Written by: Mike Ritter
If you missed Part 1, check it out here
Russ Conser, former head of Shell Oil’s GameChanger program, met Peter Byck, professor at Arizona State University in 2013. Both were eyeballs deep in their own projects and neither knew each other prior to the being connected by a distant acquaintance. Byck was working on a new short film to follow his 2011 documentary Carbon Nation and Conser wasfresh off of his talk at TEDx Sugarland. For quite some time, Conser ate grass fed beef, exercised, and took care of himself the way most health conscious people do but never thought of the connection between his food choices and the environment. That changed during Allan Savory’s famous TEDTalk How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change. “I was actually there when he gave the talk and Allan got the gears going as far as my connection, the rest of it began when Peter and I started chatting,” Conser said in an interview. Most people would call it blind luck but when Conser met Byck, they began feeding off of each other. Byck was a career film maker with passion for environmental problems, and practical solutions which just made business sense even if people did not care about climate change. Conser had made a lifetime of work in energy innovation for Shell Oil which included work both in solar energy and carbon sequestration. At the time of their meeting Byck was beginning work on his newest project Soil Carbon Cowboys, a short film about three farmers who have recovered their suffering farms by changing their farming practices from the traditional livestock model and adopting new planned grazing practices. The results on these farms have been astonishingly positive. Byck has picked up his camera to tell their story with “hundreds of hours” of film and Conser has joined in to help actually measure the difference.
Peter Byck, interview
“Hopefully we can analyze these pastures and the others right across the fence light. We’d like to see how this works as opposed to traditional methods on two different lots with the same geographic location, sun exposure, rain exposure, head of cattle, slopes and soil. We don’t want to tell any of these people how to do things, we just want to see what works. Ultimately I think farming is incredibly important and it’d be great to get more people farming. I’d love to see more people farming.”
Russ Conser, interview
“Right now I think our biggest inefficiency in Ag is wasted sunlight. We have what Peter Donovan likes to call a giant ‘solar spill.’ Because of desertification, soil degradation and deforestation, we have a very low conversion of sunlight into plant biomass and thus food. The sun is the biggest energy source for all living matter and we capture very little of it. When we find ways to capture more of it, who knows what we might find. The possibilities are endless.”
The Birds and The Bees
Monocrop– A cultivated crop that does not rotate with other crops in a particular field or area.
Monoculture– The cultivation of a single crop in a given area.
When In Rome
If you walk through the once lush beautiful grasslands of Syria, Albania and Rome you will find worn eroded lands where farmland used to be. Around 211 B.C. The Roman Empire, a once self-sustaining producer of olive oil and wine, fell victim to soil erosion and land depletion. Their own naive confidence that the soil would continue to revitalize itself forced Rome to eventually import a majority of their crops from Egypt, then Syria and Albania. In the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery describes this civilization’s slow deterioration once they opted for quantitative & profitable agribusiness. Today, you can walk through these very same parts of the world which once hosted the largest crop plantations in the world and are now eroded, depleted, gullied and sloped. It didn’t happen suddenly either. It happened slowly, over centuries, bleeding the empire one Denarius at a time.
Some would say population growth necessitates more food. Others argue that a strong agricultural presence feeds the population to grow. Whichever way you see it, humans have always found a way to engineer their land to grow the most food out of every square inch. Nature has always found a way to restore balance through famine and disease just as it did during the great potato famine in 1845 Ireland. Ireland gladly accepted the business and began selling its grazing animals to England. By the mid 1800’s, 4 out of 5 of Ireland’s cattle were on the tables of the English, forcing the Irish to rely heavily on consistent potato harvest. Once harsh weather hit, the depleted soils of Ireland could not weather the storm and eventually turned belly up.
Here in the U.S., farmland destruction has been a concern since colonial times. In 1730, farmers from Virginia down to Georgia began losing their tobacco and cotton crops due to starved soils. In an issue of The Farmers Journal in 1731, Jesse Buell warned that our economy and population would suffer greatly if we did not change our tilling practices immediately. The tilling practices he was referring to was called vertical tilling, which was a pattern of tilling where the lanes were tilled vertically up hill. This allowed rainfall and irrigation to run downhill, taking top soil with it into nearby lakes, rivers or puddle up at the bottom of the hill. Buell stated the horizontal lanes would not allow any erosion and continue to allow soil to retain nutrients and stay healthy. Buell met resistance from southern farmers who found the horizontal plowing to be too time consuming and difficult to be worth the effort. When there was so much land abundance at hand, why would they be concerned?
