Win-Win Solution for Agriculture
Jun 11, 2018 12:00AM
Regenerative agriculture is a movement taking root in Maryland soil
If you haven’t heard about the extraordinary potential of “regenerative agriculture” to naturally capture a critical mass of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and return it to where it is needed— the soil and forests—and, therefore, assist a reversal of global climate change, you will now. This is, above all, a movement of optimism.
The documentary Soil Solutions to Climate Problems narrated by Michael Pollan states very simply: “Our soil is in dire shape and the loss is being accelerated...but there is a lot more to the story. When soil is damaged, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and this has had serious consequences for the climate. Too much carbon in the atmosphere is causing the earth to overheat. Meanwhile, there is not enough carbon where it once was, in the soil.
“But there is actually some good news. We now know how to put carbon back into the soil where it belongs! Plants capture CO2 in their leaves. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon—a problem—becomes soil carbon—a solution. Practices like keeping soil covered with plants, increasing crop diversity, composting, and carefully planned grazing are proven ways to put carbon back into the soil.
“Carbon rich soils act like giant sponges, absorbing water during floods and providing it for plants during times of drought. And adding carbon to soil makes the land much more productive.
“All we need is a lot more photosynthesis. Climate change can be overwhelming, yet there is real hope. Healthy soil can be a major sink for carbon but this fact hasn’t been well known...until now. Because now we know a soil solution is right beneath our feet!”
Many different groups are jumping on this fast-moving train, but we need a basic understanding of the overall concept and how important it is for soil health, nutritionally dense food, and carbon capture to put regenerative agriculture into practice. As the movement picks up steam locally, you don’t have to understand all details of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, but rather the overarching concept that every country, rich and poor, should set goals to curb carbon emissions in an effort to avert the worst effects of climate change. So, look closely in your own field to see how you can make a difference. In future articles on this topic, we’ll learn more by following a nonprofit farm, a private farm, as well as explore residential landscapes and gardening solutions.
Soil Primer 101
Soil is the second largest carbon store, or “sink,” after the oceans. Soil is a living system and there are fascinating facts that demonstrate it’s more than just dirt.
It’s not visible to the human eye, but a single tablespoon of healthy soil contains billions of organisms including earthworms, nematodes, mites, insects, fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes. This is a new frontier as only about one percent of soil micro-organisms have been identified. Soils process recycled nutrients, including carbon, so that living things can use them over and over again. These nutrients go deep into the earth with long root systems like those of perennial plants, grasses, and many trees. Soil stores water: A one percent increase in organic matter in the top six inches of soil would hold approximately 27,000 gallons of additional water per acre. In established regenerative agriculture farms, like Gabe Brown’s 5,000-acre ranch in North Dakota, pastures remain green even during a dry spell, while neighboring conventional ranches are dry and brown. Soil stores vast quantities of carbon: Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. There are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil, compared to 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life.
Soil mismanagement has contributed to climate change. This mismanagement is driven by monocrop farms, animal agriculture which uses feedlots, human-caused desertification, reliance on fossil fuels, damage caused by erosion and pollution, clearing vegetation, overuse of fertilizers, deforestation, biomass burning, conversion of natural to agricultural ecosystems, drainage of wetlands, and soil cultivation. The world’s soils have lost between 50–70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has been released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Soil is in trouble: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 33 percent of soil is moderately- to highly-degraded through erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, chemical pollution, and nutrient depletion, hampering soils’ function and affecting food production.
Soil that is not covered with vegetative matter is vulnerable; this was shown by the Dust Bowl storms or The Dirty Thirties, when severe dust storms greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies where tons of topsoil were blown off barren fields during drought conditions in the 1930s.
Soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, so it is an endangered ecosystem. As a result of erosion during the past 40 years, 30 percent of the world’s arable land has become unproductive. About 60 percent of soil that is washed away ends up in rivers, streams, and lakes, increasing the risks of flooding and intensifying water contamination from fertilizers and pesticides runoff. Soil can be rebuilt! A large part of the depleted soil organic carbon pool can be restored through conversion of marginal lands into regenerative land uses, adoption of conservation tillage with cover crops and crop residue mulch, nutrient cycling including the use of compost and manure, and other systems of sustainable management
of soil and water resources.
Maryland Takes Action
In our region, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm has pioneered the movement for regeneration of “needy” soil for close to 30 years. They still prefer the term “sustainable,” however, the goal has been a move toward focusing exclusively on rebuilding a land mass.
Farms are seeing soil carbon levels rise from a baseline of 1–2 percent up to 5–8 percent over ten or more years, which can add up to 25–60 tons of carbon per acre with 100 percent grazing animals, which complete the holistic cycle by increasing organic matter in the soil back to healthy levels. As the livestock at Clagett—cows and sheep—urinate and defecate on the land, they provide important nourishment for soil microbes. Their hooves also help break up hardened topsoil, allowing grass seed to take root. Cover crops which are planted after harvest, impart soil nutrition and ensure no land is left bare. Close to 25 acres are planted with vegetables and fruits and some perennial crops such as asparagus, which enable long, strong root systems to develop, that harbor carbon. The farm’s crop rotation helps control the erosion of soil from water and wind
by improving the soil structure and reducing the amount of soil that is exposed to water and wind.
