An Open Letter about Soil and Carbon

An open letter from former Clallam County resident Don Wilkin,
now living in the Midwest

Dear Colleagues,

The urgency that moved me to start the EAT FOR GOOD food and farming network a few years back is coming to a head. The perfect storm of global climate change, soil deterioration, fossil fuel depletion, deforestation, and population growth is bearing down on us, and not enough people in the world are even aware of it, let alone doing anything about it. My “good news” message today is that agricultural research out of Australia’s premiere national science organization, CSIRO, is a beacon of hope for the fastest and best way forward. The world’s farmers must, in their judgment, lead the way.

The world’s farm- and rangelands are seriously desertified and overgrazed, resulting in regional hydrology drying up, while bare fallow cropland and overgrazed rangeland are capturing heat, evaporating moisture, and spewing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The answer, CSIRO says, is rapidly re-greening the world’s farmland year-round, restoring the world’s agricultural soils.

Not surprisingly, they recommend regenerative organic practices for building soil organic carbon, but with an emphasis on crop biodiversity, afforestation, and livestock grazing not common here in the U.S. They recommend zero till, highly diverse cover crops year-round (at least a dozen species, preferably more,) absolutely no synthetic fertilizers or biocides (if you’re bothered with weeds or pests, your covers haven’t been diverse enough long enough,) a diverse cash crop rotation grown simultaneously with living cover crops, and the use of mob-grazed livestock.

The miracle of rapid soil organic carbon accumulation depends on a multiplicity of plant species growing together year-round in a mutualistic symbiotic community, interconnected by the soil microbial community, particularly mycorrhizal fungi. CSIRO’s drumbeat goes like this: soil organic carbon is the single most important driver of 1) ecosystem services, 2) soil moisture holding capacity, 3) enhanced productivity, 4) soil nutrient status, 5) nutritional density of produce, 6) public health, and 7) farm profitability.

The list of ecosystem services provided by healthy soil and the farming practices that produce it includes enhanced evapotranspiration and more dependable regional rainfall; greater resilience to drought; prevention of floods; ground water and deep aquifer recharge; diverse wildlife, fisheries, pollinator, and microbial communities providing environmental stability that moderates disease and pest outbreaks; wildfire suppression; agricultural nutrient retention and recycling; nutrient density of produce and community health; more moderate ground surface temperatures; and, of course, sequestering carbon to mitigate global climate change.

This makes healthy soil a public utility of immense potential importance. Farmers, as stewards of this vital resource, should, by right, be paid for building and protecting it. But the farmers I know don’t want handouts. They DO want to be paid a fair price for a valuable crop, and there is no more valuable crop in the world than soil organic carbon.

In line with what Dr. Christine Jones of CSIRO has proposed, farmers should be paid for stored soil organic carbon. After a lot of thought, I would have farmers measure their soil organic matter after harvest each fall and they would be paid $20 for each percent of SOM per acre in their soils as compensation for the whole suite of ecosystem services they presumably provide. A thousand acres averaging 2.5% SOM would receive a payment of $50,000. At 4%, it would pay $80,000. CSIRO’s farming practices recommended above, followed assiduously, would result in about half a percent SOM per year improvement. In 3 to 5 years, the reduction in operating costs and increased productivity would substantially enhance profitability. This kind of financial incentive, funded by a universal tax on carbon, would elicit meaningful and timely buy-in on the part of the world’s farmers. It would certainly be worth writing email messages of support to your senators and your congressional representative.

We have a selling job to do. Regenerative farmers are providing valuable ecosystem services to society directly in proportion to the soil organic matter in their soil. We should be monitoring our SOM and making a big deal of it in the media every fall. We should also be doing Brix tests on our produce and telling people what it means. The world needs to wake up to the existential value of regenerative farming. We need to do whatever it takes to inform the public about the foundational importance of perennially green farmland and the soil organic carbon it sequesters.

Anybody with ideas about how we could get a testing program going, please let me know your thoughts. Don

You may enjoy a film relating to this subject, Kiss the Ground.