Let’s grow some good food
It’s 6:30 a.m. and the sun has been up for a little less than an hour. I roll out of bed and quickly guzzle a cup of coffee. Then I slip on my moss-green muck boots, tattered from many battles with blackberry brambles, and take the well-worn path through the woods to the farm.
Every morning I open a greenhouse filled with beds of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. I want to do this before the temperature inside the greenhouse hits 85 degrees and the plants become stressed and thirsty. This morning, when I roll up the plastic sides of the greenhouse, I feel a wave of intense heat escape into the cool air. I check the thermometer inside—90 degrees—and remind myself to wake up earlier tomorrow.
Fortunately, the leaves haven’t started to wilt. I breathe a sigh of relief and move on to my morning routine. I start in the back field where a patch of garlic leaves rustle in the soft breeze. I pull weeds and check plants for the dreaded bean beetle. Then I scan the hedgerows of raspberries and currants for the succulent ripe fruits. After admiring the straight rows of potatoes, kale, and beets resting on a bed of straw, I turn on the irrigation system. Now it’s time to head to the apple orchard where I’ll watch the wildflowers vibrate as hungry bees hunt for nectar. Over at the compost pile, I plunge my hand into the heap to feel its heat.
I love to grow food, plain and simple, and can’t imagine doing anything else. When I started farming in Washington at age 21, I focused on practical concerns: finding some land to lease, figuring out which crops to grow, and finding enough customers to buy my food. What I didn’t give much thought to was climate change. However, after just a few years working this highly weather-dependent job, I noticed longer frost-free seasons, more intense storms, and more frequent droughts.
Alarmed, I went back to school to study soil management and how it can be a meaningful buffer against weather extremes. When I returned to farming, I started covering my fields every spring with a generous layer of compost. Then I’d lay down another protective layer, this time of straw or wood chips, to keep the compost from washing away and prevent new weeds from sprouting.
Feeding my farm this rich organic material quickly converted the light brown, sandy soil into a dark brown, fluffy bed for my plants. Water sank in instead of pooling on the surface. My plants weathered the heavy rains and occasional droughts of the Pacific Northwest. When I moved back east, I saw how these same methods helped my crops thrive despite New England’s harsh winter storms. Eventually, I started to think of myself as a “regenerative farmer.”
Regenerative farming is pretty much what it sounds like
Regenerative farming is often described as an effort to mimic how nature grows food. Think of a forest that has sustained wild berries, watercress, cherry trees, and other long-lasting perennials for centuries. How does this happen? Leaves and other organic material fall to the ground, protecting the soil from erosion. Insects, fungi, bacteria, and other critters thrive in undisturbed soil and incorporate the fallen material into the ground through their daily activities. This cycle builds a fluffy layer of topsoil packed with nutrients, which supports more plant growth. It’s a process that replenishes ecosystems the world over, from forests to fields of wild grains and grasses.
Farmers who take their cue from this process minimize tilling, allowing the healthy microorganisms and bugs that enrich the soil to go about their lives undisturbed. These farmers cover their fields in truckloads of compost. And they plant nutrient-rich cover crops, like Red Clover and Buckwheat. They don’t violently break up the soil’s texture through plowing. They don’t use a lot of chemicals. Their reward? Nutrient-rich topsoil, better water retention, and heartier plants— plus savings on fertilizer, water, and pesticides.
These cost savings help explain why regenerative farming is springing up all over, even in soybean country where industrial farming has long been seen as the most efficient. Some farmers are also motivated by another by-product of organically enriched soil: it draws excess carbon out of the air and stores it underground. This ability to capture greenhouse gases is why many experts believe regenerative agriculture, also known as carbon farming, could play an important role in fighting climate change.
Plants are the ultimate and, dare I say, cheapest way to suck excess carbon dioxide out of the air. Almost all atmospheric carbon passes through plants during photosynthesis, the process that turns carbon, sunlight, and water into sugars and carbohydrates. Plant roots release carbon-rich sugars, which feed organisms in the soil. In exchange, these critters make nutrients in the soil available to the plant. As plants die back each winter, they drop leaves and branches and even the roots die off.
