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Agriculture needs to take a few steps back, forget modern styles

Maybe no one’s going so far as to say that farmers should return to the horse and plow, as is practiced at El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, shown in this photo. But some argue that other old farming practices, such as fertilizing with manure and raising livestock on grass, are just the thing needed to store carbon dioxide in the soil and combat global warming. (Whitman Johnson/Albuquerque Journal)

Maybe no one’s going so far as to say that farmers should return to the horse and plow, as is practiced at El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, shown in this photo. But some argue that other old farming practices, such as fertilizing with manure and raising livestock on grass, are just the thing needed to store carbon dioxide in the soil and combat global warming. (Whitman Johnson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, all agriculture was organic and grass-fed. Saving seeds, composting, fertilizing diverse crops with manure, not tilling and raising livestock entirely on grass was the norm over a century ago. Yet today, these are just the approaches we associate with sustainable food production.

We all know what happened as we modernized – the plow, the tractor, fossil fuels, monocrops, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, feedlots, animal byproducts, e. coli, genetically modified organisms and erosion. We farmed faster, and we farmed more acreage. These are all practices and conditions that most Americans now consider “normal,” if they think about agriculture at all.

Fortunately, a movement to rediscover and implement “old” practices of bygone days has risen rapidly, abetted by innovations in technology, breakthroughs in scientific knowledge and tons of old-fashioned, on-the-ground problem-solving.

Take Dorn Cox, a young farmer in New Hampshire. He tossed away the plow, preferring to use no-till practices on his parent’s organic farm; then he developed a biodiesel alternative to fossil fuels. He measures the carbon content of the soil through sophisticated technology, aiming to raise the content as high as possible, and he also co-founded Farm Hack, an open-source virtual café for young and beginning farmers.

“Farming isn’t rocket science,” he likes to say, “it’s more complicated than that.”

Like Dorn, many young people in agriculture today are looking to the past and what they have discovered is that nature’s model works best. After all, nature has been using evolution and the laws of physics to beta-test what works for millions of years — billions in the case of photosynthesis.

Humans are pipsqueaks in this process by comparison and the idea that we know what’s best is increasingly looking like a dangerous form of hubris. That’s why a new generation of agrarians is returning to the roots of agriculture for a different approach that includes large helpings of science and social responsibility as well.

Soil carbon is a good example. As gardeners know, creating the dark, rich soil called humus is critical to plant vigor, mineral uptake and smart water use. At the farm and ranch scale, it helps prevent soil erosion. A short list of practices that build soil carbon include planting cover crops, mulching, composting, employing low or no-till and planning where livestock graze.

Building humus is a great way to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in the soil for potentially long periods of time, which means that “old” practices can address “new” challenges, such as climate change.

Recently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere rose past 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years.

However, it is possible to help bring this level back down through the old-fashioned process of photosynthesis. Last spring, the Rodale Institute, a research and education nonprofit, released a white paper entitled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. It states boldly that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions by switching to soil-creating, inexpensive and effective organic agricultural methods.

Just a few years ago, the climate potential of soil carbon wasn’t on anyone’s radar screens, other than a few laboratories, soil scientists, and a handful of progressive farmers and ranchers.

Now, talk of trapping carbon in soil is everywhere. At a major grazing conference I attended recently, soil carbon was the most popular topic discussed (after cattle), with speaker after speaker extolling its virtues. And, yes, people are even talking now about using it to slow down climate change.

Courtney White.

Courtney White.

It is undeniably true that there are many obstacles to implementing these tried and true solutions to food and climate challenges. Some are economic, but many are policy-based, which is why it is important to support groups like the Organic Consumers Association (organicconsumers.org) and the National Young Farmers Coalition (youngfarmers.org) in their efforts to create an environment that favors old-style farmers and ranchers, not to mention eaters, which means all of us.

It all comes back to nature. I like the way the Rodale Institute put it recently: Farming like the Earth matters. Farming as if water and soil and land matter. Farming as if clean air matters. Farming as if human health, animal health and ecosystem health matter. Because all of this does matter and regenerative agricultural practices are the best way to preserve it.

Courtney White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He co-founded the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to improving economic and ecological resilience in Western working landscapes. He lives in Santa Fe with his family, two dogs and five chickens.

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