Agricultural land can be a powerful weapon in the fight to slow climate change, as healthy soil better captures and stores atmospheric carbon. But capturing and storing carbon isn’t the goal of most farmers and ranchers. Paying the bills is. On Tuesday Dec. 6 at Boulder’s JCC, local food producers learned that these two goals don’t have to be at odds. The Soil Revolution conference encouraged the idea that high quality food, sold at a premium, can be produced with the happy side effect of a cooler planet.
As the name indicates, the conference focused on soil — specifically, how local producers can reinvigorate their soil and boost yields.
Reinvigorated soil is full of carbon, and not only does carbon-rich soil have more nutrients to pass onto crops, it also absorbs more water, making it resilient in drought conditions. “Having healthy soil is the best way to deal with climate chaos,” said Elizabeth Kaiser, the conference’s first speaker.
Kaiser runs Singing Frogs Farm, a vegetable farm in Northern California where she focuses on her soil’s health by incorporating crop diversity (planting more than one crop in the same field) and avoiding tilling (or turning and churning) the soil.
Farming in the United States is dominated by industrial-scale approaches. Single crops are planted across vast swaths of land with loads of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides then dropped, sometimes from planes, in chemical showers. Synthetic fertilizer is needed on monocrops because though each plant injects the soil with different nutrients, when there’s only one crop, certain nutrients can disappear completely. Nitrogen, for instance, rapidly decreases in corn fields. Without anything else planted, the only way to replace that nitrogen is through synthetic fertilizer.
But as Kaiser said, crop diversity and rotation takes out the need for fertilizers. On the Singing Frogs farm, instead of each field bringing forth one crop a year, she grows between three and nine species, depending on maturation periods. Kaiser could grow corn first, which takes nitrogen from the soil, and then plant a legume — think beans or peas — whose root systems add nitrogen back into the system.
Growing such a wide array of crops, sometimes in the same fields at the same, also adds resilience for the farm. If one crop fails, another might survive and hold the soil in place — also offering the farmer a barrier against financial loss. One crop can even protect another from pests. Planting green onions among her lettuce, for example, stopped birds from eating Kaiser’s salad greens. The birds couldn’t bear the smell of onion.
Kaiser avoids tilling. In your garden at home, tilling is when you turn the soil with a shovel. The practice, whether done at home or on a large scale, destabilizes soil, making it more likely to erode in floods or blow away in the wind, and less likely it will retain water, further encouraging runoff.
Boulder’s Esoterra Culinary Garden: Small but incredibly productive
Mark DeRespinis is a convert to the no-till, diversification method. DeRespinis runs Esoterra Culinary Garden, a two-acre operation on Valmont Road in Boulder that sells directly to chefs in the Denver/Boulder area. He’s able to charge premium prices because his soil, which he carefully tends, produces high-tier vegetables. He recently won Conservationist of the Year from the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts for his work on Esoterra.
“It’s really hard to see things struggling,” DeRespinis said of his time before converting to organic no-till. As an empath, he said, watching his plants wither caused him pain. Yet after he turned his attention to feeding the soil and minding its needs, he was “overwhelmed by the bounty” produced.
DeRespinis’ farm is an example of what Kaiser promotes: small but incredibly productive. On DeRespinis’ farm, production of his two acres can equal more than 30 on a traditional mono-crop field.
What could happen if this intensive farming style took hold? What if you didn’t need hundreds of acres to grow substantial amounts of food? According to DeRespinis, the food system could, and should, be localized to the point that everyone in Boulder is within walking distance of fresh zucchini.
“Every square mile should have a farm of this style,” he said. “Developments shouldn’t be able to happen without a farm at its nucleus.”
Daniel Bittel, who works on the Agricultural Restoration Crew for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks, said this new soil-based approach is bringing a “new, informed generation of young farmers” to Boulder. Still, Bittel hoped the older farmers at the conference could see soil talk wasn’t just “hippie folks talking about hypotheticals,” but were real solutions offering real results.
Eric Knutson, president of the Flatirons Young Farmers Coalition — a coalition that offers education and mentors for young farmers just starting out — is one of those young and informed farmers in the Boulder area. Knutson works with cattle and horses on Caribou Ranch.
“It’s inspiring to hear from people who are pushing the envelope of what’s normal,” Knutson said, referring to Bob Quinn’s talk.
Quinn is a farmer in northern Montana, running a 2,400-acre operation that was passed down from his father. Quinn got his Ph.D. in California before returning to his family’s land and experimenting with organic growing and crop rotations in lieu of chemical fertilizers. “There were no trucks fertilizing the prairies in eons gone by,” he said.
Most of Quinn’s neighbors thought his time in California caused his departure from reality, but soon his organic grains began to pay. He stopped selling his grain by the truckload and began selling it by the pound. Like DeRespinis, Quinn found stores and bakeries were willing to pay a premium for his high-quality products. And where many of Quinn’s neighbors were forced out of the farming business, Quinn is thriving. “Put one more organic item in your cart every trip,” Quinn said. “And farmers, convert one more field to organic each year.”
Quinn addressed the conundrum of monocropping being a standard way to produce lots of food cheaply, but he questioned the long-term implications of such food to the health of the land and the health of people. “There’s a huge cost to cheap food,” he said.
Demand from cities grows for cover crop seed mixes
Framing the presentation room were exhibition booths. Many were for seed companies selling cover crop seed mixes. Such mixes are often used by farmers to plant in the fall, after their final harvest, to hold the soil in place through the winter and get in some nutrient fixing. The mixes include plants that will provide the soil a well-balanced diet, like oats and peas.
Elizabeth Pfannebecker, a rep for Pawnee Buttes Seed Inc. based out of Greeley, said demand for cover crop mixes has grown considerably in the last three to five years. She added it’s not just farms using the seeds, but neighborhoods and cities.
Many municipalities along the Front Range are seeded with non-native grasses that are pleasing to look at and walk on but are usually adapted to wetter climates. Kentucky Bluegrass, a common landscaping grass in this area, needs 35-40 inches of rain to thrive each year. The average precipitation here is 15-20 inches. Just as farmers are realizing their cattle can happily eat native grasses that will better survive drought, so too are cities finding that in using plants adapted to our semi-arid climate, they’re less likely to have dead vegetation beckoning fire.
But native grasses look different. Ben Blumhardt, another rep for Pawnee Buttes Seed Inc. said “there still has to be a change in people’s mindset” around how grass should look. When you live in a semi-arid climate, not everything is going to be “green and manicured” all the time. It’s worth wondering whether it ever should be.
It wasn’t just farmers and ranchers at the conference. Maya MacHamer, director of the Boulder Watershed Collective, acknowledged the conference didn’t have direct implications on her work, which focuses on forest health and watershed projects in the mountains. “But I’m learning so much,” she said.
And knowledge wasn’t the only thing to soak up. “I’m here for the good vibes,” MacHamer said.