"Failure to acknowledge/ observe/ measure/ learn how to rapidly build fertile topsoil may emerge as one of the greatest oversights of modern civilisation." The paper emphasizes the differences between the decomposition pathway and the liquid carbon pathway, and the consequences of the failure to recognize the difference.
A 32-day Landsat EVI composite image from Google Earth Engine showing San Juan Bautista, California, from April 7 to May 9, 2010. The town is at upper left. The tan-colored areas, upper center, are farm fields. The darker green areas on the bottom are pasture lands and woodland.
[UPDATED Sept 2012 to reflect changes in Earth Engine interface] Click on Data Catalog, choose your data (such as Landsat 7 32-day EVI composite), and then open in workspace. This will open a Google Map window of the earth. Zoom into the area of interest using the + and - bars on navigation tool or your scrollwheel. Click on the layer name in the left window to select a date range. You may need to wait for the imagery to load. Landsat pixels are 30 meters on a side.
To refer back to the underlying terrain map in order to orient yourself, you can toggle the eye icon to the right of the layer name.
This data can already show some striking contrasts in solar energy flow into the biosphere, and will be a powerful tool for showing and monitoring the effects of large-scale policy, such as USDA commodity subsidies or the Conservation Reserve Program, as well as the effects of management decisions at the 40-acre scale.
Selman Waksman, a microbiologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, wrote this thorough and well-researched book on humus in 1936. It is available as a 21.6 mb pdf (text-searchable) download here.
Though the basics of carbon cycling, including microbial decomposition of soil organic matter and humus, had been established before, Waksman's work clarified the important roles of microbes in the formation and decomposition of soil organic matter. The book is a major milestone in the ongoing discovery of the carbon cycle.
"Humus plays a leading part in the storage of energy of solar origin on the surface of the earth."
In January, 7 land managers hosted me as I sampled and established baseline sites (22 total so far) for the California Challenge. The weather was ideal.
On January 24, the Morris family hosted a meeting in at the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista facilitated by Jeff Goebel with at least 55 people participating. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the possibility of turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter, and engage people's interest and creativity in this possibility. In the afternoon, after an excellent lunch prepared by the Retreat Center that included Morris Ranch grassfed shortribs cooked with balsamic syrup, Joe Morris led us on a short walk where he explained how their grass-fed beef enterprise depended on, and could probably continue to enhance plant productivity, soil cover, soil organic matter, and soil water, and how his holistic decision framework connected it all.
I felt that the meeting was an excellent start. At the close, some people expressed a desire for more basic information on the subject, and some for more detail, such as suggestions for their particular situation. I've been trying to meet these needs with this website (or http://managingwholes.com), and hope to organize things a bit better as we go. In the meantime, browse the information on the right hand side, and use search, or feel free to ask specific questions.
To the participants: Now that you've had some time to reflect, what did you learn from our meeting and afternoon at Joe Morris's ranch, and how do you feel about it?
What would you recommend, going forward? What can we do to create more movement in California, in building soil organic matter?
This is an excellent presentation by Jay Fuhrer, who works for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in North Dakota, USA. He uses case studies to explain how innovative use of cover crops can boost soil health and productivity, and dramatically reduce the use of artificial fertilizers.
The Burleigh County Soil Conservation District website is a gold mine of inspiration and innovation for farmers of all stripes.
Watch the global carbon cycle! The link below takes you to a NASA page that loads a 90 megabyte animated GIF file showing chlorophyll concentration (in the oceans) and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, on land) as the seasons change. Note: this page requires a fair bit of computer memory and good internet connection to load the image. It may step around slowly until the image is fully loaded.
In eastern Australia, two Catchment Management Authorities have begun programs to encourage farmers and graziers to manage for increased soil organic matter. Both programs involve measuring on-farm results with before and after soil testing. Both programs are aimed at enhancing soil health and the sustainability of farming, rather than at "offsets" to fossil fuel emissions.
These locally initiated programs are funded by grants from Caring for Our Country, a $2.25 billion, five-year Australian federal grant program that supports communities by funding projects for biodiversity, coastal and aquatic habitats, and sustainable farm practices. Farmers and graziers manage around 70% of the Australian landscape.
According to the Caring for Our Country website, it focuses on achieving an environment that is healthy, better protected, well-managed, resilient, and that provides essential ecosystem services in a changing climate. The program sets a target of 12,000 farmers and 30,000 graziers in priority regions [see map for soil carbon priority regions in eastern Australia] who "have improved their management to reduce the risk of soil acidification and soil loss through wind erosion, water erosion and improve carbon content of soils, or have adopted other improved soil management methods."
Today we understand as never before the crucial role that carbon-rich soil organic matter plays in the quantity and quality of the food we grow, in moderating flooding and drought, in the quantity and quality of runoff and groundwater, in biodiversity, and in the composition of the atmosphere, especially its carbon content.
