Calling on farmers to help reverse global warming
Kevin Muno works a ranch about 40 miles from San Diego called The Land of Milk and Honey. He feeds his cattle by bunching them to graze intensively for short periods, before moving them to another spot. When they leave one patch of grass for another, after a good deal of chewing, trampling seeds, and defecating, the seeds and plants that have been worked over by their hooves spring to life. In the process of farming, he is restoring grassland and producing enough organic matter in the soil to conserve moisture, support plant growth, and capture carbon.
“Humanity can benefit,” says Muno. “People in the city like clean air and water in their reservoirs. If we manage the landscape correctly, we can have those things.”
The type of farming he practices, also known as carbon farming or regenerative agriculture, got a boost a couple of years ago from California’s Healthy Soils Program. For the past three years the program has awarded grants to farmers who agree to practice no-till or low-till farming, plant fruit trees and cover crops where appropriate, and spread compost. The $7.5 million program has found that spreading as little as a half-inch of compost produced a 40 to 70 percent boost in grass growth and each hectare of land absorbed up to 6,868 gallons of water in the topsoil.
Administrators estimate that since the program started an additional 7,666 tons of CO2 have been locked into the soil. That’s the equivalent of 18.8 million miles worth of driving or 4 million tons of coal burned. Beyond rewarding farmers who adopt these practices, the program is hoping grant recipients will share them with other local ranchers and farmers.
The soil-based program reflects Governor Jerry Brown’s effort to elevate the role of soil health in the discussion of climate change. Climate action is often seen in terms of what can be done to promote renewable sources of energy or cut back on fossil fuels. But it’s estimated that global farmland can capture more than 10 percent of man-made emissions if carbon-friendly practices are followed. "Agriculture is the one sector that has the ability to transform from a net emitter of carbon dioxide to a net sequesterer of carbon dioxide," states the Petaluma-based Carbon Cycle Institute. "There is no other human managed realm with this potential."
This September, the State will host a conference in Sonoma County to scale up climate smart agriculture on a global scale. The summit will bring together multinational corporations, foreign governments, NGO climate stakeholders, and farmers. Regenerative agriculture celebrity Gabe Brown of North Dakota famously more than tripled the amount of organic matter in his soil since the late 1990s. But experts say even a small increase in soil carbon stock could switch on the earth’s A/C.
The case for adopting regenerative agriculture is compelling even without considering its carbon-capturing potential. Farmers like Brown say the returns on healthy soil are substantial. They're able to cut back on using pesticides, fertilizers, and water even as crop yields increase.
These are the factors driving support for this soil-first approach beyond California. In the Midwest many farmers are trying it out for themselves, and Indiana quintupled the acres devoted to cover crops in just five years.
There's still a long way to go before regenerative agriculture is broadly adopted. In Indiana, 90 percent of the fields have no cover crops at all and, thanks to years of chemically intensive, high-tillage conventional farming, the soil has lost half its organic matter. But observers like Neil Goeser, director of Soil Health Partnership, which was launched by the National Corn Growers Association in 2014, says change will accelerate as farmers continue to get good results. He notes that his organization, which helps farmers adopt methods that improve the soil and environment, is finding that farmers are breaking even or making money within one to three years.
There’s another reason more farmers are taking regenerative agriculture seriously. "Climate change is 100 percent real," Goeser says, "and our farmers are experiencing this year to year," in the form of drought, weather extremes, and flooding.
Takeaway: As a consumer, you can show your support by paying more attention to where your food comes from, buying local, and talking with the farmers who grow your food. To directly support farmers who regeneratively farm, look for the ROC label: