Here is an excerpt from my book Grass, Soil, Hope:

What is the best way to utilize sunlight: grow food or to produce fuel?

For millennia, the answer was easy: we used solar energy to grow plants that we could eat. Then in the 1970s the answer became more complicated as fields of photovoltaic panels (PVPs) began popping up around the planet, sometimes on former farmland. This was part of a new push for renewable energy sources, and as the technology has improved over the years so did the scale of solar power projects on land that could otherwise produce food.

In the 1990s, the food vs. fuel debate took a controversial turn when farmers began growing food crops for fuels such as corn-based ethanol, with encouragement in the form of government subsidies. Today the production of biofuels, including massive palm oil plantations, has become big business, often at the expense of hungry people. As a result, the land requirement of the biofuels industry, not to mention its deleterious impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, has become huge—and it keeps growing.

Making the situation even more complicated and controversial is a simple fact: according to scientists, the amount of land needed to replace fossil fuels with biofuels exceeds all the farmland available on the planet. In other words, increased competition between food and fuel for agriculturally productive land means that the stage is set for food shortages and rising conflict as the projected human population on Earth swells to nine billion by 2050.

This food vs. fuel debate has drawn considerable attention recently, with a number of potential solutions being proposed as a way out of what is quickly becoming a serious conundrum. Here are a few, briefly:

  • It’s a definition issue: According to a group of researchers, the trouble is no one can agree on what defines “surplus” land, including idle, marginal, reclaimed, and degraded land. Devising a common language, they said, means we’ll be able to “creatively utilize surplus land” for energy and the environment.
  • It’s a plant issue: Researchers say we’re using the wrong feedstocks for bioenergy production. Native grasses, flowers, and herbs offer the best chance for creating sustainable biofuels instead. Making that dream a reality, however, would require new technology to harvest, process, and convert this plant material, said one report.
  • It’s an ethics issue: Is it moral to produce fuel from food that could otherwise feed hungry people and drive up food prices as a result? Is it right for rich nations to exploit poor ones for their fuel needs? Before we can resolve this conflict, say philosophical types, we need to sort out our ethics first.
  • It’s a free market issue: Allocating which parcel of land should be used for food and which for fuel should only be determined by free market mechanisms, say many in the private sector. And the role of government subsidies and regulations should be minimized, they add.
  • It’s a geopolitical issue: The use of land for food or fuel cannot be separated from wider global struggles for economic security, political dominance, and social justice, say activists and government leaders.
  • It’s a technological issue: The conflict can be solved, say engineers, by improvements in solar technology on the one side, and plant productivity on the other. This includes ongoing research to “improve” photosynthesis, a chemical process considered by some biotech companies to be too inefficient (I kid you not).

Notice that all of these options have one thing in common: they still see it as a choice between food or fuel, silicon or carbon. There is no common ground, no coexistence, no win-win solution.

The food vs. fuel conundrum led French agricultural scientist Dr. Christian Dupraz to ponder a question: could food and fuel production be successfully combined on one plot of land? Specifically, why not build solar panels above a farm field so that electricity and food can be produced at the same time? In addition to resolving the conflict between land uses, he hypothesized solar panels could provide an additional source of income to farmers while sheltering crops from the rising temperatures and destructive hail and rain storms associated with climate change.

“As we need both fuels and food,” he wrote in a scientific paper published in 2010 in the journal Renewable Energy, “any optimization of land use should consider the two types of products simultaneously.”

He said it wasn’t a new idea. It was first proposed in a 1982 paper titled “On the Coexistence of Solar Energy Conversion and Plant Cultivation” by two German scientists. But their idea had never been implemented – until Dr. Dupraz and his colleagues at INRA, France’s agricultural research institution, decided to give it a try.

In the paper Dupraz also coined a new word to describe this system: agrivoltaic. Here’s a photo from the project:


To test their hypothesis, Dupraz and his fellow researchers built the first ever agrivoltaic farm, near Montpellier, in southern France. In a 2,000-square-meter test field they planted crops in four adjacent plots—two in full sun (as controls), one under a standard-density array of PVPs (as if the solar panels had been mounted on the ground) and one under a half-density array of PVPs. The panels were constructed at a height of 4 meters (12 feet) to allow workers and farm machinery access to the crops.

The main issue, they knew going in, was the effect of shade created by the PVPs on plant productivity. The researchers assumed productivity would decline, though there was scant data in the scientific literature to consult. That’s why they built two different shade combinations, full- vs. half-density, so that they could compare the effects to each other and to the control plots in full sun.

“Basically, solar panels and crops will compete for radiation,” Dupraz wrote in the paper, “and possibly for other resources such as water, as solar panels may reduce the available water quantity for crops due to increased runoff or shelter effects.”

By the same token, shade can improve the productivity of crops in a warming world. Water availability limits many crop productions, he wrote, and shade will reduce transpiration needs and possibly increase water efficiency.

As the experiment progressed, it became clear to the researchers that a compromise needed to be struck between maximizing the amount of electricity produced by the solar panels and maintaining the productive capacity of the farm. It was the Goldilocks Principle at work: too much shade hurt the crops, too little hurt electricity generation. Everything had to be just right. Could this balance be achieved? Variables the researchers identified included:

  • The proper angle or tilt of the PVPs
  • The proper spacing between solar panels
  • Making adjustments for localized conditions (such as latitude)
  • Choosing between fixed panels or panels on trackers (cost is a factor)
  • The proper height of the PVP array
  • Engineering issues involved with the construction of the structure that holds the PVPs in place (must be durable)

By the end of three growing seasons they had their answer: yes, balance was possible. But not quite for the reason they expected.

Not surprisingly, the crops under the full-density PVP shading lost nearly 50 percent of their productivity compared to similar crops in the full-sun plots. However, the crops under the half-density shading were not only as productive as the control plots; in a few cases they were even more productive!

The reason for this surprising outcome, according to Dr. Hélène Marrou, who studied lettuce in the plots, was the compensating ability of plants to adapt to lower light conditions. She reported that lettuce plants adjusted to decreased levels of radiation by (1) an increase in the total plant leaf area, and (2) an increase in total leaf area arrangement in order to harvest light more efficiently.

She also had good news to report on the water front. “We showed in this experiment that shading irrigated vegetable crops with PVPs panels allowed a saving of 14-29% of evapotranspired water, depending on the level of shade created and the crop grown,” she wrote in a 2013 paper (one of three).In the context of global warming and water shortage, she said, reducing water demand by shading plants could represent a big advantage in the near future.

Dupraz noted that while commercially available solar panels operate at 15 percent efficiency, the intrinsic efficiency of photosynthesis is “quite low” at roughly 3 percent (which is why companies are trying to “improve” it). This makes PVP systems more attractive to landowners than farms from a solar radiation perspective, especially at big scales. Combined, however, silicon and carbon systems can be very efficient, he wrote.

Being good scientists, Dupraz and Co. were careful to say that more research was needed, including questions about rain redistribution under the panels, wind effects on the crops, soil temperature changes, the effect of dust from farming on PVP efficiency, and the validity of the results for various latitudes, and a special focus on plants that have a demonstrated ability to compensate for reduced light conditions

However, their early results were very hopeful.

“As a conclusion,” Dr. Marrou wrote, “this study suggests that little adaptation in cropping practices should be required to switch from an open cropping to an agrivoltaic cropping system and attention should be mostly focused on mitigating light reduction and on plant selection.”

To this end, Dr. Dupraz wrote me recently to say the next step in their research is to evaluate the advantages of using mobile solar panels mounted on trackers. This would allow them to adjust the radiation levels for crops to meet their physiological needs. It will also allow the panels to be tilted to a vertical position during rainfall events, giving the water a chance to fall uniformly on the crops.

I’ll wager this is the ticket.


To buy Grass, Soil, Hope:


Coming into Carbon Country

I’m a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who became a dues-paying member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association as a producer of local, grass-fed beef.

For a boy raised in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, during the heyday of sprawl, fast food, and disco music, this was a bewildering sequence of events. I grew up surrounded by cars, malls, concrete, transplanted cacti, and copious amounts of air-conditioning. The closest I came to livestock were the horses my parents owned for trail-riding purposes. Cattle? Local food? Sustainability? I had no clue. Even when I became active with the Sierra Club in the mid-1990s after a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, my conservation work was highly conventional. I lobbied for new wilderness areas, protested clear-cut logging in national forests, and helped publish a citizen’s guide to fighting the environmental damage caused by hard-rock mining. I led activist outings, organized letter-writing campaigns, testified in public hearings, and fought a cynical assault on environmental regulation at the time called “takings” legislation. When I had time to think about livestock grazing at all, it wasn’t in a positive light.

This all changed in 1997 when I cofounded the nonprofit Quivira Coalition with a rancher and a fellow conservationist. I did it because the constant brawling between environmental activists and loggers, ranchers, and other rural residents had dispirited me. No one was winning; everyone and everything was losing, especially the land. Even worse was the negative energy employed by all parties involved—attacking each other in the media, pointing fingers in meetings, filing lawsuits in court, even threatening physical violence. There had to be another way. When I met a rancher who not only did things differently on his land but sought a different relationship with environmentalists, I decided it was time to give peacemaking a chance.

With Quivira, we waded into the middle of the grazing wars in a deliberate attempt to create a “third position” outside the continuum of combat. We called it the New Ranch—a meeting place “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing,” to quote the poet Rumi, where people interested in innovative ideas and fruitful dialogue would have a place to meet, talk, listen, and learn.

It wasn’t just talk, however. The New Ranch meant managing land differently, including moving livestock around in ways that mimicked the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazers. New Ranchers operated on the principle that the natural processes that sustain wildlife habitat, biological diversity, and functioning watersheds are the same processes that make land productive for livestock. It wasn’t just a theory—it worked in practice, as I saw over and over on ranch after ranch. The key was land health: the degree to which the integrity of the soil and ecological processes of rangeland ecosystems are sustained over time. I learned that before land can sustainably support an added value—such as livestock grazing, hunting, recreation, or wildlife protection—it must be functioning properly at a basic ecological level. This included healthy water, mineral, and energy cycles, flowing round and round from the soil to plants and animals and back again.

With Quivira, my conservation work became highly collaborative, with a focus on improving land health, promoting progressive cattle management, implementing creek restoration projects, and repairing damaged relationships. My Sierra Club experience had taught me a hard lesson: that the missing piece of the conservation puzzle was the positive role that people could play. Environmental problems, I came to understand, were as much about social and economic relationships as they were about the environment, thus requiring economic solutions to go along with ecological ones. I learned this by listening to the many heated confrontations between activists and ranchers and loggers over the years. Conservation, I saw, meant prudence, care, good stewardship, and trust as much as it meant passing laws, enforcing regulations, and establishing new parks. That’s why I chose a quote from farmer and author Wendell Berry as Quivira’s motto: “We cannot save the land apart from the people; to save either, you must save both.” Saving both became the mission of the Quivira Coalition.

Over time, our collaborative work grew to include an annual conference, a ranch apprenticeship program, a capacity-building collaboration with the Ojo Encino chapter of the Navajo Nation, numerous publications, a ton of workshops, and lots of creek restoration projects—including a long-running project in northern New Mexico on behalf of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. By our calculation, at least 1 million acres of rangeland, 40 linear miles of creeks, and countless people have directly benefited from Quivira’s collaborative efforts across the Southwest.

