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The rise of the carbon farmer

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The rise of the carbon farmer

Patrick Holden strolls through the countryside, stopping from time to time to lean over and point out a bumblebee, a white butterfly or a dung beetle. Above stretches a wide expanse of blue sky. Below, rolling green hills, sprawling hedgerows, a horizon broken only by the jagged tips of the Cambrian mountain range of Wales. Sun-kissed goodness.

“Can you see that bumblebee working with the clover?” she asks, her voice cracking with effort. “The birds, the insects, the butterflies, the small mammals and the bats… the biodiversity of this place is incredible.” All of this is here, she says, because she farms in harmony with nature.

The secret to this little oasis, Holden says, is the way he works his land. He is one of a growing number of farmers ditching conventional methods and taking advantage of practices to rebuild soil health and fertility: cover crops, minimum tillage, controlled grazing and diverse crop rotations. In some ways, it’s a reverse revolution, returning agriculture to what it was before, when yield was not king, industrialization was not the norm, and small farms dabbled in many things rather than specializing in one.

Holden’s main crops are oats and peas, planted in rotation with grassland to increase soil fertility. They are then made into a “muesli” that is used as additional feed for their cattle and grass-fed pigs. Pig manure fertilizes the land. The brilliant Ayrshire cows are milked and the milk is curdled to make the farm’s award-winning cheddar cheese. Woven into everything is the intention to work with and imitate nature.

The purported benefits are profound: healthy soil retains water and nutrients, supports biodiversity, reduces erosion, and produces nutritious food. But there is another critical benefit in our rapidly warming world: These farming methods absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it back in the soil. In addition to making cheese, Holden, with his regenerative practices, farms carbon.

Soil is second only to the ocean in its carbon absorption capacity: has more than the atmosphere and all the plants and forests on the planet together. But centuries of harmful, industrialized agriculture have left the Earth depleted and dumped tons of CO2.2 in the ether.

According According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, many cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon. According to some accountsone third of excess CO2 in the atmosphere they started life on the ground, and were not released by the burning of fossil fuels but by the change in the way the planet’s land is used.

“People ask, ‘Where does excess carbon come from?’ It’s where we’ve destroyed the soil,” says Elaine Ingham, an American soil microbiologist and founder of Soil Food Web, an organization that teaches farmers how to regenerate soil. “Every time you till, you lose 50 percent of soil organic matter” he says, referring to the compounds that hold carbon in the soil.

Exactly how much carbon soils can hold has not been agreed upon, and estimates vary widely on the potential impact of regenerative agriculture. For example, him Rodale Institute, a regenerative agriculture nonprofitanalyzed peer-reviewed research and observations from agronomists and concluded that regenerative agriculture, if adopted globally, could sequester 100 percent of annual carbon emissions.

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