Kernza: A grain that restores soil and stabilizes the climate

If you’re not yet familiar with Kernza, you soon will.

Kernza® is a perennial grain — a wild relative of the familiar annual wheat — that’s been developed by The Land Institute in Kansas. Over years of painstaking research and breeding, they’ve been working to domesticate Kernza, selecting for traits like yield, seed size, and grain quality.

Image credit: The Land Institute

Kernza can be milled into flour and used alongside, or in place of, conventional wheat flour. It is still in the early stages of commercialization, so you’re unlikely to see it on your plate unless you specifically seek it out. But the Land Institute projects that the first Kernza variety will be more widely available by 2019, and there’s a reason why we should all be pretty excited about that:

Whereas the cultivation of our annual crops like our familiar wheat contribute to climate change, perennial crops help to reverse it.

Image: Jim Richardson

We currently eat mostly annual crops: they account for about 85% of human food calorie intake. But growing these crops involves tilling the soil, which releases a ton of soil carbon (which ends up in the atmosphere as CO2). Add to that the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides of conventional farming – all requiring heavy, fossil-fuel powered machinery — and you understand why agriculture is such a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

Perennials like Kernza, in contrast, are deep-rooted plants that don’t need to be reseeded and replanted each year. Because they don’t require tilling, they can grow massive root systems, which hold soil in place, prevent erosion, and improve the soil’s structure.

Big root systems and undisturbed soil equals a lot of carbon stored in the ground, out of the atmosphere. So here is Kernza’s tremendous promise: here’s a grain that can help with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The images below and on the left contrast the roots of perennial Kernza with roots of annual wheat. Kernza’s dense root system grows up to 10 feet down into the soil. Annual wheat simply doesn’t live long enough to develop thick roots.

Image credit: Lee DeHaan

The Land Institute’s goal has been to “develop an agricultural system featuring perennials with the ecological stability of the prairie.” In addition to developing perennial grains, they are also working on perennial legumes and oilseed crops. The crops they’ve developed are being grown on test plots around the world.

Kernza is now in the early stages of commercialization. The first company to develop a commercial retail product from Kernza grains was Patagonia Provisions, which partnered with Hopworks Brewery in Portland, OR, to develop its appropriately-titled Long Root Ale. This is the first beer to be made with Kernza, and it has some interesting flavor attributes specificially because Kernza’s roots reach so deep into the ground and fetch nutrients that annual wheat, barley or malt won’t. Long Root Ale is widely available at places like Whole Foods around the country, and has been celebrated as “a beer that’s good for the climate.”

This year, Cascadian Farms announced its partnership with the Land Institute to further help scale up Kernza and use it in actual food products. Other culinary leaders who have incorporated Kernza in their bread and baked goods offerings include the Birchwood Café and Dumpling and Strand in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, New York; and The Perennial in San Francisco, California.

So if you’re in one of these places, go and have a taste of Kernza — and give your support to the innovators who are boldly shifting our plates more towards perennials, deeply rooted in soil.

Farmer Story: Singing Frogs Farm

This Farmer Story is a special one because the very existence of Project Grounded owes itself, in part, to the food grown on Singing Frogs Farm.

I’d heard of this innovative regenerative vegetable farm even when I was still living on the opposite coast of the US as a novice regenerative agriculture enthusiast. But at that point, I was excited about regenerative farming, or carbon farming, in theory — because of what I knew about its climate-stabilizing potential and other ecological benefits. This changed when my ecological design studies brought me to live practically down the street from Singing Frogs Farm and I got to join their CSA program. When I actually started eating food every day from carbon-sequestering farm soil, I was utterly won over by its quality and flavor.

These were hands down the best veggies I’d ever eaten. They came in all the colors of the rainbow. My toddler and I kept popping the carrots and the cherry tomatoes in our mouths like they were candy. The greens and the brassicas had such delicious, subtle range of flavor to them that it wasn’t a chore at all to “eat your greens.” And it was clear that there was an intimate connection between the quality of the produce Singing Frogs Farm was growing, and the ecological farming methods for which they were so famous.

It was a light-bulb moment, really. Here is food that helps to slow down climate change, AND it is more nutrient-dense and makes me feel great, AND it tastes this amazing, too? Why aren’t we all farming and eating like this?

