Are healthy soils the best AgTech for combatting climate change?
by Carol Schmitt
When it comes to healthy soils, we can learn a lot from the mammoths.
Wooly mammoth and giant bison once roamed much of the Western US and Canada, transforming forests to grasslands more than 100,000 years ago.
Today, much of the hopes to capture more greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide or CO2, trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and put it under ground for generations relies on improving soil health on existing agricultural lands.
Healthy soils equal healthy ecosystems
“Our mission, in addition to creating healthy food, is to show that agriculture can also improve the function of the entire ecosystem of native species and the soils that feed them,” said Jonathan Gay who with wife Misty have lived and raised their children for 14 years on Freestone Ranch, located in California’s West Sonoma County.
The Gays’ approach to regenerative, organic cattle ranching mimics the complex grazing-browsing-trampling regime of ancient herds to increase soil health. The highly monitored and managed process effectively cycles nutrients like compost and nurtures soil’s mycelium bacteria. The healthy soil and bacteria spur plants to sink their roots deeper and broader, invigorating growth. Healthy plants naturally produce excess sugars, which are released back into the soil, and sugars-rich soils and bacteria are best at absorbing carbon, as much as 25 to 60 tons captured and stored per acre.
Soil improvement is a low cost, high return AgTech investment
“We’ve done talks and tours about soils biology and have been amazed by people’s geekiness around soils. Everyone seems curious about the role healthy soils play in a healthy environment,” said Misty Gay.
According to research included in California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment 2018, composting ranchlands can increase organic matter in soils by 3 percent, decrease runoff, and increase the soil’s water holding capacity.
Improving soils and restoring watersheds is a way we can all do active good,” said Jonathan Gay.
Across California’s working lands, rebuilding topsoils can mean an increase of up to 4.7 million acre-feet of water every year and a single application of compost can increase soil organic carbon sequestration for up to 30 years.
Carbon Farm Plans and Financing
“Misty and Jon were our first clients to complete a Carbon Farm Plan, which led them to apply compost to kick-start their soils,” said Adriana Stagnaro, Outreach and Project Manager for Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District.
The Gays “are really amazing and passionate land stewards with lots of work in mind, doing it themselves with very little monies to support them,” Stagnaro said.
While the Freestone Ranch Plan does include grants to help fund tree planting for stream and watershed restoration, the Gays personally financed and labored to install extensive fencing and plantings to protect streams and stop erosive gullying. Such management and planned grazing also help control invasive plants, like coyote brush, that can fuel devastating wildfires.
Understanding food choices, labeling & climate change impacts
RCDs like Goldridge and other funding programs are crucial to biodiversity as farms and ranches struggle financially adds Misty.
70-85% of beef consumed in US today is shipped in from Brazil and Australia/New Zealand
For example, over the past decade, US consumption of grass-fed beef has flipped from being primarily sourced locally to today where 70-85% of it is imported from Australia/New Zealand and Brazil. The foreign-raised beef is labeled “Product of the USA.” The majority of rainforest deforestation in Brazil is being driven by push to create more ranchlands there to accommodate the shift. As a result, local ranchers are struggling and may not have the resources to restore a gully or soils on their own time or money.
“We need to relook at what we choose and what we do, as these things are all super connected and complicated. We don’t need to look to textbooks to teach our children about healthy ecosystems and diversity. It’s right here where we live,” Misty Gay added.