The membership in the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association happened in 2006 when 49 heifers were delivered to Quivira’s 36,000-acre Valle Grande ranch, located on a national forest near Santa Fe. They were the first installment of what would become a 124-head herd of heifers, plus three Corriente bulls, all under our “Valle Grande” brand and our management. Shortly thereafter, an invitation to join the Cattle Growers’ Association arrived in our office. We filled out the form, wrote a check, and mailed it back. And just like that, this former Sierra Club activist became a dues-paying cattle rancher!

Our plan was to sell grass-fed beef in Santa Fe, joining the rapidly growing local food movement, and use the revenue to pay for conservation activities on the ranch. For a while it worked. Thanks in part to best-selling books by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, grass-fed beef was an easy sell to customers. In 2008 I had the honor of traveling to Turin, Italy, as a delegate to Slow Food’s biennial Terra Madre gathering as a producer of local, grass-fed beef. It was an experience that changed my outlook on conservation. Food made people smile, I saw, binding us together. It was positive energy at work again, reminding me that the only lasting change is the one that comes from the heart.

Unfortunately, our happy little world began to unravel in the fall of 2008. The financial meltdown on Wall Street, a product of huge amounts of negative energy (greed), triggered a cash-flow crisis for Quivira and other nonprofits as the stock portfolios of foundations and donors shrank dramatically. Grass-fed beef suddenly looked expensive to customers as well. All of this put our Valle Grande ranch in financial jeopardy, calling to mind the old joke: “How do you make a small fortune in ranching? Start with a big one.” We didn’t start with any fortune, big or small. Soon we were forced to sell our cattle herd to pay the bills. Eventually we had to sell the ranch too. This was a big disappointment personally, but I vowed to put our experience to good use somehow.

Here’s a photo of the JX Ranch, near Tucumcari, NM – a successful carbon ranch:FSKA11-2010 084

Meanwhile, I had begun to fret about the Big Picture.

It started in the spring of 2006, during a fund-raising trip to New York City. Rummaging in an airport bookstore for something to read on the outward leg of my journey, I came across James Kunstler’s best-selling cautionary tale The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Curious, I plucked the book from the rack and flipped it over to survey the promotional blurbs, reading how the author “graphically depicts the horrific punishments that lie ahead for Americans for more than a century of sinful consumption and sprawling communities, fueled by the profligate use of cheap oil and gas.” Yikes! Then I thought, “Oh come on, how bad could things be?” I handed the clerk fifteen dollars to find out.

Bad enough to refocus Quivira’s mission, as it happened.

At our annual conference in 2007, Wendell Berry said that “we are not walking a prepared path,” in response to a question from the audience about the difficulties posed by the twenty-first century. In other words, to meet new challenges we need to blaze a new trail. That suggested unexplored country ahead, which is after all what the word quivira originally designated on old Spanish maps of the New World. After some thought, I decided this new trail was building ecological and economic resilience, which the dictionary defines as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In ecology, it refers to the capacity of plant and animal populations to handle disruption and degradation caused by fire, flood, drought, insect infestation, or other disturbance. The word also has a social dimension. Ranching, for instance, is the epitome of resilience, having endured centuries of cyclical drought, low cattle prices, and other challenges.

Resilience is also an important concept for those of us who live in cities, as I had learned the previous winter when a major snowstorm shut down both highways into Albuquerque, New Mexico, isolating the city. In a story for the local newspaper, a reporter asked how long it would take for the shelves of Albuquerque’s grocery stores to be emptied of food. His answer: six days. That’s not very resilient. What about other challenges, I wondered, such as our supply of fresh water? Was it resilient for the long run? Were we?

Realizing that the times were changing, in the fall of 2007 we added the words “build resilience” to Quivira’s mission statement. In doing so, I realized that I was now a long way from the grazing wars of the 1990s—not to mention the suburbs of Phoenix.

There was a lot to learn in this new country. Take climate change. It wasn’t on our radar screen at all in 1997, but a decade later it had become a major concern. As I learned, the rising content of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide (CO2) especially, poses a dramatic threat to life on Earth. Here’s a graph from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California–San Diego, which pretty much sums it all up.1 It’s a scientific projection of CO2 (in parts per million).

In 2013, the CO2 level rose above 400 ppm for the first time in five million years, according to researchers, and it is on a trajectory to reach 600 to 700 ppm by the end of the twenty-first century, with all sorts of bad consequences, unless we act quickly. Double yikes!

Something needed to be done, but what? In 2009, I found a partial answer in an op-ed written by James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the nation’s top climate scientist. Reducing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere back to 350 ppm, he said, is imperative to preserve a habitable planet. “If we cut off the largest source of carbon dioxide—coal—we have a chance to bring CO2 back to 350ppm,” he wrote, “and still lower through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.”2 Cool! I thought to myself. But what did he mean by “carbon storage”?

An explanation arrived a month later when a publication came across my desk from the Worldwatch Institute titled Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use. Its authors, Sarah Scherr and Sajal Sthapit, wrote that for political, technological, and economic reasons, the only possibility for large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere currently is through improved ecosystem function, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving land, and restoring degraded watersheds.3 I did a mental double take. That sounded like the work of the Quivira Coalition!

The miracle cure is called photosynthesis. As Scherr and Sthapit pointed out, plants naturally pull CO2 out of the air and convert it into soil carbon, where it is safely stored for long periods of time in the ground unless disturbed—by plowing, for instance. This process has been going on for billions of years, and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes. It creates a simple equation: more plants and deeper roots = less CO2 in the atmosphere.

It’s more complicated than that, of course. But here’s the really exciting part: if land that is bare, degraded, tilled, or monocropped can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, and covered year-round with a diversity of green plants with deep roots, then the added amount of atmospheric CO2 that can be stored in the soil is potentially high.

Globally, Scherr and Sthapit wrote, soils contain about three times the amount of carbon that’s stored in vegetation and twice the amount stored in the atmosphere. Since two-thirds of the earth’s land mass is grassland, additional CO2 storage in the soil via better management practices, even on a small scale, could have a huge impact. Grasslands are also home to two billion people who depend on livestock—an important source of food and wealth (and culture) to much of the earth’s human population. Both these animals and their human stewards could be mobilized for carbon action.

This made huge sense to me, so I called Scherr and invited her to speak at Quivira’s annual conference in the fall of 2010, which I had titled “The Carbon Ranch.” The purpose of the event was to describe the many ways by which food and stewardship can be used to build soil, store carbon, and fight climate change. I told her I was determined to explore this exciting country and spread the good news. When she agreed to make a presentation, I began calling up other carbon pioneers, eventually assembling an exciting lineup of speakers. But then a thought struck me: Where was I going? Climate? Carbon? Where had we wandered off to?

I decided we needed a map.

I sat down one morning at my dining room table and began sketching on a sheet of paper. I drew every joyous, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, relationship-building, climate-mitigating, local food–producing activity I could pull from my experience, putting them into a single mythical landscape. I sketched (badly) cattle-herding ranchers, weed-eating goats, bat-friendly water tanks, creek-restoring volunteers, land health–monitoring crews, fish-friendly wetlands, grass-fed beef businesses, no-till farms, and on-site renewable energy projects. Then I added cities, schools, farms, beavers, wolves, bird-watchers, kitchen gardens, wildlife corridors, compost piles, and more. I intentionally left out boundaries, including property lines, political divisions, and geographical separations. There was no distinction on my map between public and private land, or between wild country and nonwild. It was all one map—all one vision in which wolves, cattle, bats, organic farmers, biologists, artists, foxes, fish, cities, and ranchers all worked together and got along.

When I was done, I sat back and studied my map. I knew this place. It was the land I had been exploring for years—except it wasn’t. I hadn’t considered it from a carbon perspective before. It felt like a new country, ripe for further exploration. But where would I go? What would I discover? Were there actual on-the-ground solutions to the rising challenges of the twenty-first century? If so, was there an answer to an increasingly anguished question being asked by Americans of all stripes: what can I do to help?

I knew a few things going in:

  • Carbon is key. It’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. Without it we die; with too much we suffer; with just the right amounts we thrive. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases, and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up. In the last century or so, however, the carbon cycle has broken down at critical points, most importantly in our soils, which have had their fertility eroded, depleted, and baked out of them by poor stewardship. Worse, carbon has become a source of woe to the planet and its inhabitants as excess amounts of it accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans. It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon.
  • We don’t have to invent anything. Over the past thirty years, all manner of new ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil and reduce carbon footprints have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. We already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, produce local renewable energy, improve water cycles, grow grass on bare soil, coexist with wildlife, and generally build resilience into the land and in our lives.
  • It’s mostly low-tech. It’s sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, mud, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, trees, compost, and creeks. Some of the work requires specialized knowledge—such as herding livestock or designing an erosion-control structure in a creek—and some of it has high-tech components—such as solar panels or wind turbines—but most of Carbon Country can be easily navigated by anyone.
  • Lastly, you’re on the map too. Everyone is, whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, hike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, restore creeks, or eat food—you’re on the map. You live in Carbon Country. We all do. It’s not a mythical land; it exists.

This is what I knew—and all that I knew. Surveying the map, I realized that there were specific questions that needed answers: (1) Was it actually possible to significantly increase the amount of CO2 in soils via land management practices and thus impact climate change, as the experts suggested? (2) What were the range of activities that sequestered carbon in soils? (3) Was it practical to scale up sequestration practices and their cobenefits in ways that would address rising challenges in the twenty-first century? (4) What paradigms would need to be shifted to make this work possible? (5) What were the best incentives to make all of this work economically? (6) Who was going to do all this new work?

It wasn’t clear, so with my rough map in hand, I set out to explore this new land. Here’s what I discovered.

This is the Prologue from Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey through Carbon Country. See:

Copy of OZ1 207 (151)

Grass, Soil, Hope

I’m pleased to announce that my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country is now available from Chelsea Green:

And I’m honored that Michael Pollan wrote the Foreword. Here it is:

“Hope in a book about the environmental challenges we face in the twenty-first century is an audacious thing to promise, so I’m pleased to report that Courtney White delivers on it. He has written a stirringly hopeful book, and yet it is not the least bit dreamy or abstract. To the contrary, Grass, Soil, Hope is deeply rooted in the soil of science and the practical work of farming.

“Grass, Soil, Hope is at the same time a challenging book, in that it asks us to reconsider our pessimism about the human engagement with the rest of nature. The bedrock of that pessimism is our assumption that human transactions with nature are necessarily zero-sum: for us to wrest whatever we need or want from nature—food, energy, pleasure—means nature must be diminished. More for us means less for it. Examples of this tradeoff are depressingly easy to find. Yet there are counter-examples that point to a way out of that dismal math, the most bracing of which sit at the heart of this book.

“Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon–sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes—the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which gifts those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.

“Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands are properly managed, according to White—that carbon at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us. There it is: A non-zero-sum transaction.

“This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb sheers a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up.

“To seek to return as much carbon to the soil as possible makes good ecological sense, since roughly a third of the carbon now in the atmosphere originally came from there, released by the plow and agriculture’s various other assaults, including deforestation. (Agriculture as currently practiced contributes about a third of greenhouse gases, more than all of transportation.) For thousands of years, we grew food by depleting soil carbon and, in the last hundred or so, the carbon in fossil fuel, as well. But now we know how to grow even more food while at the same time returning carbon and fertility and water to the soil. This is what I mean by non-zero-sum, which is really just a fancy term for hope.

“It has long been the conventional wisdom of science that it takes eons to create an inch of soil (and but a single season to destroy it). This book brings the exceptionally good news that this conventional wisdom no longer holds: with good husbandry, it is possible to create significant amounts of new soil in the course of a single generation. The farmers and the scientists who are figuring this out are the heroes of Grass, Soil, Hope.

