Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, by Gabe Brown (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) from Loretto Earth Network News, May 2019
Picture this exchange. I’m at a Motherhouse Farm and Land Management Committee meeting when I mention that I was so excited about reading Dirt to Soil that I read it straight through while I was on vacation in Florida. After a brief pause, one of the committee members quipped, “You must be hard up!” By the end of this review, I hope you, too, are excited to read it!
Dirt to Soil is easy to read and understand. Gabe Brown takes his readers on a personal journey starting with his own difficult entry into farming when he and his wife, Shelly, lost their crops four years in a row due to weather-related disasters. On the brink of financial ruin and unable to till, plant or harvest, he discovered his land’s ability to regenerate life. The book documents his personal experience along with the science of regenerative agriculture, which he learned from diligent personal study and a wide-range of experts.
Many farmers struggling to stay solvent will see themselves in Gabe’s story because conventional wisdom pushes farmers to plant more in order to earn more. But Gabe discovered from experience that planting more simply increased the cost of buying fertilizer and chemicals, so he still didn’t earn a profit. He now teaches that the goal isn’t to increase the yield per acre but to increase the profitability per acre. How? By decreasing the use of fertilizer and chemicals, which are not only expensive, but also interfere with the natural cycles of life.
His book untangles the threads of our dependence on chemical inputs and then weaves together the coherent whole of natural ecosystem cycles. Here is an example of the downward spiral of our dependence. Loss of
biodiversity leads to less nutrients which leads to an increase in the use of synthetic fertilizer. Increased use of synthetic fertilizer leads to more weeds (weeds are high nitrogen users) which, in turn, leads to increased use of herbicides. Herbicides have a negative impact on plants by binding certain nutrients that are essential for warding off disease. A lack of those nutrients makes the plant more susceptible to fungal disease which
leads to increased use of fungicides.
Whew! Enough? Gabe isn’t quite finished. A lack of nutrients also leads to increased pests which results in an increased use of pesticide. Fortunately, the fact that everything is connected also results in the possibility of positive upward cycles.
Let’s take organic matter in the soil as an example. Increased organic matter improves soil biology which increases the nutrients available to the plants which increases plant health and decreases the need for chemical inputs. Gabe calculates that for every 1 percent increase in organic matter, farmers save about $750 per acre which they would have spent on fertilizer. Increased organic matter also improves water infiltration
and decreases erosion since every 1 percent increase in organic matter results in an increased water storage capacity of between 17,000 and 25,000 gallons of water per acre. The five principles of regenerative
agriculture are applicable on any scale from a backyard garden to a large farming operation, and they produce visible results within the first three years. Together, they significantly increase the capacity of the soil to
Book Review by Susan Classen, Loretto Earth Network
Elizabeth Black, like many of us, found Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, disturbing and motivating. Not one to sit idly by, she has since grown and given away more than 5,000 seedling trees for Boulder, Colorado. When she heard about carbon sequestration through improving soil health, she found a new mission.
Now she facilitates the Citizen Science Soil Health Project, supported by Boulder County and the local Farmers Market. The 10-year Project will coordinate and document participants’ steps to improve soil health. The goal: help participants get their soil in the best shape possible, so it can withstand the droughts and floods ahead and help draw down atmospheric CO2. As soil health improves, there is more microbial life, and thus more sequestration of carbon into the soil.
Participants include conventional and organic farmers, ranchers, turf and park managers, foresters, grassland managers, and large truck-gardeners.
They agree to attend short orientation classes, so the data is systematically gathered and reported, and attend annual meetings to surface questions and share learning. The program is non-competitive.
Your editor asked Elizabeth what she is learning. She replied that there is a hunger among potential donors and participants to do something positive about climate change and take action. It has been relatively easy to raise
money and find participants. Most farmers have heard something about soil health and want to improve their soil health. They get hung up on what the next step is. The Project gives them the next step, and so they are
often eager to jump on it.
Can the Project share its methods if other communities want to replicate it? Sometime next winter, they will begin posting to the Longmont Conservation District’s website, where folks elsewhere can copy it. In the meantime, explore “Soil Health Benchmark Study” under Soil Institute/ Farm Based Research on www.pasafarming.org. The Haney and PLFA tests they use are from Ward Labs. Go to www.wardlab.com and click on Soil Health Services for more information.
