Carbon Farming: Our Way into the Future
By: Blair Michal
“Carbon Footprint” has been a buzzword for the past decade. We know it is important to reduce more carbon from being released into our atmosphere, but what if it was possible to draw down the carbon that has already been released? Compost can do just that! Compost not only prevents emissions from the start, but it also sequesters emissions that have already been released and stores it in the soil for decades. This not only helps the environment, but it aids in our agricultural system and agricultural economy.
Grasslands cover over 30% of the world’s landmass, but is it possible we have been focusing our farming on the wrong thing? Jessica Chiartas of UC Davis says, "The soil represents a huge mass of natural resource under our feet. If we're only thinking about farming the surface of it, we're missing an opportunity. Carbon is like a second crop." Farmers are already using the land to raise cattle, which emits 15 million metric tons of carbon each year, so why not get a second use out of the land? If farmers spread compost on their overgrazed, carbon-depleted farmland, they see a significant increase in yields: using compost allows them to use less water, pesticides, and fertilizers which saves them money.
In fact, one farmer grew 50% more grass in the same space, and one farmer had to purchase 75% fewer herbicides, 45% fewer fertilizers and was able to cut out pesticides entirely. Plants, crops, and grasses require no additional power or land since they are already there, or energy since they are using photosynthesis to draw down the carbon. Pete Smith, a soil scientist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, says that “Land-management practices are one of the few affordable options available today for drawing down carbon,” and helping reverse climate change.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the states of Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado, Arizona, and Montana have all passed legislation to encourage and incentivize farmers to focus on restoring soil health through carbon farming. However, California is leading the way in carbon farming. Half of the 58 counties that have farmland are practicing carbon farming. Whendee Silver, an ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley says, “If compost was applied to just 5% of California’s rangeland, it could offset emissions from about 80% of the state’s agricultural sector — all the cows raised, crops grown, fertilizer applied and tractors driven in California.” If the application rate increased, it could render California’s whole agriculture industry carbon neutral!
CompostNow members can share compost to local urban farms and community gardens o their choice. This helps 58 garden partners in the southeast grow nutrient-rich foods, save on compost and harmful chemical costs, and close the carbon loop. To date, our members have created over 6 million pounds of compost. That amount of compost has powerful possibilities to better our local food systems, the health of the environment, and the livelihood of farmers.
The field on the left was treated with compost while the control field on the right was not, illustrating that the organic materials applied to the grass promoted more growth. Photo courtesy of Whendee Silver.
Cover Photo Credit: Jonno Rattman for The New York Times