The concept of carbon farming is relatively simple. The industrial agricultural system we’ve developed over the last 60 years, while being incredibly productive, robs the soil of carbon and other nutrients. Carbon, in the form of soil organic matter, is the thing that gives soil life. Techniques like cover cropping (never leaving the fields bare), no-till farming (leaving the soil intact while preparing and planting), crop rotations and carbon banking in perennial plants, take carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up in the soil. Soil-1, climate change-0. And the benefits of soil carbon sequestration go beyond reducing GHGs. Using the term “regenerative farming” Debbie Barker and Michael Pollan explain in a recent Washington Post article:
Regenerative farming would also increase the fertility of the land, making it more productive and better able to absorb and hold water, a critical function especially in times of climate-related floods and droughts. Carbon-rich fields require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and generate more productive crops, cutting farmer expenses.
In fact, research shows that in some regions a combination of cover-cropping and crop rotation vastly outperforms conventional farming. So why isn’t everyone doing it?
One of the problems, as Eric Toensmeier explains in his upcoming book The Carbon Farming Solution (to be released in February) is that carbon farming is not a one-size-fits-all venture. Cover-cropping may work in the southeast where winters are shorter, but may not work in northern Minnesota, for example. For more farmers to take up these practices, they need the assurance that they will work for them economically, and this type of assurance will come through research. But, research dollars for agriculture in the U.S. are not exactly flowing to sustainable agriculture.
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