The Importance of Good Soil
Soils are made of 3 major components: siliceous, aluminous, and calcareous soils. Siliceous minerals are porous allowing water to pass freely, draining it into deeper soil while Aluminous (clay) components retain water like reservoirs. But even dirt rich in these two minerals is incomplete without calcareous earth. Calcareous components neutralize the acidity of natural fertilizers like manure, leveling out the pH level of the soil thus making good soil a perfect trifecta. Today’s farmland is depleting itself in much of this rich top soil, causing excess water runoff and waste, degraded grassland, and inferior foods. Page 130 Dirt
When you visit Iowa and Wisconsin and see the giant fields of corn, or the wheat fields in Oklahoma, you see miles of mono-cultures of corn or wheat. These farmlands are biotechnical power producers which are so fine tuned that they are engineered to mega produce one specific crop, year after year and decade after decade. They are powered by seeds which either kill or repel insects and predators which may eat them. There are no bees, birds, badgers, beavers, rodents or any weeds which may interrupt the growing season’s yield. It’s just miles and miles of identical bio-technically perfected crop. No ecosystem, just a mono-system. Even in the wild we are seeing a big problem. Bees are a critical component of our ecosystem and they are dwindling by the year.
If we have the ability to prevent both through innovation and agriculture savvy, then why not take advantage? Since the mid 1900’s the U.S. has attempted to avoid such catastrophes through technological advancements which have become staples in the industrial farm. Genetically modified crops with built-in-insect-exploding-pesticide, weed killers, machined tilling, nitrogen rich fertilizers and irrigation techniques have helped provide the U.S. and the world with enough food for the last few centuries. The industrial farm and U.S. Agriculture has designed itself to produce the largest yield per hectare, per dollar, per year. Highly advanced tractors and expensive farming equipment have increased our ability to grow more food than our forefathers could ever dream with less labor. This equipment is highly expensive and requires industrial farmers to become indebted to loans which are very difficult to repay since many farmers, especially small ones, find it very difficult to make a profit thus latching them onto the teat of government subsidization and the global demand of their product. All of this technology is becoming more and more necessary as the regions producing most of the world’s food are becoming less and less capable of producing on their own.
We are now realizing the very dim side to our reliance on technology to do the farming for us. Many farmers are increasingly concerned about using the same practices which are milking our depleted soils for much longer. Industrial farming is contributing to increased erosion, awful soil nutrition, and increased atmospheric carbon, resulting in harsher climates and a land that is fragile to droughts, floods, and increasing demand. We have abandoned old methods of crop rotation, crop covering, and intensive nutrient harvesting of the soil which could potentially save us.
This current model of industrialized high yield & GMO mono-cropping has severe consequences. GMO technology developed with the intention to terminate weeds and pests have a short shelf life of effectiveness before their predators adapt. “Superweeds” have grown resistant to pesticides, like glyphosate, which Monsanto has championed the effectiveness of for years. This metamorphosis is causing their GMO industry to scramble for more effective herbicides and greater modifications to the genetic makeup of our industrial cotton, corn, wheat, and soy. We have exchanged quality for yield. Higher yield results in lower nutritional value in the crop itself making each piece of fruit, vegetable, or meat less and less flavorful.
In Poor Taste
Do you consider yourself a FOODIE? Perhaps you enjoy the taste of a perfectly grilled steak or a perfect Chicken Marsala? You may not live on a farm or feel the need to get involved in environmentalism, but depleted farmland means degraded flavor. The industrialization of food has left us with an abundance of food unable to feed America. Over the last 150 years our food has lost anywhere between 30-80% of it’s original nutrient value. Even those who are eating more calories are eating nutrient-less & flavorless food. In effect, our main supplier of raw food is working in similar fashion and in tandem with flavor science, which has added sugar and artificial flavors to make junk food a billion dollar industry. This flavor science is the work of many scientists and corporations which have perfected the art of making bland food taste better- such as taco flavored chips, lemon pepper chicken or grape flavored carbonated water. However, amidst the euphoria of purple ketchup & pineapple tangerine juice, most people have failed to ask the important question: Why is food becoming more bland?
