Soil, Not Oil

jim gatesWe are losing 1.7 billion tons of topsoil every year in America. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize systems are breaking down and we need to take action. According to Rodale Institute, one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions could be offset by global changes in farming practices. Land Trusts can help solve some of the largest environmental problems that our society faces today.

Excess carbon in the atmosphere is causing our planet to overheat. It is acidifying the oceans and threatening marine life. Carbon sequestration is an issue we need to address to ensure our future. I believe with education and activism we can make a difference. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose. The answer is literally under our feet. Carbon is not a bad thing; it is an essential building block of life. We only need to get it back into the soil and in balance.

There are pools of carbon in our soil, atmosphere, ocean, and earth’s crust. When humans began pumping carbon out of the planet in the form of oil extraction, the earth’s carbon pools became out of balance. Population growth and the way most crops are grown in the U.S. compounds the carbon-related problems we face.

So how does soil store carbon?

Mother Nature has come up with a pretty clever equation.

Through photosynthesis, plants take carbon from the atmosphere, combine it with water and light, to create sugar and oxygen. The carbon is stored in the green matter, trunks, roots, branches and leaves of plants. Plants take carbon in through their leaves and exude carbon-rich sugars from their roots to attract and feed microbes like soil bacteria and fungi. All living creatures depend on plants in some way. Carbon also gets back into the system after it is eaten or decomposes.

Carbon is released into the atmosphere when soil is damaged by tillage, overgrazing, growing monocultures, or the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These farm practices speed up the decomposition process and create less soil organic matter (SOM).

Soil has the unique ability to trap carbon in the form of humus. The decomposition process starts with larger animals like rabbits and voles and eventually bacteria, algae, nematodes and fungi complete the procedure of turning carbon into humus. The soil food web is a busy place with more soil microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than there are people on the earth! As soil breaks down into humus, it becomes more stable and complex. Humus is 60 percent carbon.

Incorporating animals onto the landscape is a great way to build soil. Cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens add fertilizer and provide a catalyst for microbial life. Planting perennial grasses provides an important feed source for the animals while growing quickly and storing carbon in the soil. When animals graze, they don’t consume all the grass. Some grass get trampled into the soil where it starts the decomposition process on its way to becoming humus. Animals also remove invasive weeds and promote the growth of healthy grasses. Their hooves break up the upper crust that forms on the soil surface and can help facilitate the percolation of water.

Cover cropping, crop rotations, spreading compost and practicing no-till farming are all ways that large scale farms and small farms alike can help store carbon and build SOM.  Along with building humus, these practices also create food that tastes better, provides beneficial insect habitats and creates less pollution.

Land Trusts making a difference

All the practices that help sequester carbon in the soil also create a more stable and resilient landscape. In these times of climate change and more dramatic weather patterns, resiliency is a commodity I want to have more of. This is achieved by creating soils that can retain more moisture, be more disease resistant, and have higher levels of microbial life.

Bear Yuba Land Trust is a champion of this cause. We currently protect 4,500 acres of rangeland used for agriculture: Linden Lea Ranch, Pioneer Dawson Nichols Ranch, Quail Ranch, Wild Rock Ranch and Garden Bar Preserve. Open spaces like Land Trust Preserves catch water and grow vegetation more than paved and impervious developed lands. In partnership with area ranchers, BYLT runs cattle on Garden Bar Preserve and is looking at more holistic management tools for other properties we own.

In addition to grazing operations, BYLT provides land for Sierra Harvest’s Food Love Project at Burton Homestead, an organic educational farm. BYLT is actively pursuing a program that matches young farmers with willing landowners who desire to make their land available for the next generation. BYLT advocates for sustainable agriculture and holistic rangeland stewardship and participates in a number of public and civic events to ensure local food sources are protected and supported.

By supporting farms that practice these techniques that help sequester carbon, we ensure that they will be around tomorrow. When you buy from area farmers, you support a local economy, while reducing the carbon footprint of shipping food. On average, food travels 1,500 miles before it gets to our plate. In many ways, healthy soil is more important than oil. Let’s vote with our dollars and our forks. The future depends on it.

~ Trails Coordinator, Shaun Clarke