|by Rebecca Canright|
Farmers often hold the most intimate knowledge of what’s good for the land. At the same time, farming has historically had a less-than-lovely impact upon wild ecosystems. How can we farm in ways that partner with Earth’s natural systems and reverse climate change?
Well, we can look to our indigenous brothers and sisters who have practiced small-scale growing of crops that are highly suited to their region. These crops often nurture each other; for instance, the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — have been historically planted together so that the bean vines grow and curl around the cornstalks, thereby shading the squash on the ground. The beans add nitrogen to the soil, and the squash’s broad leaves also help reduce evaporation and keep the corn’s roots moist and cool.
We can also integrate new and old science methods of “carbon farming.” Planting cover crops, using rotational grazing and practicing no-till agriculture all sequester carbon and nitrogen into the soil. For example, consider one plant family: leguminous plants (such as peas, beans and clover), which have tiny nitrogen-fixing bacteria attached to their roots. These nodules can absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to a biologically-useful form, stored in the legume’s roots and in the soil! Research from New Mexico State University finds that legumes like cowpeas, fava beans and soybeans can sequester up to 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre in the soil. This greatly reduces the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Wow, our herbaceous brethren are powerful and wise.
Planting cover crops, using rotational grazing, and practicing no-till agriculture, all sequester carbon and nitrogen into the soil.
More ranchers are practicing rotational grazing, which involves allowing livestock to intensively munch a particular swath of grass for a short time, then herding them to a new pasture. Ideally, each field has a few weeks to recover before being grazed again. Animal manure adds carbon and nitrogen to the soil, and planting trees throughout the pasture sequesters significantly more carbon. I also think it’s worth mentioning that reducing or eliminating our consumption of animal foods has a decidedly positive impact in the carbon reduction department! Perhaps it is not all black-or-white; there are a myriad of solutions to climate change mitigation. We can lean more plant-centric in our eating habits, and reap health and environmental benefits (the animals might thank us for sparing their sweet lives, too). What if instead of raising pastured cows to eat them, we allowed wild buffalo to repopulate their historic grazing lands? They deserve to exist and thrive just for the sake of the richness, beauty, and biodiversity they bring to the landscape.
Anyway, let’s return to the plant kingdom. Not tilling the soil keeps precious carbon in the ground, and preserves root structures and beneficial microbial and fungal communities. Invasive weeds are actually more likely to erupt in tilled soil, since native flora have been disrupted by the tiller. I grew up on an organic farm, and the fields that were tilled always presented more of a weedy challenge. I’m glad that my dad is planting more cover crops in an effort to reduce tillage.
It’s worth acknowledging that farming is not often easy, and unexpected obstacles have a way of arising. It’s tempting to go the “I-don’t-have-time-or-money-for-this” route, and cave to the machine: the plow, the weed whacker, the rototiller. While there may be situations where this is called for, there are also effective alternatives. What could really help advance regenerative carbon farming solutions is state or federal funding for farmers who implement them.
I know my family and many other farmers could more fully embrace regenerative methods if there were programs to encourage this. Local, state, or federal government should provide the necessary funds and a sound environmental policy to encourage these forms of solutionary agriculture.
I have been inspired by my mom’s work as an environmental policy analyst to enact positive change in our state legislature. Our family influences us in profound ways, as do our friends and wider community. Let’s bear this in mind as we practice being the wise change we wish to see, trusting that our love-based action may reverberate far into others’ lives, contributing to our collective healing.
Rebecca grew up on a small organic farm in Asbury, NJ, and studies Environmental Policy and French at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.