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2017 Winter Conference attendees react to speech by California agroecologists

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 Feburary Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell

Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser were keynoters at 2017 Winter Conference

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol, California, were the keynote speakers for the 30th annual NOFA/Mass Winter Conference. On January 14 at Worcester State University they spoke to 800 farmers, gardeners, soil scientists, extension agents and others involved in New England food systems.

They came with a message – that agriculture has been one of the greatest contributors to climate change in human history, but it is also our best hope for mitigating climate change. The Kaiser’s assert that by adapting their practices to sequester more soil carbon, farmers can simultaneously improve the health of their crops, soil, and finances.

The connection between the climate and soil has to do with soil organic matter, they told the crowd. “57% of soil organic matter is carbon,” Paul pointed out. “Historically, the United States has had between 6 and 10 percent soil organic matter in our agricultural soils.” Today, it averages 1-3%. Citing a study from Ohio State University, Paul went on to say that, “Globally, we have already removed about two thirds of the soil-based carbon from the agricultural soils on the planet. That primarily happened in the past century. If we removed two-thirds of our soil carbon in one century, we don’t have another century to keep farming and growing food,” referring to current practices.

Backed with quotes and data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United Nations studies, Paul explained that tillage breaks up soil aggregates, reducing soil particle size and increasing surface area to volume ratio – this causes nitrogen and carbon in the soil to become volatilized, combining with oxygen to form nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), two of the most potent greenhouse gasses. “And yet, as a farmer, the two things you need most in your soil are carbon for soil structure and nitrogen for plant growth. So tillage is taking the two things you need most in your soil, removing them, and causing greenhouse gas emissions.”

They also cited a study by the USDA which found that farm fields using moldboard plows (the most common tillage method) lose an average of 4,000 lbs of soil per acre per year to erosion, while no-till systems lose only 6 lbs per acre per year.

Turning to solutions, Paul cited a United Nations and European Union meta-study which found “that agriculture has the greatest capacity to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions at the cheapest cost… compared to all other sectors combined,” including energy, industry and waste management.

In fact, Elizabeth shared in a phone interview that current research shows a 2% increase in soil organic matter in worldwide agricultural land (including annual cropland, but also orchards and pasture) would sequester enough emissions to bring us back to atmospheric carbon levels of 350 parts per million – the number that most climate scientists agree is a safe level.

How achievable is a 2% increase in soil organic matter? Well, in the six years since the Kaisers switched to no-till farming practices, they have increased their soil organic matter by 400% (at soil depths of 6-12 inches). They achieved this result by ceasing tillage, keeping the soil covered year-round with densely-spaced living plants, cutting finished crops just under the soil level (instead of pulling them out) to keep roots in the ground, planting lots of perennial hedgerows to shelter soil and attract pollinators, and using lots of locally-produced compost to feed the soil life. When one crop comes out, another crop is transplanted into the same bed within about two hours. Keeping the soil covered in living plants keeps soil organisms alive, because the soil organisms depend on living plants to pump sugar, the product of photosynthesis, down into the soil through their roots. The organisms then convert that root-sugar (called exudates) into stable carbon compounds like humic acid – and that’s how carbon gets stored long-term in the soil.

How have these intensive practices affected the Kaiser’s bottom line? They were quick to point out that farmers too often fall into the trap of thinking that a farm is either ecologically sustainable or profitable (not both). Yet the results of their practices clearly show that biointensive no-till practices offer a way to both economic and ecologic health.

In fact, the Kaisers currently gross over $100,000 per acre – about 10 times the average gross for vegetable farmers in their area. In their post-conference dinner speech, Paul told the audience that, while Singing Frogs Farm has only three acres in cultivation, they serve 120 CSA members, two farmers markets, and several restaurant accounts. Yet they frequently get calls from a neighboring farm with closer to 20 acres in vegetable production and 60 CSA members. The neighbor calls requesting to buy in produce from Singing Frogs Farm to help them, the bigger farm, fill those 60 boxes.

One local CSA farmer who attended the talk was clearly impressed. Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, owner-operator of Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst, noted that the Kaisers “gross six times what we do on a sixth of the land.” Jeremy and his business partner Dave Tepfer have farmed 30 acres (19 in vegetables, the rest in livestock) for more than ten years. Though they have steadily improved their soil health with ecological methods like re-mineralization, mulching, multi-species cover cropping and livestock integration into vegetable lands, they do – like most farms – till with tractors.  A couple days after the conference, Jeremy told me that “we’re going to take [about a third of an acre] and start trialing the Kaiser’s methods.”

Another CSA farmer, Julie Rawson (owner of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre and Executive Director NOFA/Mass) said the Kaisers exemplify “people who use their ingenuity, strong business sense and knowledge of sustainable growing practices to build a viable business model.” 

It was the carbon sequestration data that appealed most to Montague resident Ashley Schenk, who homesteads in the town center and is a project manager with the Montague-based ecological landscape firm Broadfork Permaculture.  “As someone who has been thinking about carbon farming, and working to incorporate it into my work as a landscape designer, I was very inspired by the success Paul and Elizabeth have found using these techniques.”

Another local homesteader, Sharon Gensler of Wendell, MA, said that the Kaisers’ “growing insights and techniques were inspirational. They prove that big agriculture is a dinosaur and small scale farms are our future.”

Gensler is the outgoing NOFA/Mass outreach coordinator, retiring after more than a decade of service to the organization. Just before the Kaisers took the stage, she received the NOFA/Mass Person of the Year award for her tireless work on behalf of the organic farming, gardening, and homesteading communities. She plans to stay involved, though, as a part-time soil analyst for NOFA/Mass’s developing technical support program. 

Angela Roell, owner-operator of Yardbirds Farm in Montague, had a similar take on the talk as Gensler. She appreciated the Kaisers’ “philosophy that we should have hundreds of two-to-three acre farms practicing no-till, close to cities and cultural epicenters, rather than a few hundred acre farms isolated in rural areas.”

When I asked Elizabeth Kaiser how it feels to have such a big impact on the way that farmers and land managers think about both scale and soil carbon, Elizabeth laughed and said, “It’s overwhelming, because to us what we’re doing is just based in common sense and observation, so getting a lot of renown for it feels, in one way odd, but at the same time also powerful.” Noting that the increase in publicity of the Kaisers’ methods have flooded them with requests for advice and guidance from other farmers all over the world, she added,  “It does tax us a lot, but we are idealists, and if we can make positive change in the world that’s what we need to do.”

A version of this article ran in the January 21 edition of the Montague Reporter.


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