Carbon Farming

Climate change has been described as the consequence of the Industrial Revolution, which introduced extensive burning of fossil fuels. This practice disrupts the natural balance of carbon in the soil, the atmosphere and the ocean. Plans to slow or reduce the process of climate often emphasize reducing uses of fossil fuels.

Recently, and all too briefly, we explored the relationship between gardening and climate change. We have learned that common agricultural practices generate about one-third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere, making commercial farming a substantial part of the climate change problem.

Prior to the development of modern agriculture, we had organic farming, which is generally compatible with natural processes. The practices we now call “conventional” farming include driving a tractor, tilling the soil, over-grazing, and using fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Similarly, farm animals once were raised in pastures, where they grazed on grasses and other plants. Today, cows, pigs and chickens are raised in tight quarters, provided grains and other feed that they work hard to digest, and must be dosed with antibiotics to maintain basic health.

These contemporary, presumably efficient methods are depleting the carbon stores in the soil, and reducing the soil’s natural ability to support plant growth and store moisture.

Soil scientists and environmentalists have been discovering land management strategies that can reduce the rate of loss of soil carbon, and even improve the rate at which agriculture can convert atmospheric CO2 into plant material and soil organic matter. When thoughtfully applied, carbon methods can add significantly to the rate of soil carbon sequestration, and actually reverse the climate change process.

Dozens of specific practices are included in carbon farming; all look like historical organic farming and common sense. The principal methods are composting, grazing by hoofed animals (ungulates), maintaining high percentages of organic matter in the soil (to feed the microbiota), supporting biodiversity, rotating crops and discontinuing uses of synthetic chemicals. The most effective practices orchestrate multiple methods in plans designed for specific circumstances.

Carbon farming, also called regenerative agriculture, should be part of the global response to the threat of climate change, but reduced burning of fossil fuels will still be important.

These promising methods for the management of agricultural lands can have substantial impacts when applied on a large scale, but they also have value when applied in residential gardens. In this column, we have advocated organic methods as beneficial to our flora and fauna. We find now that these methods also have long-term benefits to the health of the soil and the natural balance of carbon in our environment.

For more about this important topic, read Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us (2014), (which a reader recommended to me), and search the web for “carbon farming” and “regenerative agriculture.”

If you are growing plants and raising animals on hundreds of acres, try carbon farming. If not, by all means, garden organically!

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