“The book takes the form of a travelogue, a journey to the grassy frontiers of agriculture. Some of these frontiers White finds in the unlikeliest of places: on Colin Seis’s “pasture cropping” farm in Australia, where annual grains are seeded directly into perennial pastures; on John Wick’s cattle ranch in Marin County, California, where a single application of compost has roused the soil microbiota to astonishing feats of productivity and carbon capture; in the tenth-of-an-acre “edible forest” that Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates planted, according to the principles of permaculture, right behind their house in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Each of these chapters constitutes a case study in what is rightly called “regenerative agriculture.” Taken together, they point the way to a radically different future of farming than the one we usually hear about—the one in which, we’re told, we must intensify the depredations (and tradeoffs) of agriculture in order to feed a growing population.

“Courtney White’s book points to very different idea of intensification—one that also brings forth more food from the same land, but that, by making the most of sunlight, grass, and carbon, promises to heal the land at the same time. There just may be a free lunch after all. Prepare to meet some of the visionaries who have mastered the recipe.”



Herding Wisdom

Here’s a new twist on an ancient practice: skilled shepherds as ecological doctors!

That’s the innovative idea of two agricultural researchers, Fred Provenza, emeritus professor of behavioral ecology at Utah State University, and Michel Meuret, an animal ecology scientist and director of research at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). Their thinking is as straightforward as it is unconventional: skilled herders can be ecological doctors to heal damaged land and provide ecosystem services to human communities, including high-quality, locally sourced food and fiber—to which I would add increased carbon sequestration in restored rangelands.

Herding refers to the process of moving a group of animals as a unit from place to place in search of fresh forage under the daily direction of one or more humans and their ever-watchful dogs. The key to successful herding is managing the natural behaviors of wild or domestic herbivores, which historically lived in extended families for protection, and controlling their movement and placement by human voice command and swift dogs.

Meuret and Provenza explain their thinking in a book they’ve edited, titled The Art and Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders. I recommend the publication to anyone interested in the regenerative possibilities of agriculture. The reason why is implied in the book’s title: art + science = wisdom. That’s an essential equation for meeting the rising social and environmental challenges of our era.

The art part of shepherding has very old origins. Humans have been moving cattle, sheep and goats across varied landscapes probably since the time these animals were first domesticated in the Middle East, roughly 9,000 years ago. It remained a widespread and ever-evolving practice around the globe (fitted to local conditions) until petroleum and barbed wire fencing put most shepherds out of business. Today herding is vibrant mostly where it is essential to the cultural identity of indigenous people, such as the Maasai of eastern Africa and the Navajos of the American Southwest, or where it has stubbornly persisted in the face of rampant industrialization, as it has in France, Italy and Spain.

So what? If it’s a matter of controlling livestock, won’t fences do? Why hire a human with all the costs involved? If it’s the positive effects of herbivory you seek for land health purposes (removal of old grass, breaking up of capped soil and fertilization by defecation), shouldn’t multi-paddock, planned grazing using portable electric fencing be sufficient? More philosophically, why consider a low-tech approach like herding in an era of high-tech solutions?

For Meuret and Provenza, based on their long-term research in France and America, the answer is simple: herding is the right tool for the times. “Even with a herder’s salary,” they write, “skilled herding is a low-cost way to address ecological, economic and social challenges and opportunities for improving the vigor of soil, the biodiversity of plants for the health of domestic and wild herbivores, and the health of people who rely on plants and herbivores for their well-being.”

Meuret and Provenza believe that we’ve let fences have too much influence on the foraging behavior of livestock and thus on the health of soil and plants and ultimately human beings. Fences can’t do what a knowledgeable herder can do to optimize grazing from a diversity of forage resources over days and weeks (even hours)—which they see as a big step toward ecological doctoring. Many rangelands exist in a degraded condition and grazing, when skillfully applied, can do wonders to restore them to health, as countless examples have demonstrated.

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold understood this when he wrote that wildlife habitat could be restored through the “creative use of the same tools that have heretofore destroyed it—axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun.” Although we might drop the plow from the list today, his point remains critical: the goals and skills of the human using the tool matter most.

Take herding. By carefully designing and adjusting daily grazing circuits, a skilled shepherd can stimulate the appetites of his or her livestock by encouraging the herd to eat from a mix of plants, some highly palatable and others less palatable. This not only improves the nutrition, health, and welfare of the animals, it can be designed for specific ecological effects, as well, such as chomping on weeds or targeting a particular species of plant. Fences alone cannot provide this degree of doctoring.

According to Meuret and Provenza, there is a three-step process by which a flock is taught to respect grazing boundaries (often set by the landowner) and thus begin the doctoring:

  • Step 1. Upon entering a new grazing sector in a pasture, the shepherd lets the flock approach a predetermined boundary. He or she stays in a visible place on the front side of the flock and also places the dog in motion along the boundary. When the first sheep come near the boundary line, the shepherd loudly shouts something like “Hôôô!” From prior experience, the flock knows this cry means that the shepherd disagrees. The sheep quickly change direction (while keeping their eyes on the dog).
  • Step 2. The next day, when grazing the same sector, the shepherd places the dog on the boundary again, but this time tells it to remain motionless. It’s just a reminder for the flock, which usually turns of its own accord when approaching the boundary. However (sheep being sheep), if a part of the flock insists on crossing the boundary, the shepherd will shout again, from the same spot, causing the sheep to turn back.
  • Step 3. During subsequent days, if the flock tries again to have a peek over the forbidden boundary, then the shepherd will cry again, though this time from behind the flock. This completes the training process; the flock now understands that this movement is off limits.

In this way, a shepherd can direct the foraging behavior of the herd in precise ways to accomplish whatever goal he or she desires, whether it is nutritional or ecological. This is where the science comes in. Decades of research into animal behavior, dietary needs, plant toxins, wildlife habitat management, fire risk reduction, biodiversity requirements and many other fields of scientific endeavor can inform the daily goals and hourly choices made by shepherds. In turn, shepherds can provide observations, data and other form of feedback to the researchers from their experience on the land—something else that fences can’t do!

This is how wisdom is created, a non-stop, mutually respectful and reinforcing give-and-take between art and science.

Here’s a photo of a French herder in action:

herd photo22

The Low Stress Way

John Wayne must be rolling over in his grave.

This thought crossed my mind as I sat in the back row of a herding clinic taught by Guy Glosson, Tim McGaffic and Steve Allen, ranchers and trainers who practice a type of low-stress livestock handling that emphasizes patience and kindness toward animals. Stop the whooping and hollering when moving cattle, they said. No more electric prods, sticks or aggressive attitudes either. Throw away your ideas of controlling animals by use of fear, pain or other forms of stress-inducing pressure, they insisted.

“Consider not wearing sunglasses when approaching cattle,” said Glosson. “You’re the predator and they’re the prey, or at least that’s the way they look at it. If they can’t see your eyes, it may make them more nervous, as they may not be able to judge your intentions.”

I smiled to myself, imaging what the Duke would say to this. “Hell, you’re supposed to make them nervous,” the actor might exclaim. “What is this, some sort of New Age ranching?”

“If cattle get worried,” continued Glosson, “you’ve taken the first step toward losing control of the herd. Animals want to feel secure. But they won’t feel secure if you’re yelling at them all the time. Your job is to treat them with respect.”

I could hear the Duke groan. Yelling at cattle and prodding them into action was as old as, well, the movies. Older, actually—Tim opened the class with a history lesson about how livestock have been manhandled in the West since the Civil War. Stressing out cattle was part of ranching culture and is still standard practice on many ranches today. Perhaps that explains why Baxter Black, a famous cowboy poet and former large-animal veterinarian once challenged Glosson over the idea of low-stress handling with a simple, steely: “Why?”

“I told him that it’s all about the health of the animal,” Glosson said. “Consistently handling animals without scaring them allows trust to be formed. This trust helps animals remain calm and that equates into a healthier immune system and better response to vaccines and other medications they may need.”

“I also told him that it was less stress on the handler too, which made us healthier,” said Glosson, with his easy laugh. “But I don’t think I convinced him.”

Another reason to adopt the low-stress way is economics. The margin of profit on livestock for ranchers is literally counted in pennies per pound. The stress put on cattle as they move from the ranch to the feedlot or the slaughtering facility can “shrink” an animal’s weight as much as 15 percent. Stress can make an animal more susceptible to disease, often requiring additional medicines and additional costs. It can also affect pregnancy rates in cattle, the bread-and-butter of a rancher’s bottom line. It all adds up quickly in dollars and cents.

Another reason is a philosophical one: how we treat animals speaks volumes about who we are as human beings.

“For grazing animals like cattle, the most dangerous predator on earth is a young human male,” Glosson said. “Until trust is established, animals will always perceive humans as a threat. And we don’t want that. These animals are now domesticated and for the most part they depend on people for their every need. If we want them to perform at their best, they must not be afraid of the person caring for them.”

The low stress way starts with recognizing the predator-prey relationship and the effects of such things as noise, size, distance and motion on cattle, which, like many animals, have well-defined zones in which particular actions trigger particular responses. For example, the recognition zone is where the animal takes notice of you and tries to determine your intent. The flight zone, when crossed, will cause the animal to move away from your approach. Suddenly violating this zone means that you are likely to encounter a panicked animal who has perceived you to be a threat.

According to Glosson, the key to successful low-stress handling is something called “pressure and release.” Your presence (as predator) creates pressure that an animal (as prey) wants to relieve. The critical moment occurs when you reduce the pressure instead of allowing the animal to do it for you by fleeing. You accomplish this by stepping into the animal’s flight zone in such a way as to pressure it in a direction or manner that you intend for it to move, and then backing off when the pressure is no longer needed—before the animal runs away from you. Worked with this way, animals learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself, and a mutual understanding is established.

The whole idea is to use a “law of nature” to positive effect. For example, Glosson teaches his students to approach animals on foot in a nonthreatening manner, often zig-zagging as they get closer. When an animal sends a signal, such as raising its head or widening its eyes, the student stops, or backs up. If the animal moves off, then the student is too close or has done something threatening. Glosson tells them to start over.

“You’re trying to start a conversation with the animal,” said Glosson. “You’re not trying to tell him you’re a nice guy or anything, because you’re not. You’re still the predator. Instead, you’re trying to communicate mutual respect. And you want to keep the conversation going as long as necessary to get the job done. And you need to let the animals know when the conversation is over.”

The modern concept of low-stress livestock management was developed by Bud Williams, a Canadian rancher who spent his entire life studying how to handle animals respectfully, swiftly and easily, including reindeer, elk, sheep and wild cattle. The key, he learned, was to pay attention to the instincts of the animal.

“We need people that are more sensitive to what the animal is asking us to do,” Williams told an interviewer. “If we would be more sensitive to that, then these jobs that we work on would be so much easier to do.”

It’s all about communication—and not just between man and animal, but between people, too. If you can’t communicate your ideas of what you’re doing, you probably also can’t get it accomplished.

“We always work at a level where we barely get it done,” Williams continued. “We get as good as we need to get. We’ve reached a point now where we need to get better.”

Here’s a photo of Steve Allen teaching a low-stress clinic: File0020

To read

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Redefining Local

What does “local” mean when you live on a remote farm or ranch?

