Mt. Folly Farm and Hemp

In 2007-2008, as we were selling Laura’s Lean Beef and I was recovering from a horseback riding smash-up, a Donella Meadows Fellowship focused my attention on climate change.

I had entered the program thinking the biggest environmental problems confronting agriculture had to do with the use of chemicals in farming, and, in economics, externalities, and, related to this, industry concentration.

What I learned changed my mind. The facts are there – climate change is an existential threat. So, my husband and I gathered up our possessions, sold our retirement place, and moved back to our farm in Kentucky. It took several more years and several iterations of our plan to get started.  We are 62 (me) and 71 (Bill), so no spring chickens, but we have a young team of leaders capable of working with us to pull this off.

In the decade since the fellowship, my strategy crystallized.  Most climate activists are intent on limiting the burning of fossil fuels…shutting down the carbon pumps…and we are doing this too. We have installed solar panels and are increasing our commitment to the local food system, starting a farm-to-table restaurant and a craft distillery, growing green employment while decreasing food miles. Simultaneously, we are developing our land as a carbon sink. The Rodale Institute and others say that it is possible to sequester all…let me say that again…all 52 gigatons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents emitted annually… by switching to farming practices which maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of carbon returned to the soil.

LAURA HAS DEVIL COWS...OR NOT?

At the Meadows Fellowship, I felt like I had three eyes and horns because I was in the cattle business…yes, the “good” cattle business, working against CAFOs and factory farms…but the cattle business, nonetheless. Cows belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. All ruminants do. No way around it. Taking this seriously, after the fellowship I reduced the size of my cow herd and increased my crop acreage. My actions demonstrated one cardinal rule of sustainability: the farm had to stay in business, had to be “economically” sustainable, and without cattle, I needed the crop income to make payroll.

We are sampling fields we hay and graze.

One Christmas after we’d been at this a couple of years, a highly respected scientist and sustainable farming proponent came to visit. As we were walking the farm road and talking about climate, she pointed to group of cows gleaning an organic corn field, and said, “I don’t see how you can do it without animals.”

“What? Cows weren’t so bad?, “ I thought.  I was familiar with Allan Savory, but didn’t know enough … so off I went reading and attending field days, until I became pretty sure that pastured cattle, rotated correctly (and I had a good rotational system, set up in the mid-1980s) with their hooves and manure were part of the solution. We needed to measure it, by measuring the organic matter in rotated cattle pastures.

COVER CROPS AND PHTOSYNTHESIS

We’ve been working with cover crops on crop land for more than a decade. John Graham, an NRCS agent, convinced me to use covers when he was assessing a tobacco farm I ultimately purchased. The pH was 5.6 ,  years of salt fertilizers had done their jobs, and the soil porosity was non-existent.  I started with fall covers, learned to use tillage radishes, learned to use spring oats and winter peas in the spring if I was too late for rye, and discovered buckwheat for summer cover and smother crop.

In addition to the incredible contribution to soil health, cover crops in the late fall, winter and early spring are still green, which means they are photosynthesizing. Photosynthesis sequesters carbon, in one of nature’s miracles. This is how you pull carbon out of the atmosphere year-round.

We fight the weather always, but get most of our crop fields covered in the fall, for this sort of biomass before planting

I like to give talks with this poster at my side, showing the most important chemical equation ever, as far as I’m concerned.

With all this need to sequester carbon, haven’t most crop farms taken up cover crops? While cover crop acreage has increased, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census cover crop acres equaled only 3.9% of U.S. cropland. The upside of this number is the upside…We’ve got 96% of the farms to go. Forget geo-engineering, expensive and dangerous. Farmers should plant cover crops. They are safe, proven, and cost-effective.