The answer is simple. Foods such as tomatoes, carrots, kale & beef have unique flavors which your tongue communicates the presence of specific nutrient blends to your brain. The taste of the tomato is a direct representation of the nutrient cocktail that belongs solely to a tomato. Your brain receives that signal, interprets the message, and prepares for digestion. Less nutrients means less taste. Our soils which we farm are becoming less and less capable of providing us with extremely healthy, nutritious and flavorful food thus perpetuating the need for more advanced modified crop which is more resistant to the unpredictable weather and economic elements that unhealthy soil is susceptible to. The soil, especially that used for agriculture, has suffered erosion, nutrient depletion and is slowly losing the ability to retain water and recycle carbon into the ground.
What’s causing this problem?
Atmospheric Carbon, Water Waste, Erosion
Today, the U.S. soils resemble that of the American diet: over-supplemented and under fed. We have created fancy diversions with impressive abundance, distribution statistics and technology which distract our attention from the resources themselves. Despite all of the ‘high-tech’ advancements in crop growing technology, the land which we farm is beginning to deteriorate. Roughly 5-12% of nutrient rich soil should be occupied by carbon (clay rich soils can carry more), today our soil carries 1-3%. Care to take a guess where it went? Atmospheric carbon levels have risen 16% and over 70% of our grasslands have been degraded.
These degraded soils also force excess run off or evaporation of unabsorbed water away from crops into nearby rivers, lakes, streams, ditches, and city drainage systems. Organic farmers who abandon heavy pesticide, mono-cropping and heavy tillage of the land have been found to have 6 inches more topsoil[RC1] and more organic soil activity (http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/50600000/Products-Reprints/2000/914.pdf) in comparison to adjacent farms in Washington State.
According to the 2004 National Water Quality Inventory conducted by the EPA, 44 percent of surveyed streams and rivers, 64 percent of surveyed lakes, and 30 percent of surveyed estuaries were considered “impaired,” with “agricultural activities, such as crop production, grazing, and animal feeding operations” cited as the number one cause. FA 2008 study by the University of Kansas found that the pollution of fresh water by agricultural nutrients costs at least $2.2 billion per year, at least $44 million of which is spent exclusively on protecting aquatic species from nutrient pollution. F
For many years widespread blame fell primarily on the shoulders of cattle & livestock farming and as the numbers show, for good reason. Many experts like Eliot Coleman (article) are coming forward with research that excess atmospheric carbon and CO2 levels are caused by the transportation, factory farming, and unnatural corn-fed diets industrial cattle are forced to eat. Vegan advocacy films such as Cowspiracy are quick to point out the ecological damage for which agriculture is responsible, but suggest eliminating cattle and livestock as a food source to solve the problem; essentially go vegan or the earth will continue to suffer. There is a big hole in this line of thinking.
On the surface, eliminating the (apparent) culprit- in this case cattle- sounds logical. If we found that cattle are mostly responsible for atmospheric carbon, soil erosion, degrading grasslands and ultimately climate change, then removing that cog should take care of the problem. But it simply won’t. By removing a grazing animal from grazing the plains and fields of Mother Earth, you are taking an important piece away from Mother Nature. If the earth worked like a car, reductionist troubleshooting would work. In a car, I can replace a dirty air filter and fix my dirty air. If my carburetor blows, I just replace it and the rest of the car remains unscathed. However, nature is much more complex and works through many interdependent systems. Reducing the ecological problems in the agricultural system down to livestock itself is like saying hurricanes are just drops of water. Although a hurricane is indeed just made up of water and air, it’s the complexities in and around the system that make it devastating and powerful. I’ve seen hurricanes do major damage but I’ve never seen a glass of water knock over an entire city. The answer is certainly complicated and will take some sort of marriage between adequate food production and care for the beautiful complexity of nature. There are promising alternatives however. More important than what these alternatives include, is what they do not include – monocropping or monocultures.