It’s an important question because going “local” has significant benefits: it gives us access to fresh, healthy food; it reduces our carbon footprint and lessens our dependence on fossil fuels; it keeps money circulating in the local economy where its multiplier effect can be large; it builds a sense of community among all participants; and it pokes globalization in the eye.

Good stuff, but when we talk about “local” we almost always mean from the perspective of a city resident, i.e., those products grown or made closest to a customer. Farmer’s markets are a good example. “Local” in their case means a radius around a point (the market) located in a city or suburb. This means participation is limited to those farms and ranches who can afford the time and money to drive into town every weekend. In other words, from the perspective of a city resident, anybody selling produce at a farmer’s market is “local.”

However, if you live on a remote farm or ranch, especially out West where the distances to potential markets can be staggering, “local” looks very different – especially with the high price of diesel. Without a Santa Fe or Denver or Portland nearby, how can an organic farmer or grassfed beef rancher participate in the burgeoning local food movement and reap its benefits?

Fortunately, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative has come up with an ingenious solution: redefine “local” to include the entire state – with significant help from the Internet. They do this in two ways: first, it is a producer and consumer cooperative, i.e., rural farmers and ranchers and urban consumers gathered under one umbrella. Second, the buying and selling between the two groups takes place in a virtual marketplace, which is where the Internet comes in.

Here’s how it works:

  • You pay a one-time fee of $51.75 to become a member of the Cooperative.
  • On the first day of every month, members can go on the Cooperative’s web site and purchase any food or craft product listed there.
  • On the second Thursday, this electronic ordering ‘window’ closes. The orders are then sent to the participating farms and ranches so they can be filled.
  • On the third Thursday of the month, designated drivers visit all the participating farms and ranches to pick up the orders.
  • All drivers then converge at a warehouse in Oklahoma City where the products are separated into piles and then rebundled according to the customer’s orders.
  • The drivers travel back home, dropping off the individual orders at one of 50 designated locations across the state, where the customers pick them up.

Presto! Local redefined. Here are more details:

  • All products provided by the Cooperative are made within the state of Oklahoma.
  • Each farm and ranch controls their own inventory, sets their own price for their products and each designs its own label and controls the advertising.
  • Customers can buy as much or as little as they want each month and they can earn credits toward a purchase by volunteering.
  • There are nearly 4000 items on the Cooperative’s web site, many of which are organic, natural or grassfed (there are many non-food items for sale as well).
  • Quality is guaranteed – or your money back.
  • All participating farmers and ranchers get roughly 90 cents of every dollar spent on their products.

This last point is huge. In the industrial agricultural model, producers typically get 20 cents of every food dollar. The rest goes to ‘middle men,’ including packers, truckers, grocery stores, and other corporate interests. In the Oklahoma Food Cooperative model there are no middle men, other than the Cooperative itself. Producers come out ahead because they are now ‘price givers’ instead of ‘price-takers.’ This is something new under the sun, and one of the reasons I made a long drive a few years ago to Fairview, located in northwestern Oklahoma, to see for myself.

I joined a tour of a certified organic wheat and grassfed beef farm owned by John and Kris Gosney called Cattle Tracks. Not long ago, John Gosney was a conventional wheat farmer, soaking his fields with pesticides, harvesting the wheat with a ton of fossil fuel, and watching his spirit decline along with the land’s health. He became depressed, he told the group, often finding himself sitting on a bale of hay wondering where his life heading. John said that he never gave organic agriculture a thought until a neighbor asked him to take over his farm, as he was about to retire and didn’t want to let his hard work developing an organic wheat operation to come to naught. John said ‘yes.’

John told us he was immediately struck by the profitability of his neighbor’s farm and decided to certify his own farm as organic as a consequence. Initially, he saw a drop in yield, but he also saw a drop in expenses, especially since he stopped using conventional fertilizers and pesticides. Eventually, as the yield came up, so did his profits. However, the main benefit of the switch, he said, was non-economic: he began to have fun again. Going organic cured him of his depression. He liked the challenge of organic as well as the hard work it requires.

Today, the Gosneys grow cattle to 800 pounds on their wheat fields and finish them on native grass (an all-wheat diet affects the taste of the meat, he said). He proudly pointed to an analysis by Oklahoma State University of the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid – a cancer-fighter) content of Cattle Tracks beef. According to the analysis it fell “in the highest range of CLA content reported in the literature for beef.”

The Oklahoma Food Cooperative, he told us, was the key to it all.

One downside to the Cooperative’s model is less face-to-face interaction between producers and customers. In both the CSA and Farmer’s Market models, the meet-and-greet relationship between grower and eater is an important part of doing business. By contrast, by working through the Internet, people don’t get much face time.

For remote farmers and ranchers, however, this downside is offset by a big upside: they get to participate in a “local” food economy. By offering products for sale via the Internet at a one-stop shop provided by the Cooperative, as the Gosneys discovered, “local” is extended to the state line. Suddenly, “remote” doesn’t seem so remote anymore!

Here’s a photo of John Gosney talking to visitors:Copy of IMG_1715

Cooperative Behavior

“Food for People not for Profit.”

As with many coops begun in the late 60s and early 70s, this was the original slogan of La Montañita Food Cooperative, which was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1976 with three hundred families as members. According to Robin Seydel, a coop staff person since 1985, it was very much a ‘hippie’ establishment in the beginning, dedicated to gaining access to “off-limit” food at the time, including organics, whole grains, and macrobiotics. The coop also threw early jabs at the industrial food system by offering workshops on the links between pesticides and cancer, food irradiation and GMOs. Its counterculture spirit even extended to its organizational structure. By being member-owned, it deliberately set itself as an alternative to the corporate model of soulless profit-making.

Fast forward nearly forty years and what was once counterculture is now mainstream, which is good news for all of us!

Today, La Montañita has over 16,000 member households, employs nearly 300 people, manages six stores in three cities, operates a regional food distribution hub, and has returned over $4.5 million to its members in patronage dividends since 1989. It is an active member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which encompasses over 140 food coops representing combined annual sales of over $1.5 billion and over one million consumer-owners. And as we all know, healthy, nutritious, organic, and sustainably-produced food that was once considered ‘off-limits’ is now widely available across the nation and has become a part of everyday eating habits.

This good news begs a question: could other kinds of regenerative activities considered “off-limits” economically today, such as building soil carbon or restoring damaged ecosystems or feeding large numbers of people sustainably follow a similar trajectory? Perhaps cooperatives are the ticket to getting this important work accomplished as well. What about a Restoration Cooperative!

It’s not a pipe dream. Cooperatives are all around us, including worker-owned manufacturing coops, depositor-owned credit unions and agricultural marketing coops. Overall, there are nearly 30,000 cooperatives in the United States, accounting for two million jobs and $500 billion in annual revenues.

IRS-recognized types include: (1) Consumer cooperatives, which are owned by the people who buy their products or use their services – REI is the nation’s largest example; (2) Producer cooperatives, where farmers and others group together to sell their products under one label – Organic Valley, for instance; (3) Purchasing cooperatives, where businesses work together in order to be competitive with national chains – just as the National Cooperative Grocers Association does; and (4) Worker cooperatives, which are owned and run by employees – a good example is the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, one the biggest cooperatives in the world.

Consumer cooperatives are by far the largest type of coop in the United States and the movement as a whole is gaining momentum. Recent research suggests why: the broad and diverse benefits created by coops make them resilient in a crisis. Credit unions, for example, survived the Great Recession of 2008 relatively unscathed because they viewed rampant mortgage speculation as contrary to the interests of their members.

Another reason cooperatives are resilient is that they often focus on the essentials necessary to a healthy society: food, water, electricity, insurance, finance. Their primary mission is to provide a public service, not act as engines for wealth accumulation. That’s why it is not such a big leap to extend the cooperative model to ecological restoration and carbon sequestration.

Although its ‘hippie’ roots have faded, there is an important element to the cooperative model that remains firmly countercultural: its communal ownership structure. Like nonprofits, cooperatives are a legally-sanctioned form of private ownership in service of the public good. While they are profit-making, they are not profit-maximizing. This sets cooperatives squarely against the corporate model of doing business, whose overriding goal is to turn a small pile of money into a larger pile of money (to paraphrase Wendell Berry).

In contrast, cooperatives see money as a means to an end: creating an economy that supports, rather than diminishes, the greater public good. It’s not just about economics, however. For organizations like La Montañita, the philosophy that motivates their work is the belief that cooperative behavior is the key to healthy communities and thus a brighter future for all.

This shouldn’t be news – humans have profitably engaged in cooperative behavior since, well, we became human.

“The cooperative economy is helping to reawaken an ancient wisdom about living together in community, something largely lost in the spread of capitalism,” writes Marjorie Kelly, an author and advocate for cooperatives. Cooperatives represent a need that “arises from an unexpected place – not from government action, or protests in the streets, but from within the structure of our economy itself. Not from the leadership of a charismatic individual, but from the longing in many hearts, the genius of many minds, the effort of many hands to build what we know, instinctively, we need.”

The first successful cooperative was organized in 1844 in Rochdale, England, when a group of weavers and other craftsmen pushed back against the tide of Industrialism sweeping the nation by opening a store to collectively sell their products. They called themselves the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers and they authored a set of Principles that have recently been updated by the International Coop Alliance. They include: (1) open and voluntary membership; (2) democratic control; (3) economic participation by members; (4) autonomy and independence; (5) education, information and training; (6) cooperation among cooperatives; and (7) concern for community.

Counterculture indeed!

Robin Seydel describes the difference between the cooperative and corporate models this way: the size of financial dividends paid to members by cooperatives is based on patronage (how much goods and services you purchase) not the level of investment made by someone with extra funds “after they put a roof over their head, food on the table and shoes on the baby.”

There are many other reasons to support the cooperative model: La Montañita pays a living wage – and did so before living wages became popular –and it provides an excellent benefit package. Its food hub, the Coop Distribution Center, serves several hundred local producers in a 300 mile radius around Albuquerque. It is farmer and rancher-friendly, sending them the important message that they can count on the Coop to be there. Which explains the unofficial motto of the cooperative movement: “We were local before local was cool.”

Cooperatives are cool. And important to our future!

Here’s a photo of Robin Seydel in the Coop’s produce section:la montanita 1.widea

For more info see:

Marjorie Kelly’s quote:

Weeds and Black Gold

In 2004, Kathy Voth had an out-of-the-box idea: teach cows to eat weeds. As in, way out of the box.

According to conventional thinking at the time, cows were grazers, goats were browsers, and sheep were something in between. If you wanted to tackle a weed infestation on your farm or rangeland with livestock, you employed a herd of goats. Right? Goats eat weeds. Cows eat grass. (And coyotes eat sheep.) If you didn’t want to use a biological remedy, however, then you could return to the standard solution: costly chemical herbicides. In large quantities. After all, what other practical alternative was there? Not cows.

Yes, cows. Over the past decade, Voth has developed a simple yet effective process for training cows to eat weeds, including almost any type of cow and almost any type of weed. There’s no gimmick involved. Her process is based squarely on recent scientific research into how livestock choose what to eat and on well-established principles of animal behavior. Voth’s process takes only ten hours of training spread over ten days to teach a group of cattle to learn to eat weeds. It works for a simple reason: the cows never realized weeds tasted so good!

However, convincing ranchers, farmers, agency employees and academics to give cows a chance is a much more difficult job, she’s discovered.

Let’s back up for a second. Why worry about invasive weeds?

