Will soil save us? Carbon sequestration through agriculture

“A handful of living soil resembles a sponge, full of air, water, organic matter and minerals.”

When I taught kindergarten many years ago, I remember when 6-year old Flo fixed her china-blue eyes on me one morning and said she had just figured something out: “Everything in the world is alive,” she declared, “but in its own way.”

Flo’s words come to mind this spring as I get my hands into the earth. I am always awestruck in nature, but these days there’s also an undercurrent of dull grief and panic about climate change. All life, present in all of its variation and complexity, is cherished more than ever before. Every bee and butterfly that enters my garden will get the best seat at the table.

I’m also mindful of my grandfather, a Dutch immigrant who acquired land in southwestern Minnesota in the late 1800s and “broke the prairie” with a sharpened plow and a team of good horses. It’s no longer a romantic tale, sadly, because of the part about “breaking the prairie.” It’s not good to disturb the soil, I’ve been learning, for an important reason that is one part worry and a big part hope.

The worry: A 2006 Cornell study found that much of the planet’s soils are degrading and being lost 10 to 40 times faster than they are being replaced. A senior United Nations official recently warned that there are only 60 years’ worth of soils remaining. Most concerning are the lands in the seasonally dry areas of the U.S. (where much of our wheat is grown), as well as across most of Africa, Australia and from the Middle East to China, home to more than two billion of the world’s poor. Originally all grasslands and savannah, these comprise a third of the planet, with 70% already in bad shape.

Numerous ancient civilizations disappeared because they used up their soils. Are we on track to do the same?

There are three key reasons that soil degrades. Reason #1 is the example of Grandpa’s plow. Disturbing the soil weakens what Oregon soil scientist Elaine R. Ingham calls the “soil food web.” Yes, soil is alive, a dynamic super-organism teeming with all-but-invisible microorganisms, as many as 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon’s worth. Just as we now know that microbial activity in our gut maintains immunity and digests nutrients, it turns out that microbiota in the soil similarly serves as a “stomach” for plants, driving carbon sequestration, water retention, nutrient cycling and fertility among many other things. Weakening the soil disrupts the energy in all of these processes.

Reason #2: mismanagement of livestock. Wild ruminants lived in a symbiotic relationship with plants, grazing and sharing the microbiota in their guts with the microbiota in the soils. They fed, moved on and did not return until the land recovered. But fencing and herding practices disrupted their natural migration patterns with devastating impact on soil health, water tables and ecosystems. The solution: Manage livestock to mimic nature, and nature can be restored with astonishing results. Millions of acres globally have already been regenerated as a result of this one realization: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”

Reason #3: There’s no “better living through chemistry,” only through biology. Only since World War II, modern farming practices and corporate greed have wreaked havoc on the planet, turning living soils into biologically inactive dirt, polluting and destroying water tables and ecosystems, driving bugs, birds and wildlife into extinction, and impacting human health. It turns out it’s not possible to “feed the world” with industrial farming if it does not support the web of life. Only healthy soil = healthy plants and animals = healthy humans.

A handful of living soil resembles a sponge, full of air, water, organic matter and minerals. It is the interaction of all of these biological processes on which our future depends, because the more alive our soils, the more carbon dioxide is drawn out of the atmosphere and sequestered.

Which brings me to the great hope: according to the Rodale Institute and other studies, “Recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative agriculture.’”

Despite the corporate stranglehold on our food system, pressure from stockholders and consumers is already having an impact. Regenerative agriculture and managed grazing is happening worldwide. General Mills Foods has recently committed to restoring a million acres of farmland by 2030. McDonald’s restaurants has put $4.5 million into funding research into improved grazing methods in the U.S. Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil are also funding studies (although clearly for offset purposes). Gabe Brown, a North Dakota rancher/soil activist says, “You can’t pick up a farm magazine these days without reading about soil.”

Which brings me back to life on Vashon. What can we do here?

I believe we must educate ourselves, and everyone we know, about this global issue. It’s not enough to only focus on our island any more than it is to think that we don’t have to bother about fossil fuel emissions beyond our shores. Some of my inspirations: “regenerative agriculture” videos on YouTube. Books: “Kiss the Ground” by Josh Tickell, “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” by Joel Salatin or “Dirt to Soil” by Gabe Brown.

How can we assess Vashon’s carbon footprint related to management of our soils and our forests? We already have a wealth of knowledge from local individuals and organizations too numerous to mention here. Land Trust restoration of our ecosystems and Diane Emerson’s work on pesticide use are inspirations. What other conversations do we need to have? Who should lead them?

Last week I spent time with Vashon’s biochar guru Ken Miller, who admits that he loves to make great soil even more than to garden. Every year on the summer solstice, Miller starts a new compost pile, adding kitchen scraps, comfrey juice, nettles, kelp, azamite rock dust, urine, humanure, dead animals (if any), as well as the top few inches of soil, full of fungi, from under the leaves in his woods. This last step enhances microbial activity. Miller’s homemade “biochar” (charcoal created from super-heating biomass, used as an outstanding soil amendment) is sprinkled on his garden beds. He mulches with woodchips made from deciduous branches under 3 inches in diameter, because most of a tree’s nutrients are stored in the newer growth. A painstaking labor of love, for sure.

I also visited Rob Peterson at Plum Forest Farm; he and Joanna Jewell have one of two certified organic farms on Vashon. His philosophy about soil: “It’s the foundation of life, and a farmer’s most important job is to cultivate soil microbiology.”

He protects and enhances the farm’s soil through composting animal manures (from chickens and three Scottish highland cows) and sowing cover crops — rye and vetch in the winter and buckwheat in the summer.

“The movement towards better farming can be part of a greater internal shift towards a healthier planet,” Peterson says. “We keep learning more, and it’s exciting to witness.”

On Vashon, how fortunate we are to belong to a beautiful piece of the earth. I’ve recently read that the enlightened gardening practice of permaculture teaches that observation is key. I feel, on this green, wet morning, that I’m living in a time when I have to ask, deep down, what is needed, truly taking the words of my kindergarten student, Flo, to heart.

— Rondi Lightmark is a former teacher/writer/counselor and Vashon dogs-in-cars photographer, presently shifting her focus to climate change issues.