A wonderful, long piece in the April 18, 2018 New York Times Magazine explains how changing land and agricultural management can “sip carbon from the air” and put it back in the soil — improving soil health and a farmer’s profit margin, while mitigating climate change.
“Can Dirt Save the Earth?” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff starts with the circuitous path John Wick and Peggy Rathman took in improving the health of their dry, coastal California rangeland. Righteous goals produced unwelcomed, unanticipated negative outcomes, starting the couple on a quest that led years later, after a lot of trial and error and science, to the formation of the influential Marin Carbon Project.
The journey described in the Times piece includes stops around the country, recounting efforts by other farmers and ranchers to capture carbon in the soil. The remarkable soil carbon-building benefits of Gabe Brown’s system are described, as is the success story that unfolded as a Kansas farmer decided to apply Brown’s principles on his row-crop and small grain farm.
Velasquez-Manoff did not make it to my neck of the woods in Oregon’s Wallowa County, a hot-bed of grassfed beef, pork, poultry operations. If he had, he would have heard about the Carman Ranch’s heritage pigs and their unique contribution to the ranch’s ongoing efforts to sequester soil carbon.
Farmers Leading the Way
Virtually all the pioneers who are now well along the path to carbon-rich soils are farmers. Each started experimenting with ways to sequester carbon in soil because of clear signs things were not working out well with how land had been managed in the past. Valuable lessons captured in often-obscure science on natural rangeland systems began to surface, and a new generation of scientists started applying modern research tools and rigor to the basic science of soil health. We have featured some of this new soil science here on Hygeia, including Molly Jahn’s excellent essay and how some farmers are using cover crops to transform row-crop agriculture and reverse decades of soil decline from industrial ag.
No one knows for sure how big of a difference a national, or better yet, global effort to promote soil health-carbon sequestration might make relative to climate change mitigation.
“Can Dirt Save the Earth?” pays homage to the skeptics, but fortunately does not allow them to undermine the key message — changing how crop and rangeland is managed can make a big difference, and is a classic win-win-win. Healthier soils, more profitable farms and ranches, cleaner water, less net carbon loss and climate change.
The good news is that more and more people “get it” and have started to act. The bad news is the movement must progress in the face of a generally hostile policy environment designed to prop up today’s failing tillage, row-crop-centric, and chemical-based farming systems.
So what’s the next step?
A gazzilion bigger, better straws, a lot less Roundup, and two blades of grass where one used to grow.
Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Can Dirt Save the Earth?”, New York Times Sunday Magazine, April 18, 2018