Singing Frogs Farm is a small farm: farmers Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser grow 140 different crops on only 3 acres. But it is one of the leading innovators of regenerative farming in the US. The Kaisers have won numerous sustainability awards and are frequently featured in the news. They are sought-after speakers at farming conferences around the country, and are actively training other farmers to be as successful as they have been in regenerative, soil-building farming.

The Kaisers increased their soil organic matter at a mind-blowing rate, from 2.4% in 2007 to an optimal 8% (and above) in just six years. Now, if you remember that soil organic matter is 57% carbon… and that that is what makes soils fertile… and that we’re losing that soil fertility at an alarming rate globally… and that increasing the carbon content in our soils is one of the most important things we can be doing, not the least because it helps to slow down climate change… you realize that these are some impressive, and important, results. This is carbon sequestration in action. And let’s not forget that that very same soil produces the amazing food that was love at first bite for me. Let’s also not forget that this soil-building has brought with it all kinds of other benefits to Singing Frogs Farm, such as a radical reduction in their need to irrigate. In drought-prone California, that is no minor detail.

How do they achieve all this? The Kaisers boil their farming method down to three core principles:

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible,
  2. Keep a diversity of living plants in the ground as often as possible, and
  3. Keep the soil covered and protected as often as possible.

Most importantly, Singing Frogs Farm is a no-till farm. Whereas most people think of farming and tilling the soil as synonymous, farming without tilling is not only possible, but the smarter way to farm. Tilling and plowing destroys the soil’s structure, compacts it, and destroys the very thing that gives it fertility — the organic matter.

As Paul Kaiser says, “As a farmer, the two things you need most in your soil are carbon for soil structure, and nitrogen for plant growth. So the very act of tillage takes out the two things you need in your soil, removing them, and creating greenhouse gas emissions.” Tillage also kills the soil-building earthworms and microbes and reduces the soil’s ability to hold water.

But the reverse is also true. Because conventional farming is a major greenhouse gas contributor, farming differently can put the carbon back into the soil. Farming has the greatest capacity of any industry to mitigate greenhouse gases, at the cheapest rate – simply through better soil management.

This is what the Kaisers practice and teach. Instead of tilling, they initially used a broadfork to aerate the soil. Now they haven’t used one in 5 years. Instead, they improve the soil with much greater quantities of compost than is the norm in organic farming. Keeping the soil covered at all times with mulches, and and keeping a living plant in the soil at all times also help to keep to keep the nutrients in the soil. Singing Frogs Farm relies heavily on transplants, rather than planting seeds directly into the soil. When one crop is harvested, new transplants are planted in that bed the very same day or the next day. This means that the soil is never left bare. It also prevents crop losses because during their most vulnerable stage, vegetable seedlings are in a protected nursery. This method allows Singing Frogs Farm to produce 3-8 sequential crops in 1 bed per year.

In addition, the farm has integrated perennials such as hedgerows for beneficial insects, windbreak, frost and heat reduction — and added carbon sequestration.

These practices are good for the earth, yes. But they have also made Singing Frogs Farm remarkably productive and profitable: the farm produces roughly $100,000 in vegetable sales per crop acre per year. That is multiple times the revenue of an average U.S. farm, even an organic farm. So one thing is clear: we don’t need to make a choice between the ecological and the economical. And as I and the many other devoted customers of Singing Frogs Farm can attest, there doesn’t need to a be a choice between the what’s good for the earth and what’s good for our palates and bodies. Farming well means eating well.

Perennial recipe: Apple rhubarb pie

What’s even better than opening the Fall pie season?

Opening the Fall pie season with a pie made with perennial foods.

Unless you’re a gardener, you probably don’t think of foods in terms of annuals vs. perennials. And “eat more perennials” rarely makes it to the Top 10 Things You Can Do To Slow Down Climate Change kinds of lists.

But incorporating more perennial foods — foods derived from perennial plants — into your diet is actually one big, delicious climate-friendly kitchen hack.

A perennial plant is any plant that grows and produces for more than one season. Think of an apple tree or a hazelnut bush. Annual plants (like wheat, soy, or annual vegetables) require tilling, re-planting, irrigating, fertilizing and harvesting each new season, all of which disturbs the soil and its carbon storage capability. Perennials, in contrast, are low-maintenance and low-impact. Because they don’t need to be tilled, they help to foster healthy soil. The slow and steady decomposition of their leaves and roots gradually adds more and more organic matter to the soil. All of those roots pushing down into the ground and branches reaching towards the sky, growing year after year, are helping to capture and lock down carbon that would otherwise stay in our atmosphere.