A New Hope- The Game Changers
Two very promising alternatives to this problem are called Holistic Management and Alternative Multi-Paddock Grazing. Both are very similar in nature as they are all parts of nature in a way that it has historically been shown to work. They both use livestock and they both do what else?
“Wild plants are constrained by what they can do with increased CO2. They may use it for survival and defense rather than to boost reproduction.” –INCREASED CO2 LEVELS ARE MIXED BLESSING FOR AGRICULTURE
The Savory Institute is spearheading the holistic management scene with a global effort. According to TSI website, 1/3 of the earth’s surface is grassland and 70% of it has been degraded. In their efforts, food producers who have adopted TSI Holistic Management techniques have seen drastic improvements in the health of their animals, land, and pocket books:
The Savory Institute has been able to institute its methods of farmland management to grow healthier lifestock and grasslands. After more than 30 years in existence they have been able to show 400% increase in profitability, 60% of land productivity, 400% increase in permanent soil carbon, crop yield increase of 400% and a 40% increase in water holding capacity of their grasslands soils.
“Managing livestock holistically to mimic the behavior of wild herds, results in healthier soils, which can absorb rainfall and grow more food for people and animals. Microorganisms in soil convert CO2 into stable forms of soil carbon that contribute to its ability to absorb and hold water, support life forms, and increase resilience. Grasslands, because of their sheer size and their inherent ability to store more carbon in their soils than any other environment, are our best opportunity for carbon sequestration.
Herds of properly managed domestic livestock mimicking the behavior of the wild herbivores that inhabited the grasslands with their associated pack-hunting predators can restore balance to these landscapes. The moisture and microbes in their guts biologically decay grass in their rumen and deposit some of these microbes with dung to the earth’s surface helping facilitate the decomposition process. Their hooves prepare the soil surface and trample plant matter which then covers the soil. This allows for seed germination and enhanced water infiltration, stimulating grass growth, while dung and urine fertilize the soils, increasing the production of the land.
Holistic Planned Grazing, a component of Holistic Management, increases the organic matter in the soil and therefore increases its ability to hold water, reducing the risk of floods and droughts. Reduction of bare ground as a result of increased land productivity also improves the effectiveness of rainfall by preventing runoff.” – The Savory Institute
Polyface Farms- Swoope, VA
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is gaining increased fame by the minute for his uplifting energy and passion for growing mutually beneficial food that helps the farmer, consumer, and the animals win. Polyface is an operation that has not only stood the test of time, but challenged many of the concepts of traditional industrial growing, and has seen incredible results. Joel is currently speaking all over the country about his flourishing Polyface farm and encouraging other farmers to marry their profits with their care for animals and humans. His documentary style film “Polyfaces” is receiving praise from Michael Pollen “Omnivores Dilemma” and the Spirit Award from the Weyauwega Film Festival.
White Oaks Pastures, Bluffton, GA
Will Harris, graduate of the University of Georgia, carries the family torch of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, GA. A fourth generation cattle farmer (his daughters are the fifth), Harris made the unpopular yet confident decision to convert White Oaks from a commoditized, industrialized, and centralized operation into a full blown poly culture which would greatly benefit the consumer, the farmer, the animals, and the land.
Captain James Edward Harris started White Oaks Pastures just after the Civil War as a means to feed his family and community with a few cows, pigs, and chickens. The farm converted to industrialization soon after WWII. It’s what every cattle farmer did back then. He also made it extremely successful. “There wasn’t a year that my granddad, my dad or I was in charge that we didn’t turn a profit under the old way,” Harris says. It wasn’t until Will became disgusted with how poorly industrialized farming methods treated the land and how yields superseded concern for the environment and wellness of the animals.
“Once we switched over, it was difficult at first and we took some hits, but thanks to an increase in buyers in the southeast we turned our first profit again in 2010.”
Now you can go to White Oak Pastures and witness the transformation and the possibilities for the future which White Oaks Pastures symbolizes. The farm is alive with goats, geese, chickens, cattle, certified organic vegetables, two in-house processing centers, guest lodging, and dining and class room buildings which host classes for the general public to learn the bright future of poly culture farming. And as nature would have it, bald eagles, completely unseen in Bluffton Ga prior to the transformation of Harris’ farm, have come to form the largest population of bald eagles in all of Georgia.
