavior (i.e., fiddling while Rome burns).

Pope Francis threw down the gauntlet, and Project Drawdown researchers, among others, have picked it up and are running with it in a grand relay race of elegant solutions, at least 10 percent of which include stewarding soil.

The list includes No-Till Farming, Carbon Farming, Vertical Farming, Reforestation, Pasture Cropping, AgroForestry, Rotational Growing, Carbon Grazing, Silvograzing, and Food Forests.

Especially smitten with these ideas is John Wick, a rancher and co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project, a consortium of the leading agricultural institutions and producers in Marin County, California. For more than 10 years they have worked successfully with university researchers, county and federal agencies, and nonprofit organizations seeking to understand and demonstrate the potential of enhanced carbon sequestration in Marin’s agricultural and rangelands soils. Now they are broadcasting their findings.

Wick’s happiness is strengthened by the knowledge that common sense changes to public policy will not only make it easy for ranchers to switch to sustainable grazing but create myriad satisfying jobs off the ranch as we transform the way we manage public lands we have been ignoring.

Allan Savory has been preaching solutions to desertification in Africa and the U.S. for decades, hanging around long enough to get the audience he deserves via Ted Talks and the internet.

When I first realized that we had no option as scientists but to use much vilified livestock to address climate change and desertification, I was faced with a real dilemma — how were we to do it?-- Allan Savory

And I feel the same way – can we quickly convince enough land managers everywhere to turn their greenspace into pasture for livestock? How is this going to come about on a scale large enough to reverse climate change? Savory eventually developed Holistic Management and planned grazing, which is being adopted rapidly in many countries and communities.
Another exemplar is Peter Donavan of the Soil Carbon Coalition, who has been driving from ranch to farm, living in a school bus, building momentum.

“The mother of all ecosystem services, that we influence by our decisions, is the fast biological carbon cycle. This process does 8 times the work (force times distance) of all industrial energy used by humans—and is deeply influenced by our decision making,”-- Peter Donovan

Laura Lengnick, author of Resilient Agriculture, explains that farmers and ranchers are on the front line of noticing differences caused by climate change. Because of their need to adapt to changing weather patterns, they are in a good position to take practical steps toward a balanced approach to land stewardship.

Rebecca Thisthlethwaite, sustainability consultant and farmer, amplifies this message on her blog in late October:

“An agriculture that causes widespread environmental crises or degrades human health is not resilient, no matter how economically successful or how much food is produced, making its profitability and productivity irrelevant.”--Rebecca Thistlethwaite

I had never thought of it that way before. So, we need to step back from individual backyard gardens, back from large organic farms, back from the food system as we know it, including our image of farm animals, to get the picture. This is a dizzying ride, like taking a rocket to the moon!

Naoto Hattori, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery
Naoto Hattori, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery

And yet, the moon, or Mars, is what we’re trying to avoid.

If you saw “The Martian,” you probably teared up like I did when Matt Damon’s character enjoyed the success of his potato crop. His brilliant secret? Excrement. Poop. Shit. That gross, yucky-smelling, personal product we’d rather flush down the toilet than think about. We’re wasting our most useful waste product! (You have my permission to spread this around!)

I recently had this underscored in a Permaculture Design Course. The first two days were spent de-sensitizing us students to poop (or cacacita, as we called it in Spanish). By the third day of the course, I was planning to build a little dry composting toilet in my back yard and invite my neighbors to use it whenever they felt like it. We won’t even charge money because what they deposit will be far more valuable to my garden than any fertilizer I could buy at the gardening store. My neighbors would save me money, save water in drought-stricken California, and learn an important lesson in the role of humans on planet Earth.

But I digress. Let’s get back to those microbes for a minute and describe the new things we know about the soil microbiome.

U.S. Department of Agriculture plant pathologist, Dr. Mark Mazzola, has introduced metagenome analysis (DNA sequencing) to identify the microorganisms in the rhizosphere** (including the roots and attached soil) of apple orchards in Washington State, for example. He was called to this work in 1995 to help apple growers prevent replant disease.

Before pulling out an orchard and planting a new one, apple growers are generally advised to fumigate the soil [with potentially dangerous and polluting synthetic chemicals] to prevent replant disease, according to Geraldine Warner of Good Fruit Grower magazine.

Mazzola’s research trials over the years began to point to a method of reorganizing the soil’s microorganisms by introducing a combination of yellow and white mustard seed meals into the soil and adding water to stimulate a “wasabi” reaction, controlling the most virulent pathogens as well as lesion nematodes.

The breakthrough here is that synthetic chemical fumigation only works for one year with the soil colonies reverting right back to the replant disease populations, while mustard seed meal ends up serving as a food to strengthen communities of beneficial microbes for years to come.

Photo Credit: Bron Marshall
Photo Credit: Bron Marshall

Mazzola’s neighbor, Janet Jansson, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richmond, Washington is also using DNA sequencing to inform her work and collaborate with ranchers.

She and her colleagues hope to build computer models that will illustrate what microbial activity a given environmental change might create, as well as the expected results of that activity. Such models could help environmental planners cultivate microbial mixes that achieve a desired end — which could be soil that locks up gigatons of atmospheric carbon.

In cultivated areas of the Great Prairie, farmers might choose fertilizers that preserve natural microbial diversity, yielding plentiful food crops and maximizing carbon capture from the atmosphere.

One management technique that does not involve animals is No-Till Farming, a strange looking, but benevolent way to treat farm soil.

It looks strange to farmers because you plant seeds directly into mowed cover crop. Water retention is increased dramatically during droughts. And no-till fields are much better able to handle heavy rains, reducing the amount of run-off and flooding.

We can understand why 2015 was the International Year of Soils when we hear big idea people like David Rose saying:

“Soil is the gateway to pulling enough carbon out of the air to reverse climate change. Farmers are the new environmental heroes.”-- David Rose

Recommended Books:
Kleppel, Gary, The Emergent Agriculture
Lengnick, Laura Resilient Agriculture
Miller, Daphne, M.D., Farmacology
Salatin, Joel, all titles at www.polyfacefarm.com/books-dvds/
Shepherd, Mark, Restorative Agriculture
Thistlethwaite, Rebecca, Farms with a Future

Ellen Farmer is a freelance writer with a feral curiosity. She has published articles on the topics of organic farming, Cuban music, women’s basketball, world coffee production, alternative housing models, and more, and enjoys the act of creating poetry. She currently works at Farm Fuel Inc., a small research and development start-up dedicated to providing alternatives to petroleum-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides. You can find her at Collaborative Ventures, [email protected]

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