Book Review: A solution to global warming right under our feet

We know there are billions of tons of carbon floating around in the atmosphere that weren’t there 200 years ago.

What if there was a way to put it back, for free?

There is.

Microorganisms  —  billions in a tablespoon of healthy soil — can absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into soil carbon, reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seed, protecting land and crop from drought, improving crop yield, restoring range and grasslands.

It sounds too good to be true.

That’s why New York Times bestselling writer Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us, is worth a read. Ohlson takes readers on an around-the-world tour, from Zimbabwe to Oregon to Australia, visiting agronomists, horticulturists, farmers, ranchers and herders who are changing the way we grow food. She profiles farmers experimenting with low tech solutions to some of our biggest challenges — sustainability, food shortages, obesity, and yes, climate change.

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Not necessarily because farmers are joining the fight against climate change by design. 70%, according to the industry-connected American Farm Bureau, don’t believe humans are causing climate change. Farmers do, however, prize carbon in soil. It’s what makes soil black, rich and fertile.

Take her introduction of a farmer in North Dakota, Gabe Brown:

          He [Gabe Brown] had been carrying around a slim 4-foot metal rod. … We walked into the cornfield, which seemed to be at least a foot taller than any of the neighbors’, and he nudged it into a bit of bare soil. And then — and then! — he pushed all 4 feet of the rod straight into the ground, all the way up to his knuckles.
         “I can’t believe that!” I think I dropped my recorder. “Do it again!”
          So he walked a few feet away and shoved the rod into the soil again, then it pulled it out and held it out to me. “You try it.”
          My arms aren’t nearly as substantial as Brown’s. Where his arms bulge with muscle, mine jiggle. Without much expectation of success, I took the rod and pushed it into the ground. I tried it in several places. And each time, I pushed the rod all the way up to my knuckles.
          I knew what an amazing thing this was, since I’ve been a backyard gardener ever since I was 25. Even after years of babying my beds with bags of compost, I never had soil like that… I could hardly stick a fork in my lawn back in Cleveland! But through his management of this harsh landscape, he had created soil that was so rich with microbial life that they had built aggregates going down at least 4 feet. Four feet of carbon-rich soil, stacked with billions of tiny cups to hold water.
          Brown shrugged. “I don’t worry about drought.”    
                                                              from The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson

Brown, who owns land outside Bismarck, started out as a conventional farmer. “He tilled, he applied fertilizer, he sprayed pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and he hung fly-killing ear tags on his cows.” He also experimented with no-till and organic farming, but with mixed results. Then, a 4-year cycle of hail, drought and late frost left him too poor to afford fertilizer. He took another look at the soil in plots he’d been experimenting with and realized it had improved dramatically. He began to study and apply practices such as no till and mixed crop farming. Before long, his neighbors were asking for tips. Then farmers from all over the world began consulting him.

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Gabe Brown in one of his fields. Photo credit: Prairiefire Newsletter

Brown’s expenses are now a fraction of what he paid as a conventional farmer. His yields are above average in the community. He hasn’t used fertilizer since 2008, doesn’t use fungicides or pesticides, and only uses an herbicide every couple of years.  Brown has no doubt that what he calls regenerative agriculture can help solve our problems with atmospheric carbon.

The hitch? There are several. Our current farm program is geared to a monoculture system. As Gabe Brown says, we are “stuck in the current production mode.” Many people are invested in the sale of chemicals. Farmers are understandably risk-averse, and leery of the 4 to 5 years it takes to restore soil health.

But we can change. Ohlson writes, “As entrenched as chemical farming seems to be, it’s only been with us for 50 years.” It won’t be easy to turn this boat around, but we can do it. A lot of people have already started.

Ohlson’s book will make you rethink the potential for soil management and farming, and offers hope for a new way to address many of the challenges we face, including climate change.

Don’t miss this great 3 minute talk by Gabe Brown, on his farm.

Here’s an interview with Ohlson on Science Friday.

24 comments

  • That is fascinating! Can you imagine the impact we could have on the environment if most farmers did this? And to be rid of pesticides and chemicals in our foods? Wow. Would be lovely to see this take hold. Thank you for the information. Wonderful post.

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  • The best solutions are always elegantly simple. Kris has done her homework and makes the science understandable, the facts compelling, and the reading fun. Thanks for the great snapshot and review, Scribbler!

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  • It was almost a shock to read something positive about food production and climate change. Not that farmers who practice regenerative agriculture don’t have a rocky road ahead. I’m tempted to stick with this topic, and keep track of what happens next.

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    • JB, please do! I’d be fascinated to learn more about this! We have a ‘garden’ in our back yard. It’s going on three years now. We have a handful of strawberry plants that won’t give up, and an oregano bush that just. Won’t. Die. We tried vermiculture, but they all died. About all we do have good luck with is composting our dead plants – we have a few gallons of lovely, rich, black soil, sitting in our composter barrel.

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      • Rubbing my hands at the thought of that compost. Spread it! Spread it! It will make a nice mulch for the winter. See what comes on its own. I’m the last person to give plant advice, especially since I’m not sure where you live, but I’ve had good luck with blueberries (no work – don’t really even like fertilizer), asters, nasturtium (reseed themselves), hardy roses.

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        • We’re in north Texas. We had two blueberries, two years ago. They both died. We’re on our third blueberry bush. I think we got one berry off of it this summer. I hope the brown showing on each and every leaf is normal die-back for winter!
          Our mints, however, seem to be intent on coming back. Mints are very hard to kill! Not that we particularly want to kill ours, but just that it’s really difficult to do. We did manage, last year, to actually kill off four of our eight different mints. Pity – the chocolate mint and the lemon mint were my favorites! I guess they weren’t quite as hardy as other mints.
          We’ll do something with that compost, and start some new with plant and straw and coffee grounds and all. And probably go buy some fishing bait and put them in there, too. It’ll make a nice crop of compost come spring, but first we need to get the current stuff out of the barrel. 🙂

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        • Texas! No wonder. Hop on down to the garden store and ask the owner if he has a teenage son who wants to earn 20 bucks shoveling your mulch. Yeah that mint. It grows everywhere. Unless of course it’s all highfalutin and aspires to be chocolatey.

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