Over 90 different foreign plants are recognized as Federal Noxious Weeds. Collectively, they infest over 100 million acres across the nation, including 20 percent of our public lands, and they are expanding at a rate of 8 to 12 percent—an area the size of Delaware—every year. Weeds crowd out native plants, damage crops and forage and contribute to soil erosion. Some can poison wildlife and livestock. Taken together, they are a huge threat, not only to food production but to biodiversity and watershed health, as well.

Weeds can also put human lives at risk. Voth was a public information officer in Colorado in 1994, when a forest fire killed 14 firefighters. The tragedy set her to thinking about the danger we put people in when we fight fires and whether or not goats could help. Goats eat just about everything, Voth knew, so she and a friend started a research project to see if goats could reduce woody fuel buildup. When she discovered that they also ate a wide variety of troublesome weed species, she went to ranchers and told them to add five goats for every cow in order to improve their pastures.

“They just looked at me like I was insane,” she said in an interview. “Most ranchers don’t want to have goats because they require a completely different kind of fencing and the market is much more difficult to access than the beef market. These were very good reasons and they made sense to me. But I’m not the kind of person you can just say no to.”

So she turned her attention to cows instead.

She also turned to Fred Provenza and other animal scientists at Utah State University, who discovered that a food’s palatability is heavily conditioned by experience. When an animal finds a food that meets its nutritional needs it will choose this food over and over. That’s because foods that “taste good” generally have more nutrients, which our bodies need. Nutrients send positive signals to the brain. Toxins send negative signals, such as nausea, causing us to avoid foods that “taste bad.” Flavor, in other words, is the brain’s way of screening nutrients from toxins.

According to Voth, this makes weeds ideal forage for cows because most are high in nutrients and low in toxins. In fact, most weeds are at least as nutritious as grass and often higher in protein. “That means if we can get a cow to try a weed, she’ll continue eating it year after year,” Voth wrote in an essay. “As a bonus, she’ll gain weight at rates expected for an animal eating a higher protein diet. Thus, not only do we eliminate the cost of herbicides, we increase profits due to increased weight gain.”

But how do you get a cow to “like” a food it has never eaten before?

Since inexperienced animals are more likely to try new things, Voth focuses on young cows and gives them a lot of positive experience. Here’s how it works. For the first four days of the training period Voth feeds the animals unfamiliar but tasty (nutritious) food in tubs twice a day, including beet pellets, wheat bran and hay cubes. Soon the animals associate her arrival in the pasture with a tasty meal. Combined with the natural competiveness of animals at feeding time, this meaning cows will try almost anything.

On the fifth day, Voth serves weeds with some of the feeds the trainees have already tried. She repeats this for three more days, increasing the amount of weeds and reducing the other foodstuffs until the mix is 100 percent weeds by the sixth day. If the weeds are present in the pasture, the cows will start eating them once they’ve been recognized. Soon the trainees are training other animals. Voth has seen 12 cows train 120 more!

As a bonus, educated cows are open minded to trying other weeds in a pasture, even if they haven’t been trained to them.

Here’s a sample of what cows will eat: Russian, Canadian, Italian, Scotch and musk thistle; diffuse, spotted and Russian knapweed, yellow and Dalmatian toadflax, white top/hoary cress, leafy spurge, goldenrod, fringed sage, field bindweed, yellow and purple starthistle, horehound, common mullein, rabbitbrush and many others. Voth has even trained cows to chow down on brush, including wild rose, willow, even mesquite.

Weed thorns and spines don’t bother cattle. Voth has seen them eat cactus. As for toxins, her advice is to make sure the weed is safe before you start (she keeps an updated and comprehensive list on her website). Watch out for dormancy too. Her rule of thumb: if it’s green and growing, it’s nutritious!

Then there are the economic benefits. “Say you’re a typical Western rancher and you have 400-500 cows,” she wrote. “You train 50 of them and within a year they’ll have trained all the rest. The cost of training those fifty cows is about $250 and you’ll never have to do it again. On average, a gallon of herbicide costs $250 and it will treat not nearly as many acres as the cows will. It just makes sense to me.”

Me too.  A “hip-hip-hooray” for out-of-the-box thinking! Better yet, a haiku:

The War on Weeds ends
When cows begin to eat them.
Foe becomes forage
- The Tao of Cow (Kathy Voth)Copy of colorado

Black Gold

Biochar has a great press agent.

The subject of numerous books, articles, research papers, conference presentations and various top-ten-ideas-that-will-change-the-world lists, biochar enjoys a reputation that has, so far, exceeded its actual accomplishments.

I bet that’s about to change.

Biochar’s attraction is threefold. first, as a supercharged form of charcoal, it has the ability to affect many Twenty-first Century challenges simultaneously, including greenhouse gas emissions, food insecurity, waste management and renewable energy production. Second, it’s a technology, albeit a sooty one, which means it’s attractive to the scientific, entrepreneurial and techno-geek aspects of our society—which partly explains its media charm. It also appeals to the “backyard innovator” in our human nature. Third, it’s an ancient agricultural practice, which tempts the farmer in us. As the prehistoric tribes of the Amazon Basin knew, biochar can elevate soil fertility tremendously.

In fact, all of these positive attributes create a kind of identity crisis for biochar: is it a “lite” form of geoengineering, a repurposing of indigenous knowledge or a commercial opportunity for savvy businesses?

It’s all of the above—but let’s back up. What is this black gold exactly?

Biochar is produced when organic material, generally plant matter or manure, is heated to very high temperatures in a zero or near-zero oxygen environment, which bakes the carbon into a light but solid structure riddled with millions of tiny holes. The process is called pyrolysis. In nature, it occurs when trees are carbonized by intensely hot forest fires or when wood is engulfed by volcanic lava.

In human hands, it usually takes place in a specially constructed oven where temperatures can reach 500 degrees Celsius or higher. In this tightly controlled environment, between 30 and 50 percent of the original carbon is transformed into highly stable biochar. The rest becomes bio-oil and syngas, both of which are exciting to renewable energy experts as potential substitutes for petroleum.

Biochar’s appeal as a way to mitigate climate change is straightforward: by baking carbon into a substance that can last thousands of years, we interrupt the natural cycle of decomposition and respiration in which microbes digest organic material and then “burp” carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process is a considerable source of this important greenhouse gas, and so if we can “lock up” large amounts of carbon as biochar rather than let it decompose, then we can (potentially) make a big dent in the blanket of greenhouse gases surrounding our planet.

Johannes Lehmann, a professor at Cornell University, recently calculated that if biochar were added to the soil of only 10 percent of the world’s farms, nearly 30 billion tons of CO2 would be sequestered—approximately the total amount of humanity’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The waste management appeal is also straightforward: biochar can be made from a wide variety of biological or “green” waste, including lawn clippings, hedge and tree trimmings and leftover food that would otherwise end up in landfills. Ditto with dairy and horse manure. This is important because landfills and manure lagoons are major sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As a bonus, diverting these sources into biochar will reduce vexing waste disposal challenges.

Of course, composting is another way to put green waste to work regeneratively, but unlike biochar, which is inert, compost is biologically active. Its microbes are busy “burping” CO2 into the atmosphere. One intriguing solution is to mix biochar into compost piles. Biochar provides structural stability and compost provides biology. Another win-win!

Biochar’s agricultural appeal is based on its almost magical ability to improve soil fertility. Since biochar can take the shape of sticks, pellets or dust, it can be easily mixed into soil. Once there, it creates a variety of important benefits.

  1. The millions of tiny holes in a piece of biochar provide “condominium” housing for micro-critters, which move in quickly and begin doing their soil-building thing.
  2. These holes also wick water from the soil into the biochar (up to six times its weight) and release it slowly, supplying the microbes and retarding evapotranspiration, both of which are very useful in a drought.
  3. Biochar’s stability and resistance to decay enables the soil to withstand flooding and other forms of erosion.
  4. Bochar is alkaline by nature which can help achieve ph balance in acidic soils.
  5. Biochar can help restore degraded land because it works best when applied to depleted soils.
  6. And biochar can help to remediate polluted air and soil.

Taken together, it’s little wonder that prehistoric peoples in South America spent 8,000 years stuffing the thin, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of the Amazon Basin with a type of biochar called terra preta. It was their homemade version of black gold!

So, given all of these impressive benefits and opportunities, why isn’t biochar in widespread use yet? One answer: biochar is more complicated than it first appears.

For starters, there are a bewildering variety of biochar types to choose from (225 and counting). There is also a confusing selection of ovens to bake them in and many (competing) schools of thought about how to produce biochar properly. Then there are technical issues involving thermal physics, feedstocks and disposal of the bio-oil and syngas produced as byproducts.

There are also practical issues involving transportation and appropriate farming practices and philosophical issues involving competition with compost projects, how to work at scale and even proper baking temperatures (higher temps produce more stable carbon storage but also use more energy and produce more waste). Finally, there are ethical issues, including the specter of ecologically destructive, industrial-scale biochar plantations.

And then there are the economic hurdles.

Biochar has not yet been produced commercially at a price that makes it competitive with conventional fertilizers or other soil amendments ($1,000 per metric ton was one price I saw). This could change with the creation of a viable carbon marketplace, where biochar could become a way for polluters to earn “credits” to offset their production of greenhouse gases. Until then, however, biochar remains mostly in a research and development phase.

It won’t last long. Biochar has too many important benefits to continue to be underutilized, especially as Twenty-first Century challenges mount. In fact, it has already come a long way in a short time—the word “biochar” didn’t even exist before 2008. Today it already has a great press agent!biocharwheel_sjp

For more on Kathy Voth see:

For a research perspective:

For more on biochar see: the U.S. Biochar Initiative

My book will be out soon! See:



Thinking Like a Creek

When it comes to land, building resilience in an ecosystem so it can withstand an intense shock often means rebuilding resilience. That’s because so much land exists in a degraded condition today, a consequence of a century of hard use and mismanagement, that its ability to absorb the effects of a prolonged drought or hot fire, say, without further degrading its ecological integrity is a tall order. That’s why restoring land to health has to be one of our top priorities.

Fortunately, the restoration toolbox has been well developed over the past three decades, including innovative strategies for healing damaged riparian areas. I describe two such strategies below. One focuses on a pioneering methodology for re-meandering creeks developed by Bill Zeedyk and the second features an artistic approach to creek restoration developed by Craig Sponholtz. Both strategies are effective, attractive, and necessary to rebuilding resilience in the 21st century. 


During my travels, I heard a story about a man who had put short fences across a cattle trail in the sandy bottom of a canyon in Navajo country so that cattle were forced to meander in an S-pattern as they walked, encouraging the water to meander too and thus slow erosion. I thought this idea was wonderfully heretical. That’s because the standard solution for degraded creeks is spend a bunch of money on cement, riprap, and diesel-driven machines. Putting fences in the way of cattle and letting them do the work? How cool.

The man was Bill Zeedyk, a retired biologist with the U.S. Forest Service reincarnated as a riparian restoration specialist. Was the story true, I asked him? It was, he assured me. Recognizing that water running down a straight trail will cut a deeper and deeper incision in soft soil with each storm, Bill talked the local Navajo ranchers into placing fences at intervals along the trail so that the cows would be forced to create a meander pattern in the soil precisely where Bill thought nature would do so in their absence. Water likes to meander – it’s nature’s way of dissipating energy – and it will gravitate toward doing so do even if it’s temporarily trapped in a cattle-caused rut (or human-caused hiking trail). His fence idea was a way to move the process along.

What happened after the fences were put it in? The water table came up as vegetation grew back, Bill replied, because the water was now traveling more slowly as a result and had a chance to percolate into the ground, rather than run off like before. Eroded banks began to revegetate as the water table rose and more water appeared in the bottom of the canyon, which encouraged riparian plant growth.