Why not just encourage the use of compost? And how does an increase in microbial life foster carbon sequestration? The rest of this article quotes Elizabeth’s own words in the Boulder Daily Camera on December
“Manure or compost isn’t the only way to put extra carbon into our soils. We can also use the symbiotic relationship between soil microbes and plants to do the work for us. Remember learning about photosynthesis, where plants take sunlight and CO2 from the air and make oxygen and carbon-sugars, which they use to grow? But you probably didn’t learn that down below the soil line, plants leak carbon sugars out through their roots, to attract and feed soil microbes, which in return supply plants with broken down minerals (N-P-K) which plants also need to grow. Then, as the soilmicrobes eat each other, the plants’ original carbon-sugars pass from one soil-microbe to another. Each time the carbon-sugar is eaten by another microbe, it becomes more concentrated, until it eventually forms humus: rich, black, insoluble sequestered carbon.
A teaspoon of healthy soil holds one billion bacteria, yards of fungal filaments, and thousands of protozoa. We can harness our jillions of soil microbes to make even more humus and sequester even more carbon for us. Practices to keep our soil microbes sequestering carbon at top speed include cover crop cocktails, conservation crop rotation, no-till farming, mob grazing, composted green waste or biochar applications, fungal soil inoculations using no-turn composting, and more.
How much CO2 can our jillions of soil microbes actually sequester? For two years, New Mexico State University molecular biologist David C. Johnson measured carbon sequestration on test plots with cover-crops. His soil
organic matter increased 67 percent and soil water-holding capacity jumped over 30 percent. Reporting to Sandia National Labs, he states, “The rates of biomass production we are currently observing in this system
have the capability to capture enough CO2 (50 tons CO2/acre) to offset all anthropogenic CO2 emissions on 11 percent of world cropland. Twice this amount of land is fallow at any time worldwide.” So those itty-bitty
microbes could potentially sequester all of the CO2 we produce!”
Elizabeth Black lives on a teeny farm with her husband Chris, where she paints western landscapes and grows Christmas trees and vegetables. A 35-year Boulder resident, she started community organizing in the 1990’s to
clean up well water. Now she moves about her community growing hope.
Weather from the Ground Up: Biodiversity Helps Shape Local Climate
By Adam Sacks, Executive Director, Biology for Climate
On a local level, there’s much we can do to affect a number of weather factors—temperature, for example. An average 90 °F day can have a land-surface temperature difference of up to 60 °F. This is measuring the temperature difference between coolest (shady spots as, say, under the bushes) and warmest (asphalt) spots. What makes this temperature difference? Water, shade, and ground cover do. Asphalt is the equivalent of very bare
soil, made worse by its low albedo i.e. low reflectivity and increased heat absorption. Water – which is cycled by plants and biodiversity – acts as a great temperature buffer in this regard. Thus, local temperatures, including
heat-island effect in cities may be significantly moderated.
All species, from microbes to megafauna, have worked out strategies for obtaining and cycling water to benefit themselves within the overall balance in their habitats. Rainfall is a vitally important weather process where humans have a significant role to play. For atmospheric water vapor to fall as rain or snow, it must condense around microscopic particles called condensation nuclei, comprised largely of biological particles and bacteria. Scientists are taking a closer look at these nuclei – how plant-based nuclei make their way into precipitation and how we might influence that process.
The concept of the biotic pump, developed over the last decade, is one example of large-scale movement of water driven by trees. According to this theory, the vapor pumped by trees into the atmosphere condenses and creates an area of slightly lower air pressure (since humid air at a given temperature and pressure weighs less than dry air). In turn, the lower pressure draws moisture inland from an abundant water source, primarily oceans. The theory explains what happens in the Amazon, where the forests themselves pull massive volumes of water, dubbed “flying rivers” into the interior.
In the past, farmers were encouraged to leave some fields fallow during the growing season to conserve water. But abandoning that practice can lead to notable changes in weather and increased capture of atmospheric
carbon in soils, along with significant economic and soil conservation benefits. “The surface-atmosphere exchange of carbon dioxide, water, and sensible heat across a dryland wheat-fallow rotation” from the 2016 journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment has details. Riparian zones (the areas around creeks and rivers) are the lifelines of arid and semiarid regions, and often corridors of great biologic diversity.
Recovery of these zones is the first step in restoring floodplain function. The before-and-after photos below show the change in Susie Creek (northeast Nevada) after better grazing management, then the return of
beavers and their water engineering skills. Even after a four-year drought (2012–2015) in which other ranchers were having to truck in water, the Susie Creek area still had perennial ponds and streams.
These are just a few examples of how better caring for the land can make major differences in many factors affecting the biosphere and the weather. A project that I founded with four colleagues, Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, has held ten conferences over the past three years, bringing together scientists and land managers from five continents. They have explained many instances of regenerative management that can return abundance to billions of desertified acres across the planet. (All conference videos are available for viewing on www.bio4climate.org.)