“We’ve gone from none to about 26 in a half mile stretch which is possibly a new state,” Will Harris said in an interview. This is what happens when ecosystems are allowed to thrive in conjunction with agriculture. There is a mutual benefit; everybody wins.
“My friends and I will debate from time to time and they will say ‘Will what you’re doing is great but you can’t feed the world like that.’ “I’m doing it. I’ve done the old way and I’ve been profitable in both. Today we sell $28 million in product every single year. But I will Continue to have that debate but under one stipulation: we must understand no farming system can sustain the population boom that we are experiencing right now – you can only fit so many people in a phone booth. But that out of the way let’s look at the two systems head to head:
If acreage is the limiting factor, they [industrial] win. I don’t own as much.
If petroleum is the limiting factor, I win. I use less.
If soil is the limiting factor, I win.
If feed efficiency is the limiting factor, I win.
If carbon sequestration is the limiting factor, I win.
If water usage is the limiting factor, I win.
If soil erosion is the limiting factor, I win.
If processing is the limiting factor, I win.
This system wins in every single category except for enormous land usage.”
- Will Harris, interview
THE Soil Carbon Cowboys
Remember Peter Byck and Russ Conser? Now, in 2016 Byck and Conser are in tandem attempting to do what has never been done. Their project is intended to measure the carbon that is stored through what has been nicknamed Alternative Multi Paddock Grazing or AMP Grazing. In their research they have made some amazing advancements and observations. They are working with a team of scientists from around the world to launch a major new soil carbon research and sequestration demonstration program under the umbrella of Arizona State University.
Byck has produced Soil Carbon Cowboys (watch here). Two notes on this film. Byck has noticed not only that these farmers have to use less antibiotics and effort to grow their herds ,thus saving money, but they are also buying less herbicide. Farmer Neil Dennis from Saskatchewan (14” yearly rainfall), Gabe Brown of Bismark, ND (16 1/2”) and Allen Williams (45”) all have seen similar success converting their farming methods from industrial to Alternative Multi-Paddock Grazing. AMP Grazing refers to a planned management of livestock feeding. Dennis, for instance, herds his cattle into a 1 acre perimeter and allows them to feed intensively for roughly one hour. After that, they are lead to another acre, then another and so on. This provides the cattle with a constant supply of grass and avoids overgrazing.
This AMP method also mimics a similar behavior to natural herding patterns. Over the millions of years buffalo and other herd animals grazed the plains of the world, they would graze over a patch of land until the grass was 3-4” long then move on, not to return to that same patch of grass for a full year or two but Dennis has witnessed a nearly full recovery within 80 days.
In the film, Neil Dennis mentions that he doesn’t need to use herbicides much anymore; in fact he throws some weeds like black medic and hairy vetch (30% protein) into the pasture to provide the cattle extra protein and provide the soil with nitrogen. The weeds he once terminated on site actually provide a benefit to the polyculture. As a result, naturally rich soil is converted into better food for the cows, helping them gain weight faster, increasing the profits for these farmers. Everybody wins.
Secondly, Gabe Brown notes in the film that facilia, also a flowered weed he once eliminated, is bringing an old friend back to his plains. These weeded little flowers are attracting….you guessed it….bees. Bees are returning to these grasslands to use the pollenating flowers for their own benefit. To add to the poly-party, these richer soils are also bringing back earthworms and bugs, which bring back the birds who eat the insects. These farms are not only proving to be profitable and healthy but they are starting to look like ecosystems again. Perhaps there is a way…
Conser is also now co-founder of a startup called Standard Soil – a company positioning to be an alternative to large CAFO’s by finishing cattle on grass in pastures at large scale. Standard Soil will buy cattle at the time where they would normally go to a feedlot, then use AMP grazing methods to grow more, better grass and thus produce more, better grassfed beef faster. Hopefully they’re just one of many new businesses created to apply these insights.
As crazy as it sounds, all of this works because of one thing – freely available and incredibly abundant solar energy. Back to the “solar spills” – these concepts hold out the possibility that if we can simply manage land in a way that allows nature to capture more sunlight before it’s wasted on bare soil, we can grow more, healthier food.
Stay tuned for Part 3