Over time this debris decomposes, adding even more nutrients and carbon to the soil. There’s evidence to suggest that when living soil organisms die they end up forming even more organic matter than plant residue.The alliance between plants and soil organisms helps lock carbon in topsoil, producing the dark organic matter every gardener lusts for and turning the very ground we stand on into a giant carbon sponge.
Increasing the carbon stored in soil helps to maximize photosynthesis so plants can draw down even more carbon dioxide and trap it underground. Moreover, soil rich in carbon feeds mycorrhizae, a vast network of fungi that releases glomalin. Glomalin is a sticky, gum-like substance that binds together particles of sand, silt, and clay, creating a soil structure that locks in moisture and holds on to nutrients. Plants raised in favorable conditions like this, with easy access to water and nutrients, are sturdier and more resilient. This positive cycle is how nature works when we don’t interfere.
Farming in a way that promotes healthy soil is the opposite of how most food is grown. Heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, growing just one crop over large areas, exposing the soil to erosion from wind and water, and tilling are all mainstays of conventional farming, and reduce the amount of carbon in our soil. Instead, they release more greenhouse gases into the air. In 2011, farms emitted six billion tons of greenhouse gases. That’s about 13 percent of all greenhouse emissions worldwide, according to the World Resources Institute.
We can turn this around. By adopting regenerative practices, farms could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate of about one ton of carbon dioxide for every acre, according to data reviewed by soil expert Eric Toensmeier. The potential benefits are enormous, as spelled out in a 2014 study from The Rodale Institute. Citing data from farming systems and pasture trials, it concludes that we could sequester more than 100 percent of annual CO2 emissions worldwide if we start growing food this way.
The authors write: “Soil carbon sequestration through regenerative agriculture is a known, proven, technical remedy to climate change: it gives humanity the necessary time to decarbonize.” Experts agree more study is needed but there’s no question that even a small increase in soil carbon can improve crop resilience, reduce chemical use, conserve water on a large scale, and draw down carbon.
The fact that carbon farming could make a difference is both exciting and frustrating. We are, after all, dealing with an agricultural system that does not prioritize health, environmental, or climate concerns. But farmers aren’t the only ones who can opt for a regenerative approach. Many of us have our own patches of soil we can tend to—in yards, community gardens, even pots.
The promise of backyard carbon farming
I started my own garden after moving from Washington State to New Hampshire to grow hops for local breweries. When I moved, I left behind a farm where we’d grown 200 different food crops. In New England, I so badly missed having fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs within easy reach that I started my garden almost immediately.
While fewer and fewer people are farmers by profession, many Americans are growing food. In fact, 35 percent of us, or 42 million households, report growing some of our own food, according to the National Gardening Association of America. Just imagine what could happen if more of us took up regenerative gardening. Not only would we have ready access to nutritious, local food. We could help heal the planet.
Perennials are a natural choice for regenerative gardeners. These sturdy, long-lived plants are anchored by extensive root systems that help them find water and nutrients deep in the soil. Deep roots also give these plants staying power when they’re buffeted by heavy winds, rains, and snow. In addition, having the same plants in the same place for years makes it easier for all the soil-enriching organisms—the bacteria, fungi, and bugs—to gather and multiply.
My favorite time of year is growing season and I end every day with a stroll through my garden. I watch the sunchokes lining the cedar fence track the last bit of sunshine. I look over my tomatoes once more before rolling down the greenhouse walls and tucking them in for the night. I grab a fistful of basil on my way back to the house. And I luxuriate in knowing I’ll see these plants again next year.
Weather, soil type, and any number of other variables can make gardening complicated. I’ve done what I can to keep it simple. I want to make regenerative gardening easy because cultivating even a little bit of carbon-rich soil can make a big difference. Eric Toensmeier estimates that his own tiny carbon-rich backyard garden, about a tenth of an acre, can offset the carbon emissions of one American adult per year. For me, that says one thing: let’s grow some good food. It’s time.
Excerpted from the book, Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits, and vegetables, by Acadia Tucker. (Stone Pier Press). It’s available on Stone Pier Press and Chelsea Green. Tucker is a regenerative farmer and gardener who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She’s also the author of Growing Good Food: A citizen’s guide to backyard carbon farming, which is on sale now.