Perennials = more roots in the ground + less disturbance of soil = more carbon stored in the ground = climate-beneficial

Annuals = less extensive roots + frequent soil disturbance = more carbon released into the atmosphere = climate-destabilizing

So, with this lovely pie, we invite you to just start thinking and noticing more which of the foods you already eat are from perennials, and maybe start incorporating more of them into your cooking. Start with something as irresistible as a pie! Some of our most popular pie fillings in fact come from perennial plants: tree fruit, berries, and the common home garden vegetable, rhubarb. I made this apple rhubarb pie and it was perennial perfection: sweet, tart, with a flaky crust.

Grapes, nuts, asparagus, and artichoke are other great perennial foods that you can try in savory tarts.

And if you want to go all out and go 100% perennial, make your flour perennial too. We’ll talk about perennial grains in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, nut flours are nut-ritious, and increasingly easy to find.

And now… let’s eat!

In search of a “beyond-organic” cup of tea

For many of us, drinking tea is a daily ritual. Black, green, white, Oolong, herbal, loose, bagged… you let it steep and sit down with your steaming cup and. Pause.

But unless you live in a part of the world where tea is grown, you really only think of tea as the dried, processed leaves that come neatly bagged. Few of us ever even see an actual tea plant — the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis — or think much about where and how it grew. Yet with over 4 million tons of tea is produced annually around the world, we’re talking about a big industry with a big impact. And because we lift that cup to our lips, it’s our impact, too.

If you just want to reduce the impact of your bag of tea, choose organic, fair-trade tea.

But what if you could actually reverse the impact of your bag of tea — purchase tea produced in such a way that it actually improves the soils and ecosystems in which it grows? Or perhaps even builds soil and therefore sequesters carbon, helping to stabilize the climate through its very growing process?

In other words, when it comes to tea, what does “beyond organic” look like?

To find out, Project Grounded traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas near Darjeeling in Northwestern India.

The journey up the dizzyingly steep, winding roads, past tea plantations that glow in all the imaginable shades of green, takes you to Kurseong village, home to Makaibari Tea Estate. The estate has been in the same family for four generations and is currently owned by the charismatic Rajah Banerjee. Makaibari tea is famous among tea connoisseurs. But it also sets the bar higher than any other tea estate I know in terms of ecological stewardship and social responsibility.

Most tea estates, even the organic ones, are monoculture farms, and establishing them involved major deforestation. Makaibari does a few things differently. Yes, it’s organic; in fact, it was the first tea estate in the world to be certified organic in 1988. But that’s just a start. The tea plantings here are managed according to biodynamic and permaculture principles. Unlike your average tea estage, Makaibari retains 70% of its area under forest cover. Even areas were tea was planted look more like “tea forests”: the tea bush is a part of a multi-story system of trees and plants — grasses, herbs, legumes, fruit trees and the forest — all helping to build more topsoil. The entire system is storing carbon, and therefore taking it out of the atmosphere where there’s too much of it.

Makaibari takes its commitment to soil restoration seriously. It’s not an afterthought or “sustainability strategy” — it’s what they are about, and the tea is just a beautiful by-product of a healthy soil and ecosystem.

The topsoil layer here has traditionally been very thin due to the steep slopes and heavy rainfall of the monsoon season. But the trees and the forest supply wind break and a natural source of mulch, which helps to rebuild the soil. Every year, during the cool season when the tea plants are resting, compost is spread under the plants to further reinvigorate soil life. Masanobu Fukuoka, the legendary Japanese pioneer of no-till farming who just passed away last month, visited Makaibari already back in the 1980s and worked his soil fertility magic on these slopes. It seems that Makaibari has been “regenerative organic” long before that term was even coined.

But Makaibari extends its regenerative commitment to regenerating the local communities, too. Its initiatives for the surrounding villages range from health clinics and educational programs to micro-credit programs and sustainability efforts at village scale. Makaibari also runs a village homestay ecotourism program for those who come to visit the tea estate, the profits of which go to the families.

I wasn’t a tea connoisseur when I first began researching teas. But Makaibari tea really is unlike any tea I’ve tasted before: amber-colored, subtle, aromatic. When I drank my first cup — perfectly prepared by owner Rajah Banerjee — I’d just been walking up and down those misty slopes where the fragrance of tea lingers in the air. And in every cup since then, I have tasted little hints of vibrant, cared-for forest soil.

