Community Carbon Farming Campaign
If we are to be successful in the fight against climate change, we must go beyond reducing emissions to actively removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Promising research from the Marin Carbon Project in California and similar initiatives suggests that a widespread focus on building healthy soils may be our best hope to draw down and safely store atmospheric carbon dioxide. It’s called “carbon farming,” and Eco-Cycle is working to bring these practices to Boulder County.
Carbon Farming isn’t just for farmers. You can become a carbon farmer and reverse climate change right in your own backyard!
Eco-Cycle and the City of Boulder are working together on a three-year study to explore a range of carbon farming approaches on urban landscapes to determine whether these practices can effectively sequester carbon in the soil and help reverse climate change.
There are three ways to participate:
We are seeking 250 participants to join us for a “community science project.” Participants will take part in a three-year study applying different soil regeneration and carbon capture treatments on their own backyard and then testing the soil for increased carbon.
We’re asking Yard Carbon Farmers to:
Reside in Boulder County or Broomfield County.
Have a 20’ x 10’ portion of lawn you’re willing to dedicate to the study. (Don’t worry, it should improve your lawn!)
Commit to the program for a full three years (testing is done twice in the first year, in May and in September, and only once in the following two years in the fall, so the time commitment is minimal and seasonal.)
Attend a one-hour training.
Choose and apply a treatment, supplied by the program, to the trial section of your yard.
Stay engaged with us! We’ll be sending emails to ask some observational questions about your lawn (color, blade height, etc.) throughout the growing season and hearing back from you is key!
Are there costs?
The testing and the soil treatments carry a cost of $50 per year. We are fundraising for this project so that everybody can participate. If you are interested in participating, please sign up regardless of whether or not you are able to financially contribute to the program costs!
Do you meet the above criteria?
OUR YARD CARBON FARMER SPOTS ARE NOW FULL. THANK TO TO ALL WHO SIGNED UP TO PARTICIPATE!
We are looking for 20 experienced vegetable gardeners to join us for a second study to determine how soil enhancement treatments in a garden both contribute to carbon sequestration as well as food nutrient density.
We’re asking Garden Carbon Farmers to:
Have enough experience growing vegetables in your garden that you can be reasonably confident you can successfully care for the transplants provided as part of the study to maturity, and have a garden that is native mineral soil (as opposed to imported soil in a raised bed or container)
Commit to the program for one growing season
Commit to growing three Kale plants supplied by the program in late May
Attend a one-hour training
Choose from a list of five organic soil amendments such as compost supplied by the program and commit to applying them, carefully following directions provided (we promise it’s not hard, but this is science so it IS specific)
Be willing to supply a few leaves of your kale crop for tissue sampling in late summer
Are there costs?
The testing for both the soils and the plant tissue as well as the soil treatments carry a cost of $50/year. We are fundraising for this project so that everybody can participate. If you are interested in participating, please sign up regardless of whether or not you are able to financially contribute to the program costs!
OUR GARDEN FARMER SPOTS ARE NOW FULL. THANK YOU TO ALL WHO SIGNED UP TO PARTICIPATE!
Due to the limitations of our partners doing the lab analysis, we have to limit the number of participants actually taking soil samples, but you can still participate! Sign up and we will share all the same information and techniques we are using in the studies. Follow along with the practices and you can still contribute to the study by filling out surveys requesting observational data. We will also share resources such as how you can get your own soil analysis and how to interpret it.
Regenerative Agriculture Tip #1: What is regenerative agriculture and how does it relate to carbon sequestration?
“Sustainable” isn’t always the appropriate goal. What if a system is degraded? Before it can be sustainable, it must be regenerated. Thus is the reason “regenerative ag” has become a key phrase to describe the movement that may very well finally unite farmers of all stripes – organic and conventional – in one common cause: rebuilding topsoil—that 7” or so of soil upon which terrestrial life is utterly dependent.
Building soil is the same thing as sequestering carbon in the soil – it’s really that simple. Not all farmers are talking about carbon sequestration (and they won’t, until we can figure out a way to financially credit people for sequestering carbon), but regenerative ag – or “healthy soils,” as many call it – is resonating with the many farmers who know something is wrong with our current system of growing food. So I use these terms interchangeably, and for the rest of the summer will briefly describe some of the principles of regenerative ag, drawing primarily from my current favorite author, North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, in his book, Dirt to Soil, and how I would utilize them in my own yard and garden.
