Travel through ‘Carbon Country’ to see climate-friendly eco-practices
By Lindsay Rebhan, Renewing the Countryside
In 2010, I came across a fascinating map called the Carbon Ranch that detailed every possible activity for sequestering carbon in the landscape. The map had no boundaries and included urban, rural, wild and cultivated lands. The map was made by Courtney White, author and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health regeneration. This past year, the book Grass, Soil, Hope was released, documenting White’s travels along the Carbon Country map to seek out real-world regenerative agriculture practices.
Regenerative agriculture refers to a diverse set of practices that engages the restorative capacity of the earth. These practices create new soil and revitalize ecosystem services that contribute to the health of the landscape and the creatures living on it. Grass, Soil, Hope investigates the range of carbon sequestering activities that give promise to Earth’s future—stories of a hopeful future during these times of climate uncertainty and economic insecurity.
The seemingly obvious facts that plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and undisturbed soils hold carbon turn out to be some of the most powerful tools in our toolbox to fight global climate change. This book is a travelogue as the author seeks examples that soak up CO2 in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production and increase water quality.
White begins with the premises that carbon is key, we don’t have to invent anything, solutions are mostly low tech, and everyone has a role. His journey shows how—through improved ecosystem function, climate friendly livestock practices, conserving land and restoring degraded watersheds—humans can facilitate large-scale removal of harmful greenhouse gases.
In Grass, Soil, Hope, White asks, “What can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting all of humanity today, including climate change, global hunger, water scarcity, environmental stress, and economic instability?” His journey into Carbon Country leads us to meet ordinary and extraordinary folks with surprisingly profound and simple solutions. Each chapter highlights carbon pioneers and projects, including The Marin Carbon Project, Twitchell Island Project, New Orleans resilience innovator Sarah Mack, and restorationist Bill Zeedyk. (These people and projects are all worth looking up independently if you are interested in this subject.) These heroes of regenerative agriculture are rapidly increasing biodiversity and carbon sequestration rates—ranging from no-till agriculture and unconventional wetland restoration techniques to a mob grazing operation with a flerd (flock of sheep and herd of cattle) and alley cropping between solar panels. Some examples are doubling soil carbon content in less than 10 years.
White invites the reader to consider their “land literacy.” Reading the land is both an art and science worth cultivating for deep health. The sweet spots of the landscape are where a small investment returns large carbon sinks. If we can identify the sweet spots, White writes, it is possible to heal landscapes quickly. He asks readers to see the land’s wounds: eroded areas, lifeless areas, or spots that are losing vitality that could be returned to health to bring life to the rest of the landscape and watershed.
In organic farming, soil health is understood to be a baseline of well-being; the science behind that is complex. In Grass, Soil, Hope, there is an in-depth explanation of the carbon cycle and soil evolution that will leave “soilists” ecstatic. White gives high praise for the “unsung hero” of soil, glomalin, a soil superglue. Its presence is an indicator of deep carbon soils—stable soils that harbor carbon for decades. This book is laden with regenerative farming examples that lead to restoring ecosystem services and letting nature do its work. Rapid soil building techniques are discussed including:
• No-till organic (Planting a fall cover crop, using a roller-crimper in spring, planting a cash crop with a no-till drill and disking residue into the soil or grazing it after harvesting the cash crop.)
• Rotational grazing and pasture cropping (High-density stocking rate, rotating often, no-till drilling pastures with a cereal crop and grazing clean-up.)
• Wetland habitat restoration (Thinking and designing like a river: induced meandering, harnessing the power of floods to reshape stream banks and floodplains, building ponds, and letting the river heal with the growth of native vegetation.)
In this hopeful story, I craved for more data. I look forward to hearing more about the innovative farmers and land managers who will document their resilience and let the numbers speak loudly. We need more collaborations with agronomists and scientists to amplify carbon farming work. This book has added a carbon lens to my existing restoration paradigm. When I observe and act, I have Courtney White’s words in my head “It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon.” It supports operating out of a paradigm of abundance rather than scarcity. Abundant ecological systems are a path of prosperity.
Farmers, ranchers, land managers, scientists, ecologists and naturalists will find value in this book and will likely think twice before tilling and be mobilized to new carbon action. Grass and soil are a path to hope. “Carbon is part of our essence,” White writes. “Its story needs to be told—and heard. It is the story of our past, our present, and our future. It is our story. It is the story of grass. The story of green. The color of hope.”
Lindsay Rebhan works with Renewing the Countryside, a key partner on MOSES’ New Organic Stewards project.
From the September | October 2014 Issue