Makaibari Tea is available in the US at Arbor Teas.

See what’s possible: Restoring degraded landscapes

It’s been a challenging week to stay grounded. In the U.S. alone, from hurricanes Harvey and Irma to wildfires raging their way through the American West, we’ve seen the kind of footage that’s been used in documentaries and sci-fi films to illustrate how scary climate change would be — and it’s our reality, right now. And at the same time, politicians with fossil-fuel lobbyists’ hands in their pockets tell us that this is not the time to talk about climate change.

It’s times like this when it’s hard to resist the inner voice — or loud public voices — that say, “It’s too late, we’ve destroyed the planet and can’t possibly repair it.”

It’s times like this when we need to see, with our own eyes, that repair IS possible, even when some say it’s too late. Here are some of the most inspiring examples we know of large-scale landscapes that have been restored even though they were devastated to the point of collapse. Near-desertified land was brought back into agricultural production using regenerative practices.

We need to see to believe, and we need to believe to move to action. So this post is heavy on the visuals, with links to click for those of you who want to learn more.

This is what is possible.

 

China’s Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project

In China’s Loess Plateau, a degraded, desertifying region almost the size of Belgium has been transformed into thriving, verdant, food-producing landscapes. The project by the Chinese government and the World Bank Institute, famously documented by John Liu, managed to bring this land back into sustainable agricultural production, improving the livelihoods of 2.5 million people. By terracing the land, the restoration team was able to reduce erosion and water damage.

Loess Plateau before (1995) and after (2009). Image: Lush

What made this project so successful is that it engaged local people and officials alongside with experts on hydrology, soil conservation, agriculture etc. It offered local farmers incentives to change their practices to sustainable ones: they got paid to learn sustainable farming practices, and were given land tenure on the terraces. In other words, it solved social and economic problems alongside with ecological ones.

Loess Plateau before (1995) and after (2009). Image: Ecosystem Restoration Camps

 

Here’s a short excerpt from John D. Liu’s wonderful documentary, “Hope in a Changing Climate”:

Learn more about the Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project:

 

Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Restoration
Image: Tigrai Online

The success of the Loess Plateau project has sparked similar restoration projects in places such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, an acclaimed project has reversed desertification while providing training in sustainable livelihoods for women and young adults.

 

Reversing Desertification through Managed Grazing

Another effective mechanism for reversing desertification in the world’s dry grasslands has been Holistic Managed Grazing. In the image above, the land on the left side of the fence is under holistic management, meaning that grazing livestock is brought there periodically for intense but short periods of grazing and the land is then allowed to rest. The land on the right side doesn’t have grazing on it. So the next time someone tells you that livestock always, inevitably, causes desertification, send them to this TEDTalk by Allan Savory.

To highlight these positive examples is not to deny that we’re facing some very serious challenges. It’s to counter the attitude that we humans can only destroy, that we can’t solve the problems we’ve created. In all of the cases above, the problems were created by humans. But so were the solutions. The projects were ambitious, they required an incredible amount of work and funding, but they have been successful. They should inspire us to not bury our heads in the sand, but to ask the question:

What else is possible?

 

Regenerative Chocolate

That’s two of my favorite words right there.

And I know I’m not alone as a chocolate lover. There are few food items that we so powerfully associate with pleasure, comfort, and indulgence.

But pure chocolate — cacao — has also unique properties that are beneficial to health. In South America, cacao is called “food of the gods.” The Mayan and Aztec peoples called it chocolatl and consumed it as a sacred drink. It’s packed with antioxidants that are readily absorbed by our bodies. It’s also high in two nutrients most people don’t get enough of in their diets: magnesium, which is critical to brain chemistry and promotes happiness, and sulphur, which strengthens hair, nails, and the circulatory system and is anti-inflammatory.

But what most people know and taste as chocolate is far from this sacred food. Conventional chocolate is usually highly processed and loaded with sugar, milk, and hydrogenated oils. We’ve also gotten used to cheap chocolate — cheap because it’s been produced through extractive processes.

