On a fine August day, I flew to New England in search of abundance.
I was on the road to visit Dorn Cox, a young farmer who lives and works on his family’s 250-acre organic farm, called Tuckaway, near Lee, New Hampshire. Dorn calls himself a “carbon farmer,” meaning he thinks about carbon in everything he does. Confronting agriculture’s addiction to hydrocarbons, for example, Tuckaway produces a significant amount of its energy needs on-farm. Dorn does it with biodiesel – canola specifically – which he and his family grow on only 10 percent of the farm’s land. This was big news, so I thought a visit would be worthwhile.
I met Dorn in a hayfield behind a home belonging to a University of New Hampshire professor, spreading wood ash carefully among a grid of study plots. He gave me a wave as I parked the car, putting the ash can on the ground. Farmer-thin, wearing muddy jeans, a yellow shirt, and a floppy straw hat that shaded intense blue eyes, Dorn extended a hand and gave me an energetic grin.
“What’s going on here?” I asked nodding at the gridded plots, though I knew it was part of his Ph.D research. “Just trying to figure out the best way to turn a hayfield into a farm without tilling it,” he replied. “And create a food and energy system that puts more carbon into the soil than comes out.” Was the professor okay with this? I asked. He’s fine with it, Dorn reassured me. “There are a lot of these little fields behind people’s houses. With some work they could be growing a great deal of produce,” he said. “We just need to figure out a way to do it without using a plow.”
As we walked across his study plots, Dorn explained his thinking.
Conventionally, a modern farm requires a tractor and a plow in order to turn over the soil and furrow the land in preparation for seeding and fertilizing. In contrast, a no-till approach means a farmer can plant the seed directly into the soil, usually with a mechanical drill pulled behind a tractor or a horse. A thin slice is made in the soil by the drill as it moves along, but nothing resembling a furrow. The soil is not turned over, and whatever is growing on the surface is largely left intact.
In fact, many no-till farmers plant a cover crop in the fall so that the soil will be kept cool, moist, and protected from the elements as the cash crop emerges from the ground in the spring or early summer. Dorn pointed at the hayfield as an example, indicating that the cover crop here was grass. He wants to know under what no-till conditions the cash crop – grains in this case – will grow best.
In these goals, Dorn is attempting to combine his knowledge of organic farming with his training in high finance. I knew that Dorn had left Tuckaway after college for a job on Wall Street and then moved on to a private company in the high-tech sector. What I didn’t know was that, like a good businessman, Dorn is trying to increase the return on his investment in the hayfield – the investment in this case being carbon, in the form of wood ash. Over the decades, carbon had drained away from New Hampshire’s soils, largely as a result of plowing and erosion, and Dorn is trying to figure out what amounts are necessary, and in what proportion to other elements, such as nitrogen, to revitalize the soil’s fertility once again.
“The soil here is like a bank to which I’m making a deposit of carbon which will create a natural form of compound interest,” he explained. “Invest one seed, get one hundred back, return the carbon residue to the soil, and invest seed once again next season, and get one hundred twenty back. This absolute return is the real discount rate, and the carbon the real collateral. Any economic returns achieved above the real biological rate of return are by definition extractive and, therefore unearned.”
And it’s earned income that Dorn is after, which he calls the basis for real wealth.
In America, as in most nations, economic theory and practice is dominated by scarcity thinking, which is the belief that there’s not enough of something to go around. Oil is a classic example. As oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to extract from underground, it becomes more valuable, and thus more profitable to those who supply it – and more expensive to those who need it. This creates an important social impact to go along with the economic one.
When a commodity becomes scarce, we as a society start thinking about it obsessively – Where is it? How do we get at it? Why does it cost so damn much? – instead of investigating more abundant alternatives, such as solar energy. Psychologically, scarcity thinking is fear-based; it compels us to do things like hoard, compete, fight, and act greedy, selfish, and dishonest. It creates winners and losers. In contrast, abundance thinking is the belief that there’s plenty for everyone. Soil is a classic example. There’s a lot of good, rich soil in the nation, Dorn pointed out. It could be doing so much more for us if we would only look at it through the lens of abundance, not scarcity.
For example, once upon a time New Hampshire grew much of its own food. In the 1830s, Dorn said, two towns raised more sheep than are raised in all of New England today, and for many decades New Hampshire farmers grew thousands of acres of wheat, more than enough to feed its citizens. Unfortunately, short-sighted management created a legacy of overgrazing and overlogging in the state, resulting in depleted soils and eroded land – a story common throughout the region (and elsewhere). Over time, nearly all the grain and dairy farmers trickled away to greener pastures, and New Hampshire’s ability to feed and heat itself steadily declined.
The collapse of the state’s industrial economy in the late 19th century led to a general exodus of population, a trend reversed only recently as high-tech companies, telecommuters, and wealthy second-home owners began to move in. Today, only 5 percent of New Hampshire is in farmland, which means agriculture is essentially a cottage industry.
“New Hampshire is the Live Free or Die state, known for the independent spirit of its citizens,” Dorn said. “But despite this heritage, it is now one of the most dependent states in the union, relying almost wholly on imported food and fuel.”
New Hampshire has a population of 1.3 million people. If only 13,000 of them became new farmers the state could feed itself, Dorn said. This is possible because New Hampshire has: (1) lots of rain and snow; (2) good agricultural soils; (3) plenty of market potential; (4) a strong educational system; and (5) wealth – i.e., capital – which is necessary to reinvest in new food systems.
In other words, the state has an abundance of possibility. What it lacks, he said, is knowledge and a willingness to change its ways of thinking. Over 40 percent of New Hampshire’s soils are rich enough to be producing food, and yet only a tiny fraction of the population is engaged in farming. It’s the same situation with fuel. The majority of homes in the state are heated with oil, Dorn told me, and yet two of the most common complaints he hears are about the high cost of oil and the low price for wood – in one of the most heavily forested states in the nation.
Scarcity in a land of plenty.
“It’s a cultural paradox,” said Dorn. “With lots of fertile soil, forests, water, and capable people, why can’t we make an independent, abundant living once more?”
Excerpted from Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White