Probably more than anyone, farmers understand the importance of healthy soil for higher crop productivity, better water absorption, and a number of other reasons. However, not everyone realizes that healthy soil can also help solve one of the greatest crises facing our time and, in the wake of the Paris Climate Summit, a hot topic in today’s news: climate change.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed by the Center for Food Safety’s Debbie Barker and author Michael Pollan, they point to scientific evidence that “a third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame.”
Intensive farming practices, such as the overuse of chemicals and excessive tilling, leaks carbon molecules from the dirt. As soon as carbon mixes with oxygen it creates a toxic cocktail for the atmosphere – carbon dioxide. Even more, soil that has been subjected to intensive farming practices will not absorb water efficiently. Less absorption by the soil not only means degraded productivity for the farm, but also runoff overloaded with nutrients into our waterways.
When soil is unhealthy , farmers often resort to adding more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in an attempt to increase productivity. In the long run, these substances end up further killing the soil.
Luckily, innovative farmers are leading the way in sharing practices that restore soil back into effective carbon sequestration systems. Farms like Virginia’s Arcadia Farm are leading the way with regenerative management practices including crop rotation and composting.
There are also organizations like Biodiversity for a Livable Climate that are educating farmers and the public on farming techniques that are good for our soil, food, water, and climate.
These groups and others are also helping farmers to plant cover crops and improved plant species, and introduce the planned grazing of animals to improve the amount of carbon and water the soil absorbs.
For example, the use of cover crops enhances biodiversity, keeps more carbon and nitrogen in the soil, and allows photosynthesis to draw down atmospheric carbon into the ground.
Using an inch-thick layer of natural compost is another method to radically sequester carbon. This is good for the climate, farmers, and the soil because, as Barker and Pollard note, “carbon-rich fields require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and generate more productive crops, cutting farmer expenses.”
According to Rodale Institute, if we switch out our modern intensive farming practices with organic and regenerative ones like these, more than 100% of our current carbon emissions could be ! This is incredible to contemplate.
Federal and State Policies
Unfortunately, most federal subsidy and incentive policies are not geared towards nurturing healthier soil.
For example, the U.S. government is currently not supportive of year-round cover crop growth. If farmers grow crops outside of specified time periods, they are denied price supports, subsides, and full crop insurance for that time.
In general, the federal government views the planting of cover crops as a waste of farmers’ time and resources because the yield of a cover crop can’t be sold like cash crops. Yet, the planting of cover crops in between rows of other crops, such as corn and soybeans, increases the overall productivity of the soil, utilizes wasted space, and supports the long-term health of the soil.
Although federal policies do not currently promote the growth of cover crops, the state of Maryland fortunately does maintain a program to provide grants to farmers that plant cover crops. These funds are available when farmers plant cover crops after harvesting corn, soybeans, sorghum, tobacco or vegetables.
This program is a good first step in reversing atmospheric carbon emissions from agriculture in Maryland. But, there is more than can be done to support farming practices that will further the goal of full agricultural carbon sequestration.
Fair Farms envisions a world where farmers not only receive subsidies for the amount of crop yielded per acre, but also for the amount of carbon sequestered per acre. With more carbon in the soil, we’ll begin to tackle climate change and also have a smarter, healthier, and more efficient food production system.
This is the kind of policy we need to promote farmers’ who farm the right way.