In recent years, a few organizations and journalists have exposed the use of child labor, sometimes even slavery, on cacao farms especially in Western Africa, where over 70% of cacao is grown. The demand for cheap chocolate has forced cacao prices down, so cacao farmers aren’t paid a living wage. Much less so the children — some of them as young as five — working on the farms and facing exploitative work conditions, hazardous work, and exposure to agricultural chemicals. With intricate, long supply chains involving farmers, buyers, wholesalers, exporters, importers and manufacturers, it’s virtually impossible to trace the origin of your chocolate bar, or guarantee that it’s been ethically produced.

So what is a conscious chocolate lover to do?

Seek out regenerative chocolate, which sets the bar truly high (no pun intended!).

A network of organizations and enterprises is at work to create a supply network characterized by trust and transparency, in which chocolatiers create partnerships directly with cacao farmers’ coops. In this way, they can bypass the multiple middlemen, brokers, warehouses, exporters and so on that have made transparent chocolate supply chains virtually impossible. These forward-thinking small chocolate companies engage in multi-capital exchange and ecological investing, ensuring fair wages and responsible ecosystem management where the cacao originates from.

 

The cacao growers who are a part of this supply network are demonstrating what regenerative farming looks like when thoroughly interwoven with the indigenous culture and deep knowledge of cacao’s ecosystem of origin, the incredibly diverse rainforest.

Because cacao can be grown in shade, it works great in multi-species agroforestry systems, which are excellent at storing of atmospheric carbon in the soil and plants. In other words, regeneratively grown cacao has the potential of being a “climate-beneficial” treat.

If grown and produced responsibly in this way, cacao has the potential for being an incredible leverage point in regenerating both local economies and ecosystems. As Gregory Landua of Terra Genesis International and Regenerative Cacao says, “Cacao can be the keystone species in an extremely productive (economically and biologically) forest matrix that functions as a carbon sink, a purveyor of cacao and other products important in the global economy, and a tool for shifting economic and social systems.”

Image: Cacoco

From the raw pods of the cacao plant, the process of fermenting, drying, roasting and cracking takes you to the final product. If you want to taste real, high-quality, regeneratively produced chocolate, here’s a list of pioneering brands. We recommend them all!

Still hungry for more… info about what makes this kind of chocolate regenerative? Check out these links:

 

New to the regenerative movement? Start here

Project Grounded is one of the newest initiatives within an emerging movement of organizations and enterprises dedicated to advancing regenerative farming — the climate solution right beneath our feet.

If you’re quite new to this movement, it may be hard to know where to start. That’s why we compiled this little “Beginner’s Guide to the Regenerative Movement”—a list of cool resources, links, and projects for those of you who want to understand regeneration and the “ecosystem” of regenerative organizations a little better. Bookmark these, go down a few rabbit holes, and tell your friends about the parts of the journey that get you the most excited.

1. get the big picture

This visually stunning video, “Soil Solutions to Climate Change,” is narrated by Michael Pollan and takes only 4 minutes of your time. If soil biology put you to sleep during school biology, this little video will bring it to life for you—and make clear why soil is suddenly such a big deal. It’s available in English, French, Chinese and Finnish at Soil Solutions’ home page.

 

 

2. What’s the Definition of Regenerative Agriculture?

Well, there’s a whole website — created by Terra Genesis International — dedicated just to answering that question. And it provides one of the clearest definitions out there.

 

3. get inspired

Kiss the Ground, the LA-based non-profit, is masterful at inspiring media and storytelling around the incredible potential of soil to resolve some of our biggest problems. Follow them on social media and you can count on inspiration and positive stories coming into your feed. They’re also getting ready to release Kiss the Ground the Book later this year and Kiss the Ground the Film in 2018!

 

4. learn about regenerative projects around the world

Regeneration International is Project Grounded’s partner organization and one of the best sources of up-to-date news, events listings, and connections if you’re interested in anything related to regenerative agriculture. But we specifically want to highlight the Regeneration Hub, the interactive online platform they initiated with a few other organizations. This tool allows you to search projects, individuals, funders and communities working on regeneration in your region. It’s the first initiative to facilitate a global network of regenerators, and a great way to connect and to learn more.

5. Other initiatives working for the soil-based climate solution

We have no time to waste. Thankfully, a number of excellent initiatives and non-profit organizations are hard at work advocating for soil restoration as a climate solution — whether through policy, research, farmer education, or funding.

 

6. but regenerative farming is just one part of a bigger project…

…that is, the project known as Drawdown, getting the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to start declining year by year. Check out Project Drawdown and their book, Drawdown, released just this year and outlining the 100 most substantive existing solutions to address climate change.

