See how compost and other regenerative farming practices can reverse climate change.

Climate change is one of the largest struggles our planet is currently facing. While industrialized farming has allowed farmers to yield more crops, quicker than ever before, the process has also depleted the earth’s topsoil, reduced topsoil’s water-holding capacity, and has been a net emitter of greenhouse gases. Adding to that, degraded soil reduces the ability to grow crops. And the less water there is in the soil, the less the plants get and the more likely the topsoil is to blow away during strong gusts of wind. 

There are two ways to go about solving climate change. We can either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or draw them out of the atmosphere. Scientists are now telling us that we must do both as quickly as humanly possible. 

Carbon farming is the sole “natural” way (as opposed to complex and controversial geoengineering solutions) that we have identified to draw down excess atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Carbon farming is, essentially, a regenerative farming practice that enhances the natural carbon cycle to rebuild topsoil. Plants suck carbon out of the air through photosynthesis. Some of this carbon is eventually stored long-term in the soil, increasing the level of organic matter and improving the nutrient content. While too much carbon in the atmosphere makes carbon a pollutant, carbon in the soil is a great benefit to all plants.

This process is also known as carbon sequestration. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels as well as traditional farming practices like operating a tractor, tilling the soil, clearing forests, etc.—is removed from the air and replaced into the soil to aid the growth of plants. Applying compost, using cover crops and no-tillage methods help to restore living soils and their ability to store carbon. 

Marin Carbon Project

Carbon farming in North America stems from original research done by scientists working to restore the soil on a degraded cattle ranch in Marin County, California. The “Marin Carbon Project” found that a one-time application of ¼” of compost to degraded rangeland has the potential to be our most powerful tool to draw down excess atmospheric carbon dioxide if enough acres are employed. The Project has spawned additional research showing that compost use and a host of other regenerative techniques are most effective when used together, and has inspired farmers and ranchers across California to become carbon farmers. Author, activist, and journalist Michael Pollan referred to soil and carbon farming as a “secret weapon” against climate change in an Op-Ed Washington Post piece in December 2015.

Local Carbon Farming

Two local carbon farming projects are in flight, but multiple individuals and organizations are collaborating to make carbon farming measurable, replicable and scalable throughout our area. One is the Bennett Farm Project, and another is a broad-acre farm trial to sequester carbon on a large scale being conducted by Boulder County in collaboration with Colorado State University. 

The Bennett Property, a City of Boulder open space parcel adjacent to McCauley Family Farm in rural Boulder County, previously to the trial, received strong wind gusts that ripped off several inches of the topsoil rendering it unsuitable for farming. The City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks can’t lease the land for agricultural use because it’s too degraded. After much planning and a partnership between McCauley Family Farm, the City of Boulder, and several other partners including Eco-Cycle, an innovative project was born to test the carbon sequestration potential of several cutting-edge methods of regenerative agriculture, including a water-saving technique little known in North America called keylining. Marcus McCauley, of McCauley Family Farm, has been hired to work the land using regenerative agriculture techniques.

Keylining 

In the simplest of terms, keylining is when you drag a narrow-bladed plow, or shank, through the soil following the topographical contours of a field, creating a deep, continuous channel. The idea is to catch surface water runoff and direct it down into the soil and along the contour to counteract the gravitational flow that would otherwise go straight from high point to low point in a field. So if you create a slit/ridge, then you can, in short, trap and redistribute the water. This type of regenerative farming allows more water to penetrate more deeply into soils, making it vastly more productive. The technique could be an essential tool to restore degraded land in arid climates by retaining enough soil moisture to allow plants to establish and begin rebuilding soil.

Eco-Cycle’s Carbon Farm-to-Table Dinner & Tour

An event presented by Eco-Cycle at McCauley Family Farm took place in late September. The evening was peppered with educational talks about regenerative farming practices. Eco-Cycle is currently partnering with local governments, farmers, academia, businesses, and likeminded nonprofits to promote carbon farming throughout the state. There were multiple speakers of the evening, including Calla Rose Ostrander, a systems consultant who was part of the Marin Carbon Project, who told the crowd that “if compost made with manure was applied to just 5 percent of California’s rangelands, it would offset carbon emissions from 6 million cars.” Ostrander, a strategic advisor on all things climate change, has been moving the concept of carbon sequestration into the public eye in addition to looking at a statewide plan, and she likes to say, “A pollutant is just an element out of place.”

Another interesting find that came out of the study is, “It’s estimated that as much as one-third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere that’s causing climate change has come from agricultural and land management practices.”

Eco-Cycle has proudly and successfully rallied for carbon farming pilot projects in Boulder County that would adapt the science used in Marin County for the Rocky Mountain climate, which is higher and drier than most of California. Applying compost to soil allows the microbes to fuse minerals, organic matter, and water into stable molecules, promoting plant growth and carbon sequestration.

Marcus McCauley, whose mission at McCauley Family Farm is to “heal people and the planet with delicious food,” also gave tours of the Bennett Project and parts of his land. McCauley Family Farms is a certified organic farm that uses sustainable, regenerative farming practices. They feel strongly about taking care of the land, and McCauley says, “We farm in a way that honors the ecosystem.” During the tours, McCauley discussed how his family recognizes the microbes in the soil and fertilizes the land by allowing their animals to graze openly. Their manure naturally nourishes the ground with beneficial microbes.

Moving Forward

In addition to rejuvenating our soils and conserving our water, carbon farming in Colorado is an achievable climate change solution by applying compost and carbon farming practices such as keylining. And it’s not limited to large farms. Dan Matsch, director of Eco-Cycle’s compost department, promised event attendees that a fun and educational “Citizen Science” project would be coming soon in which non-farmers can participate to learn about the soil around them and generating data about the potential for urban and suburban land to sequester carbon. 

“This is obviously a giant undertaking requiring collaboration worldwide, so it’s imperative that we educate, inspire and enlist people from all walks of life,” Matsch told event participants.

If you want to take action, consider donating financially to Eco-Cycle, becoming a Citizen Scientist by participating in an urban carbon sequestration program, or by volunteering as an Eco-Leader to advance sustainability throughout the state. More information can be found at EcoCycle.org. You can also support our local farms by shopping at farmer’s markets and getting to know your local growers.