“Nature did all the heavy lifting,” he said, before adding a warm, knowing smile. “It worked too, until someone stole the fences.”

Over the years, Bill has developed a very effective set of low-cost techniques that reduce erosion, return riparian areas to a healthier functioning condition, and restore wet meadows. This is important because a big part of the West exists in an eroded condition, generally the result of historically poor land management. This point was brought home to me in force one day when I walked under a barbed wire fence that stretched across a gully on a New Mexico ranch. The fence was five feet above my head. The rancher told me that the fence was built in 1937 and the fence posts originally rested on the ground!

To heal this type of damage, Bill has put together a toolbox designed to “heal nature with nature” that includes:

• one-rock dams/weirs – grade-control structures composed of wooden pickets or rocks that are literally one-rock high and simulate a ‘riffle’ effect in creeks.

• baffles/deflectors – wedge-shaped structures that steer water flow.

• vanes – a row of posts that project upstream to deflect water away from eroding banks.

• headcut control structures/rock bowls – to slow or stop the relentless march of erosion up a creek and trap water so vegetation can grow.

• worm ditches – to redirect water away from headcuts in wet meadows.

The goal of these structures is to stop downcutting in creeks, often by ‘inducing’ an incised stream to return to a “dynamically stable” channel through the power of small flood events. Bill calls it Induced Meandering. When a creek loses its riparian vegetation – grasses, sedges, rushes, willows and other water-loving plants, it tends to straighten out and cut downward because the speed of water is now greater, causing the scouring power of sediment to increase. Over time, this downcutting results in the creek becoming entrenched below its original floodplain, which causes all sorts of ecological havoc, including a drop in the water table. Eventually, the creek will create a new floodplain at this lower level by remeandering itself, but that’s a process that often takes decades. Bill’s idea is to goose the process along by forcing the creek to remeander itself his vanes, baffles, and riffle weirs carefully calculated and emplaced. And once water begins to slow down, guess what begins to grow? Willows, sedges, and rushes!

“My aim is to armor eroded streambanks the old fashioned way,” said Bill, “with green, growing plants, not with cement and rock gabions.”

The employment of one-rock dams typifies Bill’s naturalistic approach. The conventional response of landowners to eroded, downcut streams and arroyos has been to build check dams in the middle of the water course. The old idea was to trap sediment behind a dam, which would give vegetation a place to take root as moisture is captured and stored. The trouble is check dams work against nature’s long-term plans.

“All check dams, big or small, are doomed to fail,” said Bill. “That’s because nature has a lot more time than we do. As water does its work, especially during floods, the dam will undercut and eventually collapse, sending all that sediment downstream and making things worse than if you did nothing at all.”

“The trick is to think like a creek,” he continued. “As someone once told me long ago, creeks don’t like to be lakes, even tiny ones. Over time, they’ll be creeks again.”

One-rock dams, by contrast, don’t collapse – because they are only one-rock high. Instead, they slow water down, capture sediment, store a bit of moisture and give vegetation a place to take root. It just takes more time to see the effect.

“As a species, we humans want immediate results. But nature often has the last word,” said Bill. “It took 150 years to get the land into this condition; it’s going to take at least as long to get it repaired.” The key is to learn how to read the landscape – to become literate in the language of ecological health.

“All ecological change is a matter of process. I try to learn the process and let nature do the work,” said Bill, “but you’ve got to understand the process, because if you don’t, you can’t fix the problem.”

Over fifteen years and across a dozen states, Bill has implemented hundreds of restoration projects, healing miles of riparian areas – all by thinking like a creek!

Here is a photo of two vanes under construction:  IMG_4186

Form + Function

One of my heroes is the conservationist Aldo Leopold, widely honored for his pioneering work in many fields of endeavor, including wilderness protection, wildlife management, environmental education, and even sustainable agriculture. While he is best known for his articulation of a land ethic, which is essentially a plea for harmony between land and people, as well as the concept of land health, which encompassed the regenerative processes that perpetuate life, there is another aspect of his deep thinking that has been largely overlooked: beauty is also an important component of conservation. In Leopold’s own words:

“There is only one soil, one flora, one fauna, and one people, and hence only one conservation problem…economic and esthetic land uses can and must be integrated, usually on the same acre.” [Land Pathology, 1935]

“Bread and beauty grow best together. Their harmonious integration can make farming not only a business but an art; the land not only a food-factory but an instrument for self-expression, on which each can play music of his own choosing.” [The Conservation Ethic, 1933]

Art, harmony, beauty and aesthetics are all signs of health in nature and ourselves. This was one of the reasons I took a shine to Bill Zeedyk’s ideas about creek restoration. Bill’s methods harmonized with the land and its ecological processes. Not coincidently, his structures were also attractive to look at. Made of rocks and wooden posts, they had a sculptural feel that verged on the artistic. It was work that integrated form and function on one acre – just as Leopold had hoped.

One of Bill Zeedyk’s students, Craig Sponholtz, has taken this idea to the next level, transforming stream restoration into an art form.

For example, Craig recently debuted a log-and-rock structure he calls a “step-down” in Grassy Creek, high the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest of northern New Mexico, that was not only impressively constructed but lovely to look at. Craig had arranged zigzagged spruce logs in the creek to make it look like the trees had simply toppled over from the nearby forest instead of having been carefully placed by a machine (an excavator in this case). Locally-sourced rocks had also been fitted around the logs in a way that was pleasing to the eye. Add in the tufts of sod inserted between the rocks and logs and the sound of cascading water, and you had the recipe for a Zen-like work of art.

Of course, the step-down structure had a job to do, first and foremost. Its assignment was to save a wet meadow above it by easing water down a steep stretch of creek that had developed a big headcut without incurring any additional erosion. Accomplishing this goal requires knowledge of soils, hydrology, geomorphology, mechanical engineering and math on the part of the designer, as well a great deal of field experience (and a soft touch with an excavator) or the structure will fail in its duty. But this is where Leopold came in. What Craig had done on Grassy was take something functional and human-constructed and make it look like a natural feature on the land, in this case an attractive log-filled cascade of merry water.

It was a wholly practical restoration structure and a piece of sculpture. It demonstrated that the principles that made a practice regenerative were the same ones that made it beautiful.

Leopold is an inspiration to Craig as well. His favorite quote is this one: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” That’s exactly what the log-and-rock step-down is doing – restoring the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community known as Grassy Creek.

“If you’re going to spend time and money trying to heal a meadow like this, which is critically important to the ecosystem,” Craig told me, “then I think it’s best to follow nature’s blueprints, which involves an intricate web of interactions that life depends on. Beauty is part of that web, as are water, soil and plants. You can’t have one without the other.”

Of Craig’s work, especially lovely is the water-spreading, crescent-shaped structure called a media luna (half moon) which he has perfected into sculpture. Another specialty is an in-stream grade-control structure called a cross vane, which is composed of large rocks carefully arranged in the creek in order to slow down the water’s momentum by creating a natural plunge pool.

After taking care to read the landscape of the project site diligently, Craig creates a design that involves as few people and materials and as little dirt-moving as possible, while striving for a strong and long-lasting effect. This minimalism is partly about self-expression, but it also about physical objectives – to heal the creek as simply and effectively as possible. It also makes sense economically, especially to the landowner or agency funding the work. Beauty is woven into the minimalism too, which accounts for naturalistic feel of his structures.

Craig calls what he does “regenerative earth art.” Not only is his goal to heal damaged land for anyone who lives in a watershed (all of us, in other words), he creates structures that become part of the ecological processes that they reignite. By serving as footholds for grass and riparian plants that take over, his structures eventually are absorbed into the land itself and disappear. Best of all, this integration of the ecological and the aesthetic can happen anywhere, even in cities.

 “The main misconception that people have about watershed restoration,” Craig said, “is that it’s something that happens far away in parks and public lands and not something that can be part of everyday life. But everyone lives in a watershed and I work hard to make the restoration of our home watersheds something that is built into the ways we live and work.”

 Here is a photo of the step-down structure shortly after completion:Copy of Grassy stepdown2

For more on Bill Zeedyk’s Induced Meandering methodology see the manual: Let the Water Do the Work, available from Chelsea Green Press in June, 2014.

Craig Sponholtz’s web site:


Edible Ecosystems

Here are condensed versions of two profiles in my upcoming book Grass, Soil, Hope that feature the regenerative practices at the nexus between food and nature. Both build soil carbon while growing healthy food in abundant amounts, demonstrating that we can have our organic, pesticide-free, mineral-rich cake and eat it too. For more on the book see:

Edible Backyard Forests

This is a story about two plant geeks, an urban sweet spot and edible forests.

The two self-described plant geeks are Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates and the edible forest garden they planted in 2004 resides on one-tenth of an acre behind a duplex home they bought in the Rust Belt city of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Although tiny, the property had big problems: the backyard was lifeless, the soil full of brick and concrete bits, the narrow alleyways in deep shade, the steep, short front yard covered in asphalt and the legal terrain hostile to composting, water harvesting and livestock, chickens especially.

It was perfect, in other words.

That’s because Toensmeier and Bates wanted to see if they could bring a tiny spot of badly damaged land back to health by creating an edible ecosystem on it. That meant a forest garden, which is defined as an ecologically-designed community of mutually beneficial perennial plants intended for human food production. Think fruits, nuts, berries and certain veggies. Could they bring lifeless land back to life by gardening every square inch, they asked, creating a diverse and edible landscape? Could they grow banana plants in wintry western Massachusetts? If so, what else could they grow, and how could it serve as a role model for ecological restoration in cities using native perennial plants?  Could their one-tenth acre sweet spot, in other words, yield big results?

The plant geeks set out to find out.

The two friends knew from experience that one advantage to perennial plants, besides providing tasty food, was their ability to build soil, control erosion, improve rainfall capture and sequester carbon. These could be very useful qualities in a blighted urban context, they thought. There was another advantage to perennials – minimal maintenance, which Toensmeier calls the “holy grail” of permaculture design.

“Having worked on annual vegetable operations and experienced the hard labor of planting and caring for annuals,” he writes in his book Paradise Lot, “I considered low-maintenance edible perennial vegetables an appealing alternative.”

The key to creating an edible ecosystem is a design that is as multifunctional as possible. To do this, Toensmeier and Bates spent an entire year observing and analyzing their one-tenth acre after they moved into the duplex in January, 2004, contemplating their design. What part of the property received the most sunlight year-round (for the greenhouse)? Where was the best place for the pond, what guilds of plants would work best together in which part of the backyard?

Looking around the neighborhood for an ecological role model, they were delighted to discover a “feral landscape” behind a twenty-year old Kmart shopping center. It was ten acres of shrubs and wildflower meadows – perfect for their purposes. That’s because nature was well on its way to healing the two decades-old scar created by the development and by studying the plants, they gained valuable clues to what nature likes to grow in a disturbed urban ecosystem.

“Most gardeners would not be excited about the species that were growing in the abandoned area behind the shopping center,” Toensmeier wrote, “But to me, any plant community that can grow in such terrible conditions is a welcome one.”

In 2005, after sheet mulching the bare ground behind the duplex (layers of straw, compost, organic fertilizers and cardboard) they planted native persimmon, pawpaw, beach plum, clove currant, blueberries, juneberries, chinquapins (bush chestnuts), hog peanuts, grapes, pears, and the nonnative kiwifruit (but so are carrots and apples, Toensmeier notes). In the front yard they planted banana trees.

