Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Healthy Soils Hold Carbon The Right Way

4th Annual Western Slope Soil Health Conference
Had a great time attending the 2014 Soil Health Conference in Delta, CO last week. I'm a semi retired organic grass farmer/rancher so the topics were very close to my heart. Speakers covered Green Cover Crops and No Till farming, along with a great movie called "Symphony of the Soils". It's amazing what people are doing and how these speakers travel extensively to spread the word. The message is pretty simple....

Healthy Soils Hold More Carbon

Where is most of the Carbon stored on planet Earth? Here is the breakdown according to Wikipedia:

  • Atmosphere = 720 Gigatonnes
  • Biomass (like trees) = 575 Gigatonnes
  • Soils = 2700 Gigatonnes

Six inches of healthy topsoil will hold tons of Carbon  in the soil underneath.  Why so much more than the plants and air above ground? Because healthy soil has billions of living things in it, all using carbon every second of every day. 1 Teaspoon of healthy soil can hold as much as a billion bacteria. When we plow up our soils we release that carbon into the air at the expense of that underground life. Mother nature hates bare soil but loves diversity so why do so many farmers plow a field at the end of the season and leave bare soil so much of the year. Did you know most farmers will disturb the same soil 4-5 times per year. Why do we plant fields in monoculture crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans that require massive tilling of the soil each time?
My favorite speaker at the conference by far was Gail Fuller. He runs his own farm and still finds time to travel and spread his ideas while listening and learning along the way. Here's a link to one of his talks: You can also catch a video here about his Farming in Natures Image. Gail is all about using cover crops and no till farming. He no longer plows up his fields. When he plants, he plants up to a dozen different varieties of plants using no till seed drills that plant the seeds in the residue left by his previous plantings. When that planting reaches maturity, he will harvest the "Cash Crop" out of the mix, and then brings in a mob of livestock to eat and trample the vegetation. All that manure and urine gets absorbed as nutrients into the ground so the soil organisms can convert it into nutrients used by earthworms, dung beetles, and future plants. He also will broadcast seed (throw it out on top of the ground) in front of the livestock and let them trample the seed into the ground. Mob grazing has been proven to trigger plants, seeds, and soils to respond like crazy. It goes back to the hundreds of thousands of years of conditioning that happened as the great bison herds roamed the plains. These huge herds would come in, graze and trample everything into the ground along with the manure and urine. The ground would then get a long rest period. This cycle was repeated over and over again in nature. The process created incredibly fertile soils and increased the layer of topsoil farmers found when they moved West. Farmers moved because they were rapidly depleting the soil behind them. Modern farming practices have been take, take, take and have removed that fertility instead of building on what we found. The USDA states that US farmers in 2007 lost on average 4-5 tons of topsoil per acre every year ! Roughly half to runoff, and half to wind blowing it away. We have got to stop doing this. As Gail said in the conference,

"If we don't stop farming this way, our grandchildren will be farming on rock!"

 The good news is that more and more farmers are listening. A new generation of farmers are starting to take over their parents farms and have seen what modern farming does and want a better way. Many of these "New Ideas" are actually pretty close to the way we farmed a few generations ago. When Keith Berns of Green Cover Seed was asked what varieties of cover crops worked best, he said "The old ones. We look for varieties that were in use 100 years ago." WOW ! Why.... Because seed producers have spent the last 100 years hybridizing plants to produce the greatest amount of seed, on the smallest possible plant. That meant more money for the grain seller, but at the cost of soil health to the rest of us. In the old days, a plant grew large and lush to produce seed. After harvesting the grain, the plant was grazed and all that residue went back to nourish the soil. Today it's all about the grain and no where near as much plant residue is returned to the soil.
In case this wasn't enough, our use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers have nearly sterilized the soil. Chemical fertilizers are like salting the earth. That is what you do when you want to poison the soil. Pesticides wipe out beneficial bugs right along with the unwanted ones. In nature, there are predator bugs to take out every bug we call a pest. When you nuke all bugs, nature is out of balance and we see pesticide resistant bugs (Super Bugs) increasing in numbers every year while our beneficial insects including bees are dying off.
I could go on all day about this so better find an ending here. What can you do???
It's simple really. Look to nature. Take a walk in your favorite natural setting. Look around and look at all the incredible diversity. Get down on the ground and take a look. Move some of the plant debris aside and look at all those bugs, and worms, and tiny little things living there. Smell the earth, look at the color of the water when it rains. This is what a healthy farm also looks like. Now go take a tour of a local farm and see how many places you can find nature. Look around their barns, walk out into their fields, look at the edges of their farm along the fence lines and the driveway. Is that farm blending in with nature, or are they fighting to change it into bare soils with a single crop growing in endless rows. We need to move away from massive mono crop farms and food systems that rely on transporting semi loads of products over a thousand miles. Support that local farmer that farms with nature instead of against it. The soil is everything to a true farmer, and it should be to us as well.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year’s Resolution: No More Petroleum Plastic – Switch to Compostables

Make 2014 the year you get petrol plastic out of your business and switch to compostable products.

Petroleum based plastics are just bad for the environment. No nice way around it. Did you know that the majority of recycled plastic collected was sold and shipped to China? We’ve been exporting our scrap for 20 years. China used to gobble it up and scrap became our largest export to China. Well China decided they want to clean up this act and instituted Operation Green Fence. Most of this was implemented to reduce the amount of contaminated product. Why the change? Well in part it’s due to the switch to easy single stream recycling in the US where you can just mix everything you recycle into one bin? Guess what… that increases the amount of contamination because people tend to just toss anything plastic in the bin without checking to see if it is actually recyclable.

China’s change has hit recyclers hard.

If their shipment of recyclables gets to China and has too many contaminants (limit is 1.5%) in it, the shipment is refused. WOW ! Now they have paid to ship it from the US to China and no buyer. That means they have to find a new buyer and pay to have it shipped again. Usually that means it goes to some other Asian location where the tightly bound bundle gets torn apart, and sorted the way it should have been done in the first place to remove any contaminants.
The impact has been huge. US Recyclers are not set up to sort this stuff and cannot afford the risk of it being rejected, so the recycled waste is piling up. Many areas ran out of room so have to send it to the landfill. The good news is that this change is forcing a lot of recyclers including municipalities to put in the sorting systems needed to keep recycling clean! It will take time, and add to the cost of recycling.

Make your New Year’s Resolution to get plastic out of your business and switch to plant based compostables. Don’t put off the decision any longer. Make the change over the course of the year if needed. Take small steps that become bigger strides. You know it’s the right thing to do, now more than ever.