 

7. fund a carbon farm (you can do it from your phone)

Now that you know more about what regenerative farming is and why it is key to the future of this planet, you probably want to know how you can support farms that are committed to regenerative practices. Grow Ahead is an online lending and funding program where you can lend directly to small-scale family farmers (mostly in the developing world) who are addressing the challenge of climate change in their communities through regenerative agriculture.

The CarbonToSoil mobile app is an innovative project, developed in Finland, to cool the earth: you can support a regenerative farm from your phone and see the impact of your aid. Through CarbonToSoil,

“consumers get to participate in agriculture where regenerative farming is used to draw carbon from the atmosphere into the soil more efficiently than before. Through the app anyone can support farms to change their agricultural methods to regenerative farming. The app also allows the user to personally participate in food production and to see how food is grown.”

Image: CarbonToSoil

You can find the app in App Store and Google Play using search words carbontosoil and reverse climate.

 

9. Become a regenerative consumer

Lastly, Project Grounded (that’s us). Our focus is on empowering the ordinary urban/suburban consumer to participate in this exciting adventure of regenerating and restoring our planet and stabilizing the climate. This solution is not just for farmers and soil scientists; even if you live in a rented urban apartment, you have a role to play. We’re committed to making that process as easy and enlivening for you as possible.  We’re still in start-up mode, but are working on something exciting we hope to roll out in early 2018. Subscribe to our list so you don’t miss our news and updates and we’ll send you the free Regenerative Consumer Toolkit!

Farmer Story: Many Hands Organic Farm

Things are busy at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts. Not only are farmers Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge running a 70-person CSA and a sustainability non-profit; they also educators, organizers, and active advocates of carbon farming — or regenerative agriculture — in their state. They are in a good position to do this work: Julie is the Executive Director of NOFA Mass (Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter), and Jack is also on NOFA staff as the carbon analyst and the editor of The Natural Farmer.

Julie recalls the moment when carbon farming became her mission. At NOFA/Mass and Bionutrient Food Association’s Soil and Nutrition  annual conference in 2014, she listened to the Australian soil consultant Graeme Sait give an impassioned speech about how farmers hold the key to one of the most promising climate change solutions: by using farming practices that build soil, they can draw excess carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

“It was a turning point for me – as the executive director of NOFA Mass, and also as a farmer. […] I had been feeling bad about climate change, and wishing there was something I could do about it. For me it was like, ‘Well, this is what we can do.’ And I have the capacity in my role as the executive director of NOFA and my capability as an organizer to really spread the word about it.”

And spread the word they did. Over the last few years, NOFA Mass has made a special effort to educate farmers about carbon farming. Its annual conferences – the latest of which occurred just last week – have lately featured a dedicated “Regenerative Track.” The keynote speakers at the conferences have been leaders in the regenerative movement: Christine Jones, Greg Judy, Eric Toensmeier, and most recently Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, the successful regenerative vegetable farmers of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA. A couple of years ago, Jack wrote the white paper “Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology Do the Job?” that you may have seen if you’ve been following the regenerative movement for a while: Regeneration International has had it translated into 10 languages, and it remains one of the most accessible explanations out there of how farming could mitigate the changing climate.

Through their work at NOFA, Jack and Julie have their finger on the pulse of the organic farmer population in Massachusetts, most of whom are now at least familiar with carbon farming. “By now, it’s a part of people’s vocabulary,” Julie says. Even if some are resistant to adopting any new techniques, they are conscious of carbon farming. Many are trying to figure out how to change their tilling practices.

One of Jack and Julie’s goals has been to figure out how to make it relatively feasible for annual vegetable farmers in the Northeast to adopt these practices in a way that’s also economically viable. And what better way to do so than to experiment on their own farm?

Started in 1982, Many Hands Organic Farm was certified organic in 1987. Currently, Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson run a 70 person CSA and raise and sell pasture-raised eggs, broiler chickens, turkeys, beef, and pork. In the last couple of years, Julie has experimented with various ways of practicing little or no tillage, from sheet mulching to cover cropping, green pathways, and heavy mulching. She had already started building carbon in the pastures through mob-stocking pasture management earlier.

At the beginning of this year, Jack and Julie sold their rototiller. At this point, the farm is completely no-till.

