The potential is there

How carbon sequestration is regenerating Boulder County soil

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A side-by-side comparison of land restored by holistic planned grazing. This research was conducted by Savory Institute.
Savory Institute

In 2008, during the first days of Ollin Farms, owner Mark Guttridge says the Longmont soil produced only “nubby” carrots. A picture of his wife holding their then year-old daughter, Amber, illustrates the problem; the carrots were wide and short, mutant-like in their girth — maybe right for a county fair prize for “heaviest carrot,” but not the kind of produce folks buy at the farmers’ market.

By 2012, the carrots from Ollin Farms had slimmed down and stretched, now reaching from Amber’s shoulder down to her waist.

These were quality carrots.

“It was this foot-and-a-half-long carrot,” Guttridge says. “That never would have been possible four years previously when the soil was the way it was.”

Today, Ollin Farms grows 10 different varieties of carrots each agricultural cycle and Guttridge credits the success to carbon sequestration, the process of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to build healthy topsoil.

Over centuries of traditional agricultural practices, farmers have plowed their fields, releasing carbon stored in the soil in the process. When that carbon collides with the oxygen in the air, it creates carbon dioxide that is then released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Scientists estimate as much as 80 percent of soil carbon in heavily cultivated areas has been lost, according to Kristin’s Ohlson’s 2014 book The Soil Will Save Us. Furthermore, practices such as traditional farming, overgrazing, deforestation and erosion, what Ohlson calls “land misuse” in her book, account for approximately 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

But a growing number of farmers around the world, including several Boulder County farmers, are implementing carbon sequestration practices to recapture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in soil, where the carbon aids crop growth while helping to mitigate climate change at the same time.

Although the process has a complicated-sounding name, Guttridge insists that all it takes to sequester carbon for nutritious, flavorful vegetables is soil observation. In doing so, he was able to regenerate the topsoil by planting cover crops.

“The cover crop is just a crop like oats or grain you grow that’s never harvested,” Guttridge says. “And we end up just mowing down all the organic matter that goes back into the soil and [the carbon] stays there.”

It took Guttridge three years of growing and mowing down cover crops to regenerate the brittle soil that’s common in Boulder County given Colorado’s arid climate. Today, he swears by carbon sequestration practices, such as cover cropping, as one of the fastest ways to increase soil health.

In doing so, Ollin Farms has become a “pilot farm” for carbon sequestration agricultural practices. In August 2016, Ollin Farms hosted its first Carbon Sequestration Festival, where local farmers and experts in agriculture educated more than 80 attendees on the benefits of carbon sequestration as a principle of sustainable agriculture.

boulderganic-2Courtesy of Ollin Farms

Sarah Gleason, the director of marketing and communications with the Savory Institute in Boulder, also touts the benefits of such practices. According to her, a growing body of peer-reviewed research and recent studies coming out of Savory affirm that carbon sequestration as a form of regenerative agriculture could help bring the world’s atmospheric carbon back to pre-industrial levels.

“It’s not an overnight process. I would say that it’s not a 100-year process though, either,” Gleason says. “We see places that have no grass growing before, [are now] totally covered, no longer bare, [with] roots in the soil that are actively sequestering carbon. It might take them maybe another five years for those roots to get even deeper and be able to sequester more carbon, but really it is in our lifetime that we could do this.”

Research director Dr. Kristine Nichols with the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, which is known for its 36-year-long Farm Systems Trial, says her results show that sequestering carbon will generate more resilient soil that is better able to thrive under climactic uncertainty. She also asserts that more research is needed to achieve these results on a global scale.

“The data that we have certainly shows that the potential is there,” Nichols says. “This is on a global basis, so there’s going to be a lot of flexibility and a lot of research that needs to go into understanding how to optimize these systems in different environments. But what we’ve seen from the data we have from the Farm Systems Trial shows the ability to sequester large amounts of carbon compared to the conventional systems. But again, we need to figure out how to optimize them for many different types of environments.”

But Gleason says the sooner farmers can start implementing these practices, the better.

“Really, the rush is more about people starting now so that we can see the incredible benefits in 20 years,” she says. “That is about the time it would take.”

Researchers at both institutes are considering all options in an effort to get carbon back into the soil, like the holistic pasture management practices Marcus McCauley over at McCauley Family Farms is championing in Boulder County.

Using holistic planned grazing originally developed by the Savory Institute, McCauley has also seen a drastic improvement in the soil on his farm. Holistic management uses a combination of animal grazing and farming to promote healthy soil. McCauley claims he would not have been able to maintain a lasting farm in Boulder County without animal grazing.

“When we first moved here we tried to plant grass seed,” he says. “It didn’t germinate. It wouldn’t. It looked like we didn’t do anything out there.”

McCauley knew he needed to do something. So he began allowing sheep to graze his farmland, followed by chickens.

“We start in the spring and then when it gets warm enough we’ll drop 2,000 birds on the pasture and then we’ll slaughter those and we’ll do another 2,000 on a different part of the pasture,” McCauley explains.

In one season, McCauley Family Farms will run a total of 6,000 chickens across his field in order to increase the soil’s health.

“Once we brought the animals in, all of a sudden we had the kind of microbial life and fertility there that the seeds could germinate and thrive,” he says. “After we did that, our fields just exploded.”

But both Nichols with the Rodale Institute and Gleason with the Savory Institute acknowledge that the concept of reintroducing grazing systems into agricultural management is a controversial technique that not all farmers may feel comfortable with. But after years of being taught the dangers of overgrazing, it’s easy to see why. Overgrazing has historically killed grass and other feed crops, leading to increased erosion and exacerbating the release of carbon from the soil.

However, holistic management systems can actually produce the opposite effect. The Rodale Institute, for example, is working on an integrative livestock and crop experiment that has shown an increase in cattle weight, while also increasing carbon and other biomass in the cropland soil.

“[Grazing] is another area in which the data indicates the strong potential to be able to do that, but again, we need to figure out how to be able to do different types of managed grazing within these systems,” Nichols says.

While researches continue their quest to design the best system, Guttridge and McCauley in Boulder County are already seeing the benefits of carbon sequestration management techniques. And they are providing Boulder County with nutrient-rich produce that enhances community-wide health, while combating climate change in the process.

With additional reporting by Angela K. Evans.

  • Pootlion

    Great article. One minor point though. The word is exacerbating (make a problem, bad situation, or negative feeling worse), not exasperating (intensely irritating; infuriating).

    • Angela Evans

      You’re right, thanks. The article has been updated.

  • Taylor Cyle

    Hey! Awesome article. The Savory Institute and Rodale both do some interesting work in this area. Minor point though– Carbon doesn’t collide with the air to produce carbon dioxide after tillage. Soil microbes (who suddenly have more access to organic carbon and much more air to breathe with after tillage) exhale carbon dioxide (much like we do!). Keep up the good work though, Claire!

  • The cattleman’s solution is always more cattle. The logger’s solution is always more logging. No, to save the natural landscape (including private land) we have to get rid of AUHM (animals under Human management) and burning carbon (aka wood). To save the climate we must abandon the range and other non-essential agricultural lands. The selfish will hold to bad ways; others will look to the future and it is good.