Grass, Soil, and Hope: Managing carbon for a sustainable planet

By Tom Parker

Courtney White and Gail Fuller were talking the same talk but they were coming at it from different backgrounds and different geographical directions, so it was understandable that there should be some minor differences of opinion. That it centered on the sequential order of three little words was all the more remarkable considering the enormous scope of their discussions—the sustainability of the human race from both local and global perspectives.

Grass, Soil and Hope: Regenerative Solutions For Changing Times, the theme of the 2016 Winter Grazing Conference held on Jan. 16 at the Ambassador Hotel in Salina, took its name from White’s monumental book, “Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.” In it, White chronicled his transition from Sierra Club activist to New Mexico rancher, co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and author of several books on regenerative solutions for solving environmental problems associated with livestock and food production through progressive management and relationship building. A third speaker, Dale Strickler, a former agronomy instructor at Concordia’s Cloud County Community College and now cover crop and forage specialist, followed with a presentation on livestock management and cover crops.

Gail FullerFuller, a Kansas farmer from rural Emporia who practices holistic management techniques designed to maximize soil regeneration, suggested that the theme’s wording was out of order.
“If I had my way,” he said, “this would be ‘Soil, Grass and Hope.’ You have to have soil before you can have grass. That’s the one thing we’ve overlooked the last 60 years. The whole emphasis has to be on soil.”

Whichever order the words were placed in, the two speakers agreed that without soil, climate change will accelerate even as food production grinds to a halt, and that solutions would have to come from those most dependent upon it—ranchers and farmers—and not government agencies, environmental organizations, politicians, lawyers or lobbyists, whom White classified as “the conflict industry.”

“We don’t need more solutions,” White said. “We already have the solutions, and for the most part they’re cost-effective and highly efficient. We need to find common ground, people who are willing to work together to get ecological health back into the system.” White called those people the “radical center” who, in lieu of lawsuits or protests, quietly come together to solve problems pragmatically.

Most importantly, they argued, land use stewards need to have a better understanding of carbon and the carbon cycle and how it impacts soil health as well as climate change.

In simple terms, the carbon cycle is the process where carbon in the atmosphere goes into plants through photosynthesis and passes into the soil where it decomposes and rises back into the atmosphere. “The carbon cycle is one of the most important cycles on the planet,” White said. “Carbon is who we are.”

Fuller agreed. “We have to fix the carbon cycle first,” he said. Intensive plowing, deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities have contributed to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations that are higher today than at any time over the last half-million years. “We like to blame Mother Nature—it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry—but man has affected that by burning carbon and the degradation of the soil. We can argue about climate change, but I can tell you that in my time here on earth the weather has changed. Our storms are getting bigger and meaner, and that includes drought. The Dust Bowl wasn’t caused by drought. Man caused the Dust Bowl by plowing all those acres of prairie and releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere.”

And yet, in what seems like a contradiction, carbon is our best friend, Fuller said. Mitigating climate change will require land management practices that maximize the amount of carbon stored in plants and the soil through a process known as carbon sequestration, such as no-till farming, wetland management, reforestation and rangeland management. That the process can be sped up through some of the very land use practices that critics blame for climate change is something that has so far eluded the general public, the majority of livestock and food producers, and the purview of agencies responsible for environmental interests.

It has also generated controversy. When Bill Zeedyk engineered a simple, low-cost method for restoring eroded stream channels in the Southwest through a process he called “induced meandering,” the Corps of Engineers fought the practice as being unscientific and without merit. Zeedyk, co-owner of Zeedyk Ecological Consulting, has more than 280 completed projects to date, and now, after lengthy dispute, has the Corps of Engineers’ approval.

Courtney WhitePart of his success lies in understanding the natural processes that create healthy environments, and trying to find solutions using those same processes, White said. For small creeks and watersheds, Zeedyk says, you have to think like a creek.

Thinking like a creek might sound simplistic, but it denotes respect and comprehension of natural processes that are critical to successful regeneration. Unfortunately, protecting the status quo and entrenched agencies and services present some of the largest hurdles facing environmental protection.

“Trying to change minds is harder than just putting rocks in a creek,” White said.

Fuller shared a favorite quote from Henry Ford that illustrated that concept: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

“The single largest limiting factor is the human mind,” Fuller added.

Ultimately, the single largest limiting factor of ecological health is the amount of carbon in the soil. Fuller showed a series of slides depicting cutouts of soil types from a natural prairie ecosystem, the jungle and a cornfield. The first two showed deep roots branching down through dark, loamy soil; in the third slide, roots barely penetrated into a colorless clay.

“In the cornfield, there’s almost nothing there,” he said. “The system is dead.”

Restoring it to health requires a shift from a monoculture system to one of diversity, Fuller said, and it starts with livestock.

“Livestock is a big part of building healthy soil,” he said. “But we need to feed the below-ground livestock as well as the above-ground livestock. The below-ground livestock drives the bus.”

In other words, microorganisms. Research has shown that one square meter of healthy soil contains one vertebrate, 100 snails and slugs, 3,000 earthworms, 5,000 insects, 10,000 rotifers and tardigrades, 50,000 springtails, 100,000 mites, five million nematodes, one billion protozoa and so much mycorrhizal fungi that the numbers were uncountable, Fuller said. Instead, they were measured in length—miles and miles of them within that square meter of soil.

Pesticides have largely eradicated much of those microorganisms in the soil, he said. For every insect that selective pesticides target there are 1,700 other species that are either predators to the target species or beneficial. Earthworms are particularly affected by the use of pesticides. “Earthworms are the canary in the coal mine of the soil,” Fuller said. “If your agronomist tells you that pesticides are selective, you need to find another agronomist.”

Planting multiple species of cover crops adds more carbon to the soil through photosynthesis, he said. Diversity is also important in the number of species of wildlife and livestock. Fuller, who once only raised cattle, now raises cows, chickens, pigs, sheep and bees. The animals graze year-round and calving is done in April, in sync with nature. In fact, every aspect of his operation is engineered to mimic nature’s circadian rhythms.Dale Strickler

In return, the soil has rebounded so rapidly that it contradicts everything we’ve been told, he said.

“For years we’ve been told that it takes thousands of year to grow an inch of topsoil,” Fuller said. “Recent studies have shown that it doesn’t take a thousand years—it takes a dozen.” Other studies prove that in some cases it takes as little as three years.

Restoration projects undertaken in the Southwest through the Quivira Coalition have shown that even hard-used, overgrazed and over-logged areas can be mitigated in less than 20 years, White said.

Education will be pivotal in moving forward, they both agreed. “The public doesn’t fully understand it, and we have an environmental elite that’s still largely clueless,” White said.
Hope—the third element—was possible even in the face of the vast number of hurdles, they said.

“Humans like to invent things,” White said. “If we turn that power loose, all sorts of good things can happen. We have to find a way through the obstacles.”

Grass, Soil and Hope was sponsored by Amazing Grazing III, a collaboration of the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Graziers Association, with funding from the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include KSRE, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, Frontier Farm Credit, NRCS-Kansas, and Kansas Center for Sustainable Ag and Alternative Crops.

Cover of 2016 Spring Kontact

Find all the articles from the Spring 2016 edition of the Kansas Kontact here.

2016-11-04T21:46:10+00:00