By 2007, the garden was coming to life, a consequence of improving soils and the attractive habitat they had created for beneficial insects. The shrubs, perennials and young trees were doing well, Toensmeier wrote, and the front yard already looked like a mini-tropical paradise. The banana trees, sheltered from westerly winds, collecting heat from the asphalt driveway, their roots protected from winter snows, became show stoppers in the area. Drivers stopped in the middle of the street to gawk. Neighbors asked permission to harvest leaves for tamales.

By 2009, their backyard ecosystem was showing “emergent properties,” as they described it, meaning things were happening that were more than the sum of their parts. For example, they discovered a blue salamander under a twenty-foot persimmon tree in the garden, which meant their edible ecosystem was attracting forest animals to patrol its understory – a creature that would never have survived in the yard in 2004.

In 2010, Bates kept a log of the amount and types of food coming into the kitchen from the garden. He estimated that over six months, they harvested 400 pounds of fruits and vegetables from the one-tenth acre, a total that was bound rise in subsequent years as the edible ecosystem reached its full capacity. Best of all, the incredible yields were being produced with virtually no labor. It was a testament not only to success of their design, but to the regenerative power of nature to produce life.

 “The abundance in our garden comes to us in a self-renewing way,” Bates wrote in Paradise Lot. “Our fruit trees are surrounded not by grass and asphalt, but by other useful and edible easy to care for plants. After eight years, with very little care from us, all the plants are providing food, medicine, mulch, fodder, beauty, habitat, knowledge, seeds, and baby plants.”

“How is it that the abundance that I am now seeing in the garden,” he exclaimed, “and in life, was hidden from me all this time?”

For Toensmeier, their little sweet spot demonstrated that cold-climate forest gardening can work. They created a multistoried forest garden in Massachusetts that can produce food from trees, shrubs, herbs and fungi, even in the shade. They showed that ponds can grow food, asphalt can be a boon to tropical plants, and a good time can be had by all. There were challenges and setbacks (detailed in the Paradise Lot) of course, but after eight years they had accomplished everything on their original To Do list, and more.

 “While sustainability is focused on maintaining things as they are, regenerative land use actively improves and heals a site and its ecosystems,” Toensmeier wrote in Paradise Lot. “Regenerative agriculture…achieves these goals while also meeting human needs. It’s kind of an important topic for humanity this century.”

Buy their book:

 Before and After images of their lot:before_after_eric_toensmeier_2004


Cover Crops

Sometimes the most effective and regenerative practices are ones that don’t earn splashy headlines. For example, one quiet way to build up soil carbon on farms damaged by industrial agriculture is with cover crops – plants that cover the land with something green and growing for as much of the year as possible.

It’s not sexy, but it works wonders.

I learned the details at a workshop in Kansas led by Dr. Jill Clapperton, a soil scientist, who told the audience that the key to rebuilding soil health is to start a “conversation among plants.” Cool-season grasses, such as barley, wheat and oats and cool-season broadleaf plants, such as canola, pea, turnip, lentils and mustard, she said, need to dialogue constructively with warm-season grasses, including millet, corn, and sorghum, and warm broadleafs, such as buckwheat, sunflower and sugar beets. Who gets along with whom?

If you can get these plants engaged in a robust conversation in one field, she said, you’ll be creating “a feast for the soil.” That’s because increased plant diversity as well as year-round biological activity absorbs more CO2, which in turn increases the amount of carbon available to roots, which feeds the microbes, which builds soil, round and round.

This is exactly what happened on Gail Fuller’s farm, which we visited. When Fuller took over the operation from his father they were growing just three cash crops: corn, wheat and soybeans. Now, Fuller plants as many fifty-three different kinds of plants on the farm, mostly as cover crops, creating what Dr. Clapperton called a “cocktail” of legumes, grasses and broadleaf plants. Fuller doesn’t apply any herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers either, despite the recommendations of his no-till neighbors and the chemical manufacturers who advise them. That’s because Fuller considers weeds to be a part of the dynamic conversation as well.

As a result of this robust conversation, Dr. Clapperton said, the carbon content of the soil on the Fuller Farm has doubled from 2 percent in 1993 (when they switched to no-till) to 4 percent today. That’s huge.

There’s more: the mineral content of Fuller’s crops has risen dramatically as well, she said. This is important because all living creatures, humans included, need vitamins and minerals to stay strong and healthy. Iron, for example, is required for a host of processes vital to human health, including the production of red blood cells, the transportation of oxygen through our bodies, and the efficient functioning of our muscles. Copper is essential for the maintenance of our organs, for a healthy immune system, and to neutralize damaging “free radicals” in our blood. Calcium is essential for bone health. And every cell in our body requires magnesium to function properly. Vitamins are organic compounds composed of various chemicals and minerals, including carbon.

A deficiency or imbalance of these “trace” minerals (so-called because they are only needed in tiny amounts) can cause serious damage to our health, as most people understand. That’s why taking vitamin pills has become such a big deal today – and big business – especially where young children are concerned. But few people stop to think about why we need vitamin pills in the first place. It’s not simply because we don’t eat our veggies or because we drink too much soda, but because the veggies themselves don’t have the amount of essential nutrients that they once did. In some cases, the drop has been dramatic.

How did this happen? Well, industrial agriculture happened. The hybridization of crops over the decades for production values – yield, appearance, taste, and ease of transport – has drained fruits and vegetables of nutrients. But the main culprit is what we’ve done to the soil. As a consequence of repeated plowing, fertilizing, and spraying, the top few feet of farmland soil has been (1) leached of their original minerals; and (2) stripped of the biological life that facilitates nutrient uptake in plants. Some farms, especially organic ones, resupply their soils with mineral additives, but many farms do not, preferring to rely on the Big Three – Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus (NPK) – to keep the plants growing. According to the industrial mindset, as long as crops are harvestable, presentable, digestible, and profitable, it doesn’t matter if their nutrition is up to par. If there’s a deficiency, well, that’s what the vitamin pills are for!

Gail Fuller reversed this trend in two ways: first, his employment of no-pesticide no-till practices means the microbial universe in his farm’s soil remains intact and alive, and if the soil dwellers have enough carbon (as an energy source) they will facilitate the cycling of minerals in the soil, especially earthworms, who are nature’s great composters. Second, a vigorous and diverse cover of crops will put down deeper roots, enabling plants to access fresh minerals, which then become available to everything up the food chain, including us.

Furthermore, by covering the soil surface with green plants, or litter from the dead parts, Clapperton said, a farmer like Gail Fuller traps moisture underground where it becomes available for plants and animals (of the micro variety), enabling roots to tap resources, growing abundant life.

“Above-ground diversity is reflected in below-ground diversity,” she said. “However, soil organisms are competitive with plants roots for carbon, so there must be enough for everybody.”

So exactly how do minerals get into plants? There are two principal paths: First, minerals can dissolve in water and when the water is pulled into the plant through its roots, the minerals are absorbed into the cells of plant tissue. Whichever minerals the plant doesn’t need (or doesn’t want) will remain stored in the cells.

Second, mineral nutrients can enter a plant directly by being absorbed through the cell walls of root hairs. Some minerals, such as phosphorus, can also “hitch a ride” with mycorrhizal fungi, which then “barter” them for carbon molecules from the plant roots. Of course, if there aren’t any minerals in the vicinity, no uptake into plants is possible.

It all begins with a dynamic conversation at a cocktail party for plants – where everyone is gossiping about carbon!

They may not be headline-makers, but cover crops can quietly make a huge difference.

Images of cover crops in action:Clover in wheat


Dr. Clapperton speaking about cover crops at a Quivira Coalition conference:

An Anguished Question

Novelist Wallace Stegner once said that all books should try to answer an “anguished question.” I believe the same is true for ideas, movements and emergency efforts. In the case of climate change, one anguished question is this: what can we do right now to help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide from its current level back to 350 ppm?

Today, the only possibility of large-scale removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. Strategies include: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming with perennials, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds, forests and rangelands, increasing biodiversity, lowering agricultural emissions, and producing local food.

Over the past decade, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable. The key is to bundle them into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing the atmospheric content of CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things.

The climate challenge now confronting all societies on the planet is as daunting as it is straightforward: under a Business-As-Usual scenario, the rising content of heat-trapping trace gases in the atmosphere, principally carbon dioxide, pose a dramatic and potentially catastrophic threat to life on Earth.

The science of climate change and its correlation with industrial activity is clear. The challenge – and the opportunity – we face can be summed up in two pertinent graphs from the Scripps Institute at UC San Diego ( which chart the rise of the atmospheric content of CO2, a heat-trapping gas that has significantly contributed to the rise in the Earth’s temperature since 1750.

Graph One: A comparison of current CO2 ppm to the historical recordco2_420_thousand_years

The dips correspond with planetary cooling periods (“ice ages”) and the subsequent rises correlate with warming trends. Note that past CO2 maximums barely exceeded 300 ppm. Today, it is nearly 400ppm – the highest level in at least 4 million years.

Graph Two: A scientific projection of CO2 under current emission trends with_future_1800_peak

Under a Business-as-Usual model, CO2 will rise to 1500 ppm, or thereabouts, and not return to pre-industrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future.

What does this mean? Human civilization is synonymous with the Holocene epoch, whose remarkably stable climate over the past 10,000 years gave rise to the agricultural revolution, among many other developments. However, a rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere jeopardizes this stability, perhaps permanently (on human time-scales).

Dr. James Hansen, the former Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the nation’s top climate scientist, put it this way: “Business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, without any doubt, will commit the planet to global warming of a magnitude that will lead eventually to an ice-free planet.”

Since 2008, many climate activists and researchers have embraced a target of 350 ppm. For example, journalist Bill McKibben, who raised the first popular alarm about global warming back in 1989 with his book The End of Nature, co-founded the nonprofit, with the mission to get atmospheric CO2 back down to that level.

How do we get there?

In a 2009 editorial, Dr. Hansen proposed an answer: “cut off the largest source of these emissions – coal – and allow CO2 to drop back down to 350 ppm through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.” In a research paper, Hansen specifically says that a 50 ppm drawdown via forestry and agricultural practices is quite plausible.

I consider these words to be a sort of ‘Operating Instructions’ for the 21st century. Personally, I’m not sure what to do about the coal side of his equation, which requires governmental action, but I have an idea about how to increase carbon storage in soils.


“Carbon is the basic building block for life. Over millennia a highly effective carbon cycle has evolved to capture, store, transfer, release and recapture biochemical energy in the form of carbon compounds. The health of the soil, and therefore the vitality of plants, animals and people, depends on the effective functioning of this cycle.” – Dr. Christine Jones, soil scientist (

The process by which atmospheric CO2 gets converted into soil carbon is neither new nor mysterious. It has been going on for tens of millions of years and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes. According to Dr. Christine Jones, there are four basic steps to the CO2 / soil carbon process:

  • Photosynthesis
  • Resynthesis
  • Exudation
  • Humification

Photosynthesis: This is the process by which energy in sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy, in the form of a simple sugar called glucose, via green plants – which use CO2 from the air and water from the soil, releasing oxygen as a by-product.

Resynthesis: Through a complex sequence of chemical reactions, glucose is resynthesized into a wide variety of carbon compounds, including carbohydrates (such as cellulose and starch), proteins, organic acids, waxes, and oils (including hydrocarbons) – all of which serve as “fuel” for life on Earth.