And there’s been a corresponding rise in the quality of their produce, and the consistency of production—even though 2016 saw the region’s worst drought since the couple started their farm. The flavor, the texture, and colors of the vegetables did not go unnoticed by customers, who couldn’t get enough of them.

This should give a pause to those farmers who are reluctant to transition to carbon-restoring farming practices “because we need to make a living.” Many Hands is one of many cases demonstrating that building soil makes economical, not just ecological, sense: healthier soil means healthier crops, which means better profits.

 

 

As if this wasn’t enough work, Rawson and Kittredge are also involved in what might be called social regeneration. Through the Many Hands Sustainability Center, their non-profit partner organization, they offer a year-round employment opportunity for recovering addicts and former prisoners. The work on the farm aids these men on their path to recovery and independence, as they get to apply their skills in a meaningful way, and work outside with plants and animals. Some young men from a nearby institutional home also come to volunteer or occasionally work for a summer. Jack and Julie describe this as “high risk, high gain work,” but their commitment and heartfelt desire to help is evident in the way they speak about it. Truly, there are many hands at work at Many Hands Organic Farm – and a lot of care not just for the biology and fertility of the soil, but for the people treading upon it.

Urban Carbon Farming: Climate-friendly gardening tips

Farming is making headlines as a tool for mitigating climate change. By using farming practices that restore and rebuild soil, farmers can draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.

But what about those of us who live in urban or suburban areas? Are we once again just bystanders to a promising climate solution?

Of course not! We can become urban carbon farmers!

Even if you only have access to land in the form of a postage stamp-sized backyard, you can start caring for that land in a way that stores more carbon in the soil. If you live in an apartment and have no yard, you can join a community garden or participate in creating urban food forests in your community.

True, urban and suburban folks can’t implement large-scale carbon farming projects of hundreds or thousands of acres. But the cumulative impact could be huge. In the US alone, we have over 40 million acres of lawn, and who knows how many more acres of home vegetable gardens and landscaped yards. Add to that the conventionally landscaped public parks and green spaces. Imagine the potential if we could transform how all of that land is managed!

Here are some tips for starting to “farm” carbon in your own garden. Contrary to what you may think, some of these gardening techniques may actually be a lot less work: no-till gardening is sometimes called “gardening for lazy people.”

1. Minimize tilling and digging

We dig this method — metaphorically, of course. Heavy tilling destroys the soil’s structure and the soil biology that feeds plants, and contributes to erosion. Many of us imagine that you have to till in order to grow plants.  But that’s not the case: check out this inspiring video of an abundant no-till garden!

If you follow the steps below, you’re giving soil fertility a continuous boost without tilling. The more you can avoid disturbing the soil and the natural layering that occurs, the better. As for aerating and loosening the soil, the broadfork is a fantastic tool for doing so  without turning the soil over.

 

2. Heavy mulches

One of the most climate-friendly things you can do in your garden is never leave your soil bare. Mulching protects the soil, suppresses weeds, and invites in tiny gardeners’ assistants such as earthworms. Mulching materials slowly break down to create topsoil with a lot of organic matter (and that means: a lot of carbon).

You can use organic materials such as straw, wood chips, and compost to create a thick mulch, and plant right through the mulch. If starting a garden from scratch, sheet mulching is a great way to suppress weeds, invite in a lot of earthworms, and build carbon.

3. Cover crops

Another good principle: always keep a living root in the soil. In your vegetable rotations, rather than letting a garden bed lie fallow, use this time to grow a cover crop. Cover crops are crops planted primarily to suppress weeds and add more nutrients into the soil. They are also great for sequestering more carbon. Any small annual grains (wheat, rye, oats, or buckwheat) or legumes like hairy vetch, winter peas, and crimson clover will do well.

After blooming, but before it goes to seed, the cover crop is cut down or rolled down and becomes a mulch. If your garden plot is small, you can hoe down the cover crop using hand tools. If you have more land, check out this article on tools. And this great video shows a DIY, low-tech method for rolling down cover crops.

You can then plant the next crop directly into the cut-down cover crop mulch. You can plant as seeds any plants that send up strong, sturdy seedlings (think corn, squash, beans, cucumbers or melons). With flimsier plants, you’ll have better success if you transplant them as seedlings.

 

5. Compost!

Compost all your food scraps and garden waste. You will not only reduce the greenhouse-gas emitting waste that ends up in the landfill, but also provide food and habitat for the bacteria, fungi and tiny critters that healthy soil needs.

