Humans have been tilling the soil for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, we've mostly been focused on what we take out of it - bushels of wheat, barrels of apples and so on. But as researchers learn more about how soil and its organic components actually work, it's become clear that farming has a role to play in climate change.
An estimated 15% of greenhouse gases are generated from farming activity. But there might be a way to store more of those gases in the soil by taking better care of it.
Dr. Dorn Cox is a farmer and research director at Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment in Freeport. He spoke with Jennifer Mitchell about the emerging science and practice of regenerative agriculture.
COX: Regenerative agriculture is, essentially, in contrast to extractive agriculture. Agriculture is, essentially, this culture of the field in managing the environment in which we live. And we have a history in agriculture of extraction and degradation. But we also have the alternative potential. And so regenerative agriculture is looking at the science of how we both measure that and quantify that, and then inform how we act as beneficial organisms to improve the environmental outcomes and human outcomes through our work with each other, and then reflecting that in managing our environment.
At the moment, we have some really excellent examples in the modern soil health movement, where we're seeing farmers around the country and around the world who have been able to quantify an improvement of not just accumulated carbon, but increased biodiversity, increased weather resilience, and all of the other beneficial aspects that come when you improve the health and quality of the soil also.
MITCHELL: So basically, then, would it be fair to say that perhaps rather than just looking at the soil as sort of the dirt out of which good things grow, that it's actually more important than that?
It's far more important than that. And I think, culturally, we've always known this, but the science in the last few decades has really advanced where we can look at the microbial hordes that support all of us, that actually created a livable climate in the first place, this process of photosynthesis, gathering atmospheric carbon, producing oxygen and putting that carbon into living roots and into the living organisms below that actually created the environment that supports more life.
I imagine there are a good few people out there listening right now who, you know, they garden, they may have small farms, and they don't have any idea what we're talking about. They think, ‘Well, how can I how can I start doing this?’ So how can people start doing it?
Well, that's the amazing thing - is that everybody in their backyard can participate in improving the quality of their soil in the area of land that they control. And that's part of what this agriculture as a public science is all about, is that we can share what works in a way that we can accumulate our knowledge faster. So, it's participating in and working with our conservation districts in trialing new varieties and new cover crops, and tillage or reduced tillage methods. It's this process of agriculture as a shared collaborative culture.
So, you mentioned tillage just now. What about that? Because the standard practice I think has been for a lot of people to, you know, you go out and you rent a rototiller in the springtime and you turn up a bunch of soil and maybe put some stuff back in it. Are you saying that that's not necessarily the best way to do it?
Yeah, it's really interesting. It's not that it's necessarily always the wrong thing. But what we now know is that by disturbing soil we can disrupt the habitat for the microorganisms that are incredibly important for building soil health and capturing carbon in the soil. Tilling, essentially, will introduce additional oxygen into the soil, but it will also break up some of the fragile fungal networks in the soil and collapse the airspace in the soil that is necessary for organisms to live and breathe.
Essentially, if you think about the soil as a house, the living organisms live in the space between the bricks, and the soil aggregates that are created over time by those organisms are, essentially, the mortar creating the space that they need to they need to live, that allows for air and water to get into the soil. When you till it's the equivalent of a wrecking ball through a brick house. And so that collapses, and there's no place to live, and the water that hits the soil will run off rather than infiltrate. And so, tillage is an important practice in transitioning from one crop to another, but it needs to be done very consciously.
How important is this and what's at stake here?
The health of the human experiment. A mentor of mine, Dennis Meadows, who's at UNH, once said, ‘You know, the earth is going to be fine - you know, it will balance out in several thousand years, it's really up to us.’
Whether there was a climate crisis, or whether there's a rapidly changing climate or not, these approaches to agriculture and how we interact with each other and our environment are beneficial either way, in terms of sort of shifting our approach to a scarcity economy to one that's built on abundance, and improving our environment rather than extracting from it.
This story is part of a week-long reporting project “Covering Climate Now,” by Maine Public and more than 300 other news outlets around the world. The series comes in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday Sept. 23 in New York. More information at MainePublic.org/climatenow.