However, our institutions and political systems have been largely unable to take advantage of the great opportunity this understanding offers, because like most of us they focus on problem-solving, on managing against threats. For example, since 1900 the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been managing against food contamination, low prices for agricultural commodities, soil erosion, hunger and malnutrition, fire in the forests, nitrate pollution, and on and on. The #1 recommendation to land managers of its small Soil Quality Team is to enhance soil organic matter, yet the overall effect of USDA policies, by fostering tillage, fire, and chemical use, is to oxidize large tonnages of soil carbon into the atmosphere, and limit its replenishment.
Climate policy proposals are even more tightly focused on problem-solving, on threats and risks. Because of the great size of the soil carbon pool compared to atmosphere and vegetation, and the magnitude of its responses to human decisions, the soil carbon factor threatens to reframe the climate debate, discomfiting both climate activists and agribusiness, and increasing the uncertainties all around. Proposals to commodify soil carbon as a potential "offset" to fossil fuel emissions have raised resistance from every sector and stripe, yet such proposals have framed almost all of the recent research on soil carbon.
If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction?
No, you run a race. Or many of them.
There’s been tons of talk about soil carbon, but it’s time for motion: to show with good data what’s possible, and recognize those land managers who know how to increase soil carbon.
Where things are stuck or the way forward is unclear, a competition can supply creative and unconventional solutions. A competition can leapfrog the decades-long cycle of research, pilot projects, legislation, and incentives, and can showcase leadership based on knowhow and performance rather than on promises and predictions. A competition can tell the stories of soil carbon to citizens, governments, and farmers better than anything else. Competitions change the question from Can it be done? to How well, and how fast?
The Soil Carbon Challenge measures soil carbon change with permanent plots, field sampling, and dry combustion tests. Three baseline plots make an entry, resampled at years 3, 6, and 10.
It’s not an offset scheme. It’s the next agricultural revolution, and you can bring it to your district, sector, or community.
We're proud to report that Tony and Andrea Malmberg, of Union, Oregon, experienced ranchers and holistic planned graziers, are the first entrants in the Soil Carbon Challenge.
The Soil Carbon Challenge is an international as well as local competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter, and recognize those who do (see sidebar).
When. The first two carbon plots were established and sampled on August 16, 2010, and the third was established and sampled on September 24, 2010.
Where. North and east of Elgin, Oregon, the Malmbergs' property consists of gently sloping grasslands with some patches of timber. Elevation is about 3600 feet (1100 meters) above sea level and average precipitation is about 15-20 inches (380-500 mm) annually. The predominant soil is a mollisol, Lookingglass silt loam.
Tony Malmberg during soil sampling on CRP ground.
Why. "We have an unlimited source of energy that's totally free," says Tony. "The sun. To maximize that free source of energy, our ecosystem process needs to be hitting on all four cylinders, that is the water cycle, mineral cycle (including carbon), energy flow, and community dynamics. Monitoring data provides me with measurable indications to confirm we are moving in the direction we want with our resource base."
For these experienced ranchers and graziers, establishing baseline monitoring was a natural first step with their recently purchased property. For the function of the ecosystem processes at the soil surface, they chose the Land EKG method developed by Charley Orchard (http://landekg.com). "Land EKG provides the diagnostic test to know where we best focus our tune-up to get the ecosystem engine humming," says Tony.
"The carbon data tells us how much horsepower we’ve got under the hood, or under the soil surface in this case."
Soil carbon is a basic indicator of ecosystem function, water retention, and productivity. We used the Soil Carbon Coalition's plot specifications to co-locate permanent plots with the Land EKG transects that Charley Orchard set up and read.
"Acknowledging diverse social values, and meeting increasing demands for enhancing water cycling and carbon cycling can be important in marketing our grass fed beef," notes Tony. He regards both Land EKG and the monitoring of soil carbon change provided by the Soil Carbon Challenge to be important to his success.
John Cheever and Tony Malmberg consult the grazing plan prior to turning in cattle 23 years after the property was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program
The monitoring, both above and below ground, may also provide education and policy guidance. "After setting up a Land EKG transect and reading it, you will never look at your landscape the same again. We learn to see the signs of our land health, or lack of it. This gives us a language to communicate, and a way of engaging with the public, with agencies, and with our main street community around ecosystem health."
One of the ways Tony hopes to engage with policy is by creating an example of a successful transition away from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in terms of land health, community health, and economics. The property, which the Malmbergs recently purchased, has long been used for grazing, and for wheat farming. In 1987, several hundred acres of the farm ground were enrolled in the new CRP, and seeded to perennial grasses.
Soil scientist Ray Archuleta shows a remarkable contrast in the responses of tilled and no-tilled soil to water. Note that the biological glue he speaks of during the second half, substances such as glomalin, are one of the important large compounds that contain soil carbon. The takeaway from this demonstration is also that soil organic carbon has huge leverage on the effectiveness of the water cycle. See also http://managingwholes.com/eco-water-cycle.htm
The Soil Carbon Coalition is a 501(c)3 U.S. nonprofit organization
The material on this website is available as a Creative Commons License: it may be freely reproduced and distributed for a non-commercial purpose, without modification, with acknowledgment. For commercial reproduction, contact the author.