 

6. Integrate perennials into your garden

 With perennial plants such as trees and shrubs, you really don’t need to till or dig the soil. Once established, they require much less care than annuals, and all those big roots going deep into the ground and creating more forest-like habitat means greater biodiversity in your garden… and more carbon stored in the soil. The options are endless: fruit trees, berry shrubs, nut trees or shrubs, rhubarb, artichoke…

As Eric Toensmeier points out, berry shrubs are the perfect gateway plant to perennials: they’re delicious, they’re really good for you, and they’re easy to grow – many of them thrive even in shady areas. Integrate perennials and annuals within the same growing area into a multi-story, multi-species “food forest” that makes for an incredible urban carbon pump. Don’t let the word “forest” throw you off: this can be done on a small scale even on a small urban lot, with a single dwarf variety fruit tree as the centerpiece.

 

7. Drop all pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (if you haven’t already)

They kill soil biology. They’re harmful to your health, too. Need we say more?

 

8. If you insist on a lawn:

We think there are a lot more exciting things to do with your yard than a lawn: turning your lawn into food, planting a garden prettier than a lawn, or having a “natural yard” with tall, meadow-like grasses.

But if you’re one of those people who must have a lawn, follow these key principles of climate-friendly lawn care:

  • Start phasing out all chemical fertilizers.
  • Include non-grass plants, like clover, in your planting mix.
  • When you do mow, set your mower height to at least 3” and leave the grass clippings on the lawn.

 

Beyond the Carbon Footprint: Embedded Energy and the Resource Shed

An introduction to embedded energy, supply chains, and product origins

By now, the term ‘carbon footprint’ is a part of our shared vocabulary. But how many of us have actually been moved to radically change our consumption habits because of it? Unfortunately, the data behind our individual carbon footprints is often difficult to follow and hard to understand, making our daily choices as a conscious consumer more challenging. I propose that in addition to being aware of our own carbon footprint, we each pay close attention to what might be called our personal “resource-shed.”

Much like the health of each ecosystem depends on its local watershed, we each are dependent on a multitude of resources, each with very particular geographic origins and complex supply chains.

While most of the goods we consume are locally available or can be shipped directly to our doorsteps, the materials that go into these goods have wide-ranging geographic origins, each with diverse and complex supply chains and production methods. Often the convenience of having such a wide range of goods at our literal fingertips undermines our ability to follow the supply chain to the raw material sources, muddling our understanding of how vast our individual ecological footprint can be.

We can begin to think of all the resources we use, all the products we consume, as contributing to our own personal “resource-shed.” Our “resource-shed” is the physical geographic area and accompanying raw materials that are required to manufacture everything we consume.

For example, the cotton t-shirt you’re currently wearing could be made of cotton grown in India. After being harvested, it was transported to a facility where it was milled and processed into fabric, then transported to Bangladesh where it was sewn into a garment. The t-shirt was then packaged in plastic and shipped across the ocean to a distribution warehouse before it was stocked in your local store. While you might say the resource-shed that supports your lifestyle via the cotton t-shirt is multiple regions in India and the factory in Bangladesh, there are several more factors. The cotton was transported between the processing facility in India and the factory in Bangladesh in an Isuzu truck, a Japanese vehicle. The plastic packaging was manufactured in China, and the oil for the vehicles originates in Malaysia. All of a sudden, your $5 t-shirt, which says made in Bangladesh, couldn’t have gotten to you without contributions from India, China, Japan and Malaysia.

This example isn’t intended to burden or intimidate you  only to show the idea of Embedded Energy its full glory. The t-shirt’s footprint includes not only the cotton it was made from, but also the energy and raw materials necessary to create it from crop to finished product.

In our global world, think about how vast our individual resource-sheds are when we combine together every item we have ever owned! It takes nearly our whole planet to supply and support our lifestyles. Every action we take or item we purchase has numerous direct and indirect ecological and social effects embedded into the action or item itself.

Even though thinking of our consumption in terms of a personal resource-shed might feel somewhat challenging, it is a valuable thought experiment insofar as we can begin to trace the rippling, nuanced effects of each of our choices. Awareness and curiosity is the first step.

If you’re up for it, select a nearby object and hypothesize in the comments below:

  1. What is the geographic resource-shed that this product originates from?
  2. What aspects of its production contribute Embedded Energy into the final product?