Carbon farming makes business sense.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was created in response to the 1930’s Dust Bowl which witnessed a sustained drought and unprecedented loss of productive farmland. Our only president to serve more than 2 terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt (he served 4 terms), was one of the most revered and influential world leaders, rising above the rhetoric and challenges of the Great Depression and WWII. He also realized the importance of farming, soil health, and agriculture to our economy and is quoted as saying:
“The nation that destroys its soil…..destroys itself”.
The Founding Father of the Soil Conservation Service (NRCS’s original name) in 1935, Hugh Hammond Bennett woke up the public to concerns about soil erosion by water and wind. He and other respected scientists saw how agricultural productivity was related to land management. Publication and research brought more attention to sustainable methods and conservation practices.
Today, we have the benefit of 80+ years of soil science research and increasing public debate about environmental issues and agriculture. The NRCS has even created a separate Soil Health Division dedicated to the study and intersection of soil chemistry, biology and physics. Programs on a national scale continue to build off of an early focus on farmer livelihood and practices which sustain productivity. A few practices that are encouraged and supported through farm bill programs include: reduced tillage, cover cropping, erosion barriers, crop rotation, and set asides.
Building off the productivity successes of conservation gurus Gabe Brown (Bismark, North Dakota) and Darin Williams (Waverly, Kansas) we are finding that sustainable practices reduce overall farm expenses while increasing soil carbon. Other soil-conscious innovators have commented: “If you emphasize soil health and not on yield, eventually you come out ahead, not necessarily because you grow more corn or wheat per acre but because the reduction in spending on fertilizer and other inputs lets you produce each bushel of grain more cheaply.”
With a focus on soil health, Mr. Williams has markedly reduced herbicides and fertilizers (by 75 and 45 percent). Over time, both insecticide and disease costs have gone down too. According to his budget numbers, he can produce the same bushel of soybeans as his conventional neighbors for about 20 percent less.
Gabe Brown, with his “Regenerative Farming” approach, has been tracking changes on his farm the past 30 years and has records to show a tripling of his soil carbon. Such changes are the building blocks of life, and together with other nutrient cycling provides a constantly flowing resource from atmosphere to plants into animals and then back into the atmosphere. Without a reserve in the soil humus, farmers are left to purchase everything they need to grow a crop with cash. Science shows that the complexity of biology in the soil provides numerous opportunities to hold, transform and release many nutrients for optimal crop growth (a savings). Simply testing the soil and making up for the deficit is not enough. There are 9 macro and 14 micro crop nutrients that are needed at different times throughout the season. Even the most advanced precision agriculture methods (grid/tissue sampling, NDVI, drone flights and scouting) touch the tip of the iceberg in terms of fertilizer use efficiency. So when costs and trade barriers are low, many farmers will over apply fertilizers (for insurance). And many are content to mine the soil until its gone. We certainly can do better than this poverty mentality.
Let’s take a look again at Liebig’s Law, if you forgot how one limiting factor can cause a leak in the barrel. More is not always better. We don’t want to wait for crisis. Many farmers out there are taking the charge of “growing the food we eat” as a serious and responsible calling. If keeping a business viable means thinking long-term, more business models will see the wisdom in carbon farming. Read more below to see how a focus on soil health and carbon farming impacts agriculture:
Can Dirt Save the Earth? – a NY TImes article by By MOISES VELASQUEZ-MANOFF, APRIL 18, 2018