The future of agriculture

The January 2012 Burleigh County Soil Conservation District's soil health workshop presentations are now online:

These include videos of great presentations by Rudolf Derpsch, Gail Fuller, Jay Fuhrer, Doug Peterson, and Kenny Miller.

These presentations are about the future of agriculture, based on what's already been tried. Essential learning, essential principles for all areas.

Texas Challenge

The Texas Soil Carbon Challenge has been the biggest yet, fitting the state. So far I've done over two dozen baseline plots in this state, and I'm not quite done. The support of the Dixon Water Foundation has been wonderful.

The 2011 drought in Texas has been among the worst ever for a single year. In addition, fires have burned up huge acreages, including this ranch in West Texas (right).

Vermont Soil Carbon Challenge kickoff

Seth Itzkan kindly provided some video of the short talks at this event at Stan and Helen Ward's Three Springs Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont on October 21, 2011.

Peter Donovan and Abe Collins are co-founders of the Soil Carbon Coalition, which initiated the Challenge.

Seth Itzkan is a futurist from the Boston area who recently spent 6 weeks at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Dibangombe, Zimbabwe.

NRCS soil health factsheets--Farming in the 21st century

These excellent factsheets are courtesy of the NRCS Soil Quality Team. Right-click and choose Save As to download.

2-page version (4 mb):

6-page version (7.8 mb):

Diversity in the Dakotas

ORTONVILLE, MINNESOTA--The past month I have been traveling through South Dakota and North Dakota doing baseline carbon monitoring.
First stop in the Dakotas was outside of Newell, South Dakota, at the two ranches purchased in 2010 by Grasslands LLC in cooperation with the Savory Institute. Brandon Dalton manages the cattle and grass, and this year they are running about 3400 yearling cattle and several hundred cow-calf pairs on about 14,000 acres total. It was exciting to see such large herds moving across this splendid grassland. One day I observed large, ball-rolling dung beetles at work. Brandon helped me with a couple of plots.


Top, the remains of Teton Dam near Newdale, Idaho. Middle, taking core samples in eastern Idaho. Bottom, drying core samples for processing along the Yellowstone River. (Solar hot water heater at right.)

Recently I visited the site of the 1976 Teton Dam failure, a testimony to the failure of engineering and technology to control water. And driving down the Musselshell River in Montana, the evidence of this spring's catastrophic flood was everywhere. And the Montana grasslands are greener in August than many can remember.

With all the emphasis in the climate conversation on carbon, we sometimes forget that water vapor is the number one greenhouse gas. Without water vapor in the atmosphere, the earth would be a ball of ice even in summer, as Irish physicist John Tyndall recognized in 1859.

About a third of incoming solar energy is taken up by the evaporation of water, mostly from the oceans. Photosynthesis, which drives the carbon cycle, uses much less solar energy, much less than 1 percent of incoming solar. Yet this production of biomass, and the foodwebs and biodiversity it helps generate, is the primary factor for effective water cycles on land as these videos demonstrate. Without biomass to build and maintain them, and to slow water, our soils would wash into the sea even faster than some of them are now.

On transect

The other day I did three transects for a ranch up Antelope Creek off Big Lost River: one in a flood-irrigated peat meadow, the next in an aerobic subirrigated meadow (pictured, with the bus in the background), and the last one in dry sagebrush. Within one mile, a tremendous contrast of soils.

I built a fire in the stove the next morning, as it was about a degree above freezing at daylight in this mountain valley at 6200 feet.

Reflections on energy

Relatively recent lava flows, Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Near Arco, Idaho, I passed by the recent lava fields left by the passage of the North American plate over the hotspot that is now under Yellowstone National Park. The older flows have developed pockets of soil that support sagebrush, currant bushes, grasses, and forbs. Spider webs spread over pockets of apparently lifeless black lava, catching seeds, insects, and bits of organic material.

At night, I've been sleeping out of the bus under the thousands of stars, which like our sun are powered by nuclear fusion reactions that balance and counteract the forces of gravitational collapse. All life is ultimately powered by this energy.

At midday today, a weather and other instrument panel at a roadside rest stop recorded 987 watts per square meter of incoming solar energy. I'm using some of this with a solar panel, but this energy capture is dwarfed by solar energy capture by plants. Though plants are much less "efficient" than even mediocre photovoltaic panels, they maintain and reproduce themselves and arise willy-nilly on soils that are able to absorb and retain some moisture.


Soil Carbon Challenge baseline tour 2011

Doug McDaniel and Peter Donovan as Peter prepares to leave Lostine, Oregon on a cross-country soil carbon monitoring trip, July 21, 2011

Monitoring pyramid

While we're on the subject of pyramids, Charley Orchard at has made a useful diagram of what makes monitoring valuable. Click the image to go to the May 2011 Land EKG newsletter explaining it.


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