Regenerative Agriculture Tip #2: Limit soil disturbance
Cultivating, tilling, and plowing soil releases a flush of CO2 into the atmosphere, one of the primary reasons typical agricultural practices are a net contributor to climate change. Tillage also destroys the soil structure, the amalgam of soil particles that beneficial soil microbes have worked so hard to create. Limiting soil disturbance is an easy concept to practice if you only grow perennials like grass. It’s a real challenge, on the other hand, if you grow annuals. As a former organic vegetable grower, I loved to create a beautiful, fine seedbed for planting, and of course I cultivated constantly to keep the weeds down.
I take an incremental approach to this regenerative principle in my garden. Forking – just loosening the soil – is preferable to turning it upside down as with a plow or pulverizing it with a rototiller. Likewise, removing weeds when they first germinate by scratching the surface with a hoe designed for the purpose is preferable to digging or hacking out weeds once they are established. I have mixed feelings about plastic weed barriers as a way to avoid cultivation. Aside from being plastic, weed barriers can have their own downside for soil structure, but it’s undeniable that they allow the grower to keep the soil undisturbed and thereby in most cases can greatly reduce CO2 emissions.
As we talk about more regenerative agriculture principles, it will become clear that they make the most sense when considered together as a whole rather than as strict dogma to follow, so we will pick this back up next time.
Regenerative Agriculture Tip #3: Strive for diversity
The previous tip (limit soil disturbance) is much easier to practice with your yard than with your garden. This tip is the opposite. Consider letting dandelions and other plants stand to add diversity to your lawn. Nature never plants a monoculture; even native grasslands are full of a wide variety of plants if you look closely. Different plants have different root structures, each contributing to building soil and sequestering carbon by breaking up the soil and mining nutrients and water from different depths. And importantly, there is almost always a legume (pea family), which fixes nitrogen from the air and makes that key nutrient available to other plants. Before the landscape industry was dominated by chemicals, it was common for lawn seed mixes to include at least one type of clover to provide nitrogen.
I haven’t tried intentionally adding clover to my lawn, in part because I always have an organic source of nitrogen on hand such as my backyard vermicompost. I do try to allow, if not encourage, diversity by not worrying about the sprinkling of dandelions and violets that find their way into my yard. Dandelion tap roots break up any hardpan that might be forming in my soil, and of course dandelions are an important food source for pollinators. And the violets are pretty.
Imagine that you are walking in a cool, shady forest, and then you walk out into the harsh, parching glare of mid-day summer sun. Soil macro- and microorganisms feel that difference just as dramatically. Soil covered by plants or mulch is far cooler, and protected from evaporation and erosion. Bare soil is not a natural condition; plants that are able to take advantage of disturbances in the soil (we call them weeds) will quickly try to cover bare spots. I try to achieve full soil coverage with plants once they are mature, but I mulch to give plants enough space to grow. One caveat with annuals, especially vegetables: mulch can provide cover for slugs and other critters that like to feast on tender leaves, so I only mulch the paths in my vegetable garden.
Even when the above-ground portion of a perennial or biennial plant is dormant or not growing over winter, the roots continue their symbiotic relationship with the soil microbiome, keeping each other healthy and ready to spring back to life with the next growing season. The veggies we like to grow in our gardens, however, are almost all annuals. Once the annuals die, soil microbes suddenly have no live roots offering sugars in exchange for nutrients, so a portion of the microbiome must go dormant or die. Thus, regenerative farmers like to grow an overwintering cover crop.
If you would like to try a cover crop in your garden, now is the time to plant! A mix of annual (cereal) rye and hairy vetch reliably overwinter in our region when planted in September and do a wonderful job of breaking up hardpan, pulling nutrients from deep down, and fixing nitrogen, though I must warn that without a mower and rototiller they can be a bear to incorporate or terminate next spring (end of May/beginning of June). In my garden, we compromise by planting Austrian Winter peas or field peas in August. They still fix nitrogen for next year’s crops and add 2 months of living roots, but they do die when the ground freezes solid around Thanksgiving. The dead pea plants form a nice friable mulch that is easy to incorporate next spring or rake off for the compost pile.
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