Farmers are in the forefront of this movement because they have a close relationship with the land and when they learn that this farming practice can improve their bottom line, they are
all in. They set the example, of what we can all do for this “agriculture of hope.”
Meanwhile, the State of Maryland has acknowledged the carbon conundrum facing the environment and has taken steps to mitigate the problem. Maryland is one of six states tapping into the benefits of farming practices to draw down carbon, along with Massachusetts, New York, California, Vermont, and Hawaii. In May 2017, Maryland established the Maryland Healthy Soils Program introduced by Delegate Dana Stein. Stein’s legislation (HB 1063) passed unanimously in the Senate and had the support of both the Maryland Farm Bureau and the soil and climate communities (including thousands of Center for Food Safety members). Approved by Governor
Larry Hogan, the act requires the Maryland Department of Agriculture to provide incentives for farmers to practice carbon farming including research, education, and technical assistance.
Susan Payne of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, along with Dena Leibman, executive director of Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, convene Healthy Soils Consortium meetings with any interested farmers or lay people every six to eight weeks at which updates on the Healthy Soil Bill’s progress, education, and healthy soil practices are discussed. The Consortium is first studying processes to grade soil health on Maryland farms. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture awarded a $1 million conservation grant to Maryland to support the installation of selected conservation practices, fund a series of farmer-to-farmer education workshops, three demonstration projects at participating farms, and technical assistance to employ adaptive nutrient management strategies targeted to farmers in four Eastern Shore counties.
Of course, there are many groups in the region already helping to educate the public about these issues and solutions. Annapolis Green is chugging into year 12 in the region and shares responsibility for a healthy environment, while participating in many aspects of the movement with big support for composting, making golf courses and sailboat races “greener,” and even showcasing native and pollinator plants in their greenhouse garden, located on Maryland Avenue.
Climate Stewards of Greater Annapolis (csgannapolis.org) has held numerous presentations on the Healthy Soil Bill. In 2017, The Alice Ferguson Foundation, Town Creek Foundation, and The Carbon Underground orchestrated a conference, Digging Deeper: The Role of Healthy Soil in Maryland’s Agriculture, Water Quality, and Climate. Topics included: The Dirt on Maryland: How healthy is Maryland’s soil currently?; Soil Health: What science is telling us about the health of our soil around the world, around the nation, and in Maryland; The Economic Impact of Soil Health: As the state’s #1 industry, agriculture’s economic value rests directly on the ability of our farmland to produce today and into the future; Soil and Climate: New data are telling us how soil plays a major role in climate, and how it might be the key to solving the biggest problem facing us; and Soil and Water Quality: Industrial and agricultural runoff has polluted the Chesapeake and other vital Maryland waterways.
What Can You Do?
Support farmers who are pioneering regenerative agriculture by shopping at your local farmer’s market or CSA. Have a conversation with the farmers about regenerative agriculture and what they are doing to improve soil quality. Ask if they use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers and if they use cover crops
Compost your food and lawn wastes
Do some regenerative agriculture in your own yard or community garden by
avoiding pesticides, establishing natives, perennials, and pollinator plants.
Learn Maryland Natives, nativeplantcenter.net. You can put in your zip code
to learn about the best pollinators for your area: pollinator.org/guides
Transform your yard and lawn into a true green space (more on this in future articles)
Become actively civically engaged
Follow one or many of the groups supporting regenerative agriculture and farming
Write to food companies you frequently buy from and ask them
to prioritize regenerative agriculture in their sourcing practices
Another documentary, Unbroken Ground, by Patagonia, is an excellent primer for anyone who wants to understand the biological processes going on below ground and explains the critical role that food will play in the next frontier of our efforts to solve the environmental crisis.
There are many newly published books on aspects under healthy soil and the regenerative movement. The Soil Will Save Us by Kristen Ohlson has been around for a few years and is a must-read and one of the first books to explain the process simply, in layman’s terms. There is even a Healthy Soil Guide for chefs and home cooks abouthow they can play in promoting healthy soils and climate solutions (healthysoilguide.com).
Numerous citizen groups are working to explain and support the regenerative movement at the national and international level. Follow one or many of these groups: Savory Institute, Center for Food Safety’s Soil Solutions program, Soil Carbon Coalition, Regeneration International, Kiss the Ground, Soil Solutions, The Carbon Underground, and Soil4Climate.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has recently launched a nationwide effort to “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil.” To learn about your own soil, visit the Soil Health portal at nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health or contact your local NRCS office.
All of these topics lend to fascinating exploration of the magic under our feet.