It’s a puzzle. The problem is our livelihood and lifestyle. My husband and I are farmers living on the Snake River in Idaho who enjoy the fresh smell of cut hay and hearing the cows calling their calves. Our life is rich and rewarding, yet because we pay such close attention to things like weather, we know it’s getting warmer. Spring is nudging earlier and earlier and we need the deep freeze of winter to kill pesky bugs and build mountain snow packs to fill our reservoirs for irrigation.
I’ve asked myself, what can we do to help slow climate change?
But the very act of growing crops accounts for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gases that causes global warming (www.environmentreports.com). Every time a farmer cultivates or plants his ground, he stirs the soil and releases carbon into the atmosphere.
“I’ll tell you what you can do,” my adult son Sam advised me. “Two words: carbon sequestration. There’s lots of research out there supporting the fact that farmers can help climate change by not working their ground so much. Then the carbon in the soil gets left alone. People need to farm differently. I’ll text you some web sites to look at.”
I wanted to see Sam’s research because I was writing an article for a magazine about farming and the environment. Many farmers are currently limiting their tillage (as my son advocated) because it saves money, time, and improves soil health. They leave old corn stalks, dried weeds, and manure on the ground over the winter to increase soil fertility. Leaving their fields undisturbed also happens to sequester carbon. When I first came to the farm forty years ago farmers disced and ploughed the ground bare, waiting for a spring injection of chemicals to make it fertile.
Using farm ground to bury carbon has become such a popular idea. . .
. . .that the Microsoft corporation, food giant General Mills, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have said they’re willing to pay farmers for sequestration. Who’d have thought the “Wolf of Wall Street” would show any interest in Coyotes from Country Lane?
Despite the increasing interest in Ag carbon markets, scientists are beginning to argue for caution. Did I mention the word “puzzle?” The puzzle here is that though farmers can use methods like minimum tillage to keep carbon in the topsoil, it’s not stored there indefinitely. Any kind of tractor work, planting a crop for instance, will release carbon from the topsoil.
In order for farm ground to be a true carbon sink the carbon has to be stored deep, at least a meter, where it’s more stabilized.
“Okay Dr. Baker. I just have a few questions.” I was talking to John Baker on the phone. Baker was a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis/St. Paul and a soil biologist for the United States Department of Agriculture.
“Did you say you’re an Idaho farmer?” Dr. Baker asked me. I suddenly realized how odd it must be for him to sit in his office surrounded by computer screens and data and get a call from a farmwife in Idaho.
I explained to Dr. Baker that I was writing an article about farmers and the environment. We talked a little about farming in the west before I finally got to my central question: can farm ground be used to keep carbon out of the atmosphere?
“Well, I’m giving you a ‘qualified’ yes on that,” Baker said. “I mean farmers have to be able to sequester carbon deeper in the soil—where it will stay. They not only have to limit their tillage, but they need to plant, and then leave alone, deep-rooted cover crops that pull carbon lower in the soil. If this happens, then yes, farmers definitely can play a role in mitigating climate change.”
When I hung up the phone I was surprised at how relieved I felt. Dr. Baker is an authority. If I understood him right, the pieces are all there. We in the farm community just have to start putting the puzzle together.
Image credit: Diana Hooley, Hooley farm Image credit: The Wolf of Wall Street
Image credit: Diana Hooley, wheat planted on old corn field using low till