Exudation: Around 30-40% of the carbon created by photosynthesis can be exuded directly into soil to nurture the microbes that grow plants and build healthy soil. This process is essential to the creation of topsoil from the lifeless mineral soil produced by the weathering of rocks over time. More active green leaves mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded.

Humification: or the creation of humus – a chemically stable type of organic matter composed of large, complex molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, minerals, and soil particles. Visually, humus is the dark, rich layer of topsoil that people generally associate with stable wetlands, healthy rangelands, and productive farmland. Once carbon is sequestered as humus it has a high resistance to decomposition, and therefore can remain intact and stable for hundreds of years.

Additionally, high humus content in soil improves water infiltration and storage, due to its sponge-like quality and high water-retaining capacity. Recent research demonstrates that one part humus can retain as much as four parts water. This has important positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams.

The natural process of converting sunlight into humus is an organic way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soil for long periods of time. If the land is bare, degraded, or unstable due to erosion and if it can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, and covered with green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high. Conversely, when healthy, stable land becomes degraded or loses green plants, the carbon cycle can become disrupted and will release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

In other words, healthy soil = healthy carbon cycle = storage of atmospheric CO2. Any land management activity that encourages this equation, especially if it results in the additional storage of CO2, can help fight climate change.

Or as Dr. Christine Jones puts it: “Any…practice that improves soil structure is building soil carbon.”

This is good news for a simple reason: two-thirds of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is grassland – and home to two billion people who depend on livestock at least partially for their livelihood. This means that managing the land for CO2 sequestration, even on a small scale, could have a big impact on people and the planet. Livestock is key because it is an important source of food and wealth (and culture) to much of the Earth’s human population and thus could be mobilized for carbon action.

“Healthy grasslands, livestock and associated livelihoods constitute a win-win option for addressing climate change in fragile dryland areas where pastoralism remains the most rational strategy for the wellbeing of communities,” wrote the authors of a United Nations report in 2010. “It is a win-win scenario for sequestering carbon, reversing environmental degradation and improving the health, well-being and long term sustainability of livestock based livelihoods.” (for citations see

The effort to sequester carbon in soil also produces a list of co-benefits that make the whole enterprise even more vital. They include:

  • Local grassfed and organic food. By managing land for a healthy grass cover, a carbon ranch is the natural setting for raising grass-fed livestock, whose environmental and human-health benefits are well-documented.
  • Improved ecosystem services. These services include the provision of food, fresh water, wood, fiber, fuel, and biodiversity; flood, pest and disease regulation; nutrient cycling, soil stability, biotic integrity, watershed function, and photosynthesis; and spiritual, educational, recreational, and aesthetic experiences.
  • Rural economic development. Producing local food, restoring creeks and rangelands, marketing ‘climate-friendly’ enterprises, and developing local energy will require a great deal of work, and therefore could create, potentially, a great deal of paychecks for rural residents.
  • Maintenance of culture and diversity. This work can strengthen and support local and regional land-based cultures. It will require a mixing of innovation with tradition, but this can be a healthy way of rejuvenating a sense of community and cultural continuity.
  • Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide. Most carbon sequestration work will take place in the countryside, which means it has a huge potential to bridge the long-standing and expanding gulf that separates urban and rural residents.
  • Opportunities for the next generation. This work will be attractive to young people who want to get into (or back to) farming, ranching, restoration or otherwise pitch in with the effort to fight climate change.

None of this will be easy. In fact, the obstacles standing in the way of this work and sharing its many co-benefits are large and diverse. Some see salvation in high technology, including the ‘capture’ of CO2 at its source to be stored underground. Unfortunately, these technologies, even if practical, are years away from deployment. And the climate crisis is happening now.

We don’t need high technology – we have the miracle of photosynthesis already, the original low technology. It won’t save the planet by itself, of course, but it is essential to the quality of life on Earth no matter how much CO2 exists in the atmosphere. Too often, however, our eyes seem fixed on the stars and our minds dazzled by distant horizons, blinding us to possibilities closer to home. Perhaps we should be looking down, not up.

An answer to our anguished question lies at our feet, among the grass and the roots.

A Texas test: which side of the fence is likely sequestering more carbon? Which is actively grazed? IMG_1756(answer: the left side)

Grass, Soil, Hope

I am very pleased to announce that my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey through Carbon Country will be published by Chelsea Green Press in early June. I am equally pleased to announce that Michael Pollan has generously written a Foreword for my book. Here’s a quote: “Hope in a book about the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century is an audacious thing to promise, so I’m pleased to report that Courtney White delivers on it.”

It’s not in my nature to be self-promotional, but I want to get the word out. I’ll being doing more over the next four months, so you’ve been warned! In the meantime, I’ll try to explain what the book is about, though if you have been reading this column for a while then you probably have a good idea.

Grass, Soil, Hope tackles an increasingly anguished question: what can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting us today, including climate change, global hunger, water scarcity, environmental stress, and economic instability?

The quick answers are: Build topsoil. Fix creeks. Eat organic.

Crazy? I thought so until I read a statement from Dr. Rattan Lal, an esteemed soil scientist, who said a mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. Wow! But what did he mean? How could it be accomplished? What would it cost? Was it even possible?

Yes, it is possible, as I discovered. Essential, in fact.

Right now, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. They include: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands, increasing biodiversity, and producing local food.

As I know from personal experience, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable.

In Grass, Soil, Hope, I bundle them into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing atmospheric CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. Soil is a huge natural sink for carbon dioxide. If we can draw increasing amounts carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil as life-giving and food- producing humus (the rich soil of a garden), then we can significantly address all the multiple challenges in my anguished question.

The key is carbon. That’s because it is everywhere – it’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. Without it we die; with the just right amounts we thrive; with too much we suffer. For eons, carbon has been a source of life and joy to the planet. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up, including plants, animals and people.

In the last century or so, however, the carbon cycle has broken down at critical points, most importantly among our soils which have had their fertility eroded, depleted, and baked out of them by poor stewardship. Worse, carbon has become a source of woe to the planet and its inhabitants as excess amounts of it accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans. It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon. Which brings me to the hope:

We don’t have to invent anything. Over the past thirty years, all manner of new ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil and reduce carbon footprints have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. We already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, produce local renewable energy, improve water cycles, grow grass on bare soil, coexist with wildlife, and generally build resilience on the land and in our lives.

It’s mostly low-tech. It’s sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, mud, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, trees, compost, and creeks. Some of the work requires specialized knowledge, such as herding livestock or designing an erosion-control structure in a creek, and some of it has high-tech components, such as solar panels or wind turbines, but most of Soil, Grass, Hope can be easily navigated by anyone.

One morning, I sat down at my dining room table and drew a map of every joyous, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, carbon-building, climate-mitigating activity I could pull from my decades-long experience in conservation and sustainable agriculture, putting them into a single landscape. I intentionally left out boundaries, including property lines, political divisions, and geographical separations. There was no distinction on my map between public and private land, or between wild country and non-wild. It was all one map, all carbon – all one vision in which wolves, cattle, bats, organic farmers, biologists, artists, foxes, fish, cities, and ranchers all worked together.

You’re on the map. Everyone is, whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, hike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, fix creeks, or eat food – you’re on the map. You live in Grass, Soil, Hope. We all do. It’s not a mythical land, it exists – I’ve been there. I can be your guide.


I came up with the idea of the map and a carbon ranch during the summer of 2009, inspired by a WorldWatch publication by Sarah Scherr and Sajal Sthapit titled Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use. In an essay published in 2011, I spelled out six strategies to increase or maintain soil health and thus the carbon content of grass or shrub-dominated ecosystems of the American West. My subsequent travel and research for the book largely bore out my hunches. The six strategies were:

(1) Planned grazing systems. The carbon content of soil can be increased by three principal methods: the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground; deepening the roots of existing healthy plants; and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles in a given area. Planned grazing is key to all three. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, the carbon rancher can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. Specific actions include: the soil cap-breaking action of herbivore hooves, which promotes seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration; the ‘herd’ effect of concentrated animals, which can provide a positive form of perturbation to a landscape by turning plant litter back into the soil (an intensive version of this effect is sometimes called a ‘poop-and-stomp’); the stimulative effect of grazing on plants, followed by a long interval of rest (often a year), which causes roots to expand while removing old, oxidized forage; targeted grazing of noxious or invasive plants which promotes native species diversity and vigor; and the targeted application of animal waste, which provides important nutrients to plants and soil microbes.

 (2) Active restoration of riparian, riverine, and wetland areas. Many arroyos, creeks, rivers, and wetlands exist in a degraded condition, the result of historical overuse by humans, livestock and industry. The consequence has been widespread soil erosion, loss of riparian vegetation, disruption of hydrological cycles, decline of water storage capacity in stream banks, loss of wetlands and many other examples of land ‘sickness.’ The restoration of these areas to health, especially efforts that contribute to soil retention and formation, such as the reestablishment of humus-rich wetlands, will result in additional storage of atmospheric CO2 in soils. The ‘toolbox’ for the restoration of these areas is now well-developed, practical and could be implemented at scale if desired. There are many co-benefits of restoring riparian areas and wetlands to health, including improved habitat for wildlife, increased forage for herbivores, improved water quality and quantity for downstream users, and a reduction in erosion and sediment transport.

(3) Removal of woody vegetation. Many meadows, valleys, and rangelands have witnessed a dramatic invasion of woody species, such as pinon and juniper trees, over the past century, mostly as a consequence of the suppression of natural fire and overgrazing by livestock (which removes the grass needed to carry a fire). The elimination of over-abundant trees by agencies and landowners, via prescribed fire or other means, has been the focus of much restoration activity in the Southwest recently. The general goal of this work is to encourage grass species to grow in place of trees, thus improving the carbon-storing capacity of the soil. Not only can soils store more CO2 than trees, they also have the advantage of relative permanence. Trees can burn up, be cut down, die of disease or old age, all of which can ultimately release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

(4) The conservation of open space. The loss of forest, range, or agricultural land to subdivision or other types of development can dramatically reduce or eliminate the land’s ability to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere via green plants. Fortunately, there are multiple strategies that conserve open space today, including public parks, private purchase, conservation easements, tax incentives, zoning, and economic diversification that helps to keep a farm or ranch in operation. Perhaps most importantly, the protection of the planet’s forests and peatlands from destruction is crucial to an overall climate change mitigation effort. Not only are forests and peatlands important sinks for CO2, their destruction releases large amounts of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

 (5) The implementation of no-till farming practices. Plowing exposes stored soil carbon to the elements, including the erosive power of wind and rain, which can quickly cause it dissipate back into the atmosphere as CO2. No-till farming practices, especially organic ones (no pesticides or herbicides), not only protect soil carbon and reduce erosion, they often improve soil structure by promoting the creation of humus. Additionally, farming practices that leave plants in the ground year-round both protect stored soil carbon and promote increased storage via photosynthesis. An important co-benefit of organic no-till practices is the production of healthy food.

(6) Building long-term resilience. Managing land for long-term carbon sequestration in vegetation and soils requires building resilience, which refers to the capacity of land, or people, to ‘bend’ with significant or unexpected changes without ‘breaking.’ The idea includes the economic resilience of the landowners, managers, and community members. For example, cooperation among disparate individuals or groups, such as biologists, conservationists, ranchers, and policy-makers, with the goal of improving land health, can help to build ecological and economic resilience within a watershed. This can have two important effects: direct storage of CO2 in the soil, as humus is created, and the strengthening of relationships required for the maintenance of healthy soil over time.

It all went into the map. Here’s what we produced:




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