Conventional methods of modern agriculture and gardening can create a host of environmental hazards. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural activity is responsible for 10 percent of atmospheric carbon emissions worldwide, and excess nitrogen runoff from conventional and organic fertilizers — combined with the poor contouring of most farmland — upsets the natural ecosystems in lakes, rivers, and oceans, suffocating fish and other plant life.
These practices strip vital nutrients from topsoil, decreasing both the availability of farmable land and the nutritional quality of the food grown on it. Soil erosion is a progressively worsening situation that the United Nations says could reduce worldwide crop yields by 10 percent over the next 30 years.
Modern agriculture’s single-minded focus on yield leads most traditional and organic farmers to plant vast, single-crop fields, a practice referred to as “monoculture.” Monoculture farming requires more importation of nutrients, further degrades the soil, and can result in poorer long-term yield.
Organic farming isn’t always easy on the environment either. Many large-scale organic farms do little to control the leaching of water and plant nutrients from their land, and the resulting runoff can have a negative impact on nearby ecosystems.
5 Principles of Climate Farming
- Integration of animals into growing operations.
- Stratified, adjacent planting of multiple species.
- Minimal topsoil disturbance.
- Erosion and water management techniques, such as earthworks and appropriate irrigation.
- Ongoing soil improvement through cover crops and composting.
Given the issues with both traditional and organic farming, we can’t afford to continue ignoring the industry’s environmental impact. It’s time for organic consumers, farmers, and gardeners to take on Big Agriculture and go beyond organic. Climate Farming is the next step in the organic farming and climate-conscious revolutions. The purpose of Climate Farming is to produce delicious, nutritious fruits and vegetables while improving topsoil health, reducing or eliminating harmful agricultural runoff, sequestering carbon, and fixing nitrogen.
The combination of practices that make up Climate Farming isn’t new. Rather, it links together proven strategies from regenerative farming, permaculture, and syntropic agroforestry, many drawing on Indigenous practices, in a unique way. We put these methodologies into practice every day at the Johnny Appleseed Organic Village, a sustainable living development near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia. We’re constantly observing and fine-tuning the principles (see “5 Principles of Climate Farming,” above) with some of the leading experts in permaculture and environmental sciences, and we’re proud to report that Climate Farming is not only doable, but it’s also transforming our land into a carbon-capturing oasis.
Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farm management that emphasizes rehabilitating damaged soil or continuing to improve the richness of soil that’s already high quality. Preserving the top layer of soil is critical for plant health, because the vast majority of nutrients are stored in these precious few inches — and agriculture is responsible for an estimated 41 to 54 percent of total soil erosion.
Regenerative farms forgo conventional tilling in favor of minimal topsoil disturbance to preserve soil and nutrients. As a result, the root structures of harvested crops remain belowground alongside other organic material. Combined with quality compost input, this practice feeds the soil food web, resulting in a rich bounty of nutrients for future crops.
Photo by Charles Gooden and Mikael Maynard
The use of cover crops further improves soil. In addition to providing more organic matter, these crops help prevent erosion from harming the quality of the soil, and they can encourage the presence of natural pollinators on the farm.
Regenerative farms also seek to emulate the dynamics of a natural ecosystem, harnessing the instincts of healthy animals to aid in crop cultivation. Common practices include plowing with pigs (see below); beekeeping; and the use of chickens in tractors to weed, loosen, and fertilize the soil. Not only are these practices comparable to what would likely occur in nature, but they also help limit the use of traditional farming tools powered by fossil fuels.
Photo by Charles Gooden and Mikael Maynard
It’s from regenerative agriculture that Climate Farming draws the practices of integrating livestock into growing operations, composting, and minimizing soil disturbance.
When the term “permaculture” was first coined in 1978, it came from a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” Where many agricultural and cultural traditions attempt to conquer nature — to have dominion over the land and nature — permaculture abandons this goal in favor of working with the land, leaning into nature and creating a sustainable way of living for future generations. Designing a plot that works with nature encourages the inherent evolutionary relationships between organisms, which produce nutrients that enhance each other. Organisms with these symbiotic relationships, called “guilds,” are a cornerstone of both permaculture design and the Climate Farming toolkit.
It’s from permaculture that Climate Farming draws its focus on the stratified, adjacent planting of multiple species, and water management through contoured plantings.>
Most farming practices require resources and nutrients to be imported from elsewhere, rather than producing them on-site. The environmental impacts of this practice range from the destructive mining of phosphorus and nitrate, to the resources used to package and ship those materials, to the runoff that pollutes our waterways. Shifting from synthetic to organic fertilizers is a step in the right direction, but it fails to address the problem of extracting resources from the land without replacing them. Syntropic farming, or syntropic agroforestry, works to grow a consortium of organisms that produce nutrients precisely where they’ll be used, eliminating extraction concerns. Its core values require that farmers create the energy and resources needed to grow with the very land on which they’re growing. This removes participation in the harmful systems and practices that degrade soil and waste resources.
It’s from syntropic farming that Climate Farming draws its judicious pruning philosophy, as well as the ongoing generation and recycling of organic matter through succession planting and appropriate termination. Preventing nutrients from leaving the farm via erosive runoff is also a crucial component of the practice.
Climate Farming’s Potential
To fully mitigate climate change, scientists agree that we’ll need to scrub existing atmospheric carbon as well as limit future emissions. Climate Farming is a significant departure from common farming and gardening practices, but the impact of converting more farms and gardens to this model can potentially change the world.
Based on existing research, climate scientists estimate that 1 acre farmed this way could sequester as much atmospheric carbon annually as a healthy forest of the same size. Each passenger car averages annual carbon emissions of 4.6 metric tons, and carbon sequestration on farmland can hold a conservative average of 3 tons per acre. This means that if 1 percent of the total existing farmland in the U.S. were converted to regenerative practices, those farms would mitigate the emissions of about 5.8 million cars. If half of the existing farmland were converted, it would eliminate the carbon output equivalent of all U.S. cars. At the same time, topsoil quality on those farms would continue to improve, resulting in a higher yield of more nutritious, better-tasting food.
Plowing with Pigs
When one thinks of sequestering carbon through soil building, they may be surprised to learn that animal interactions with the land are key to that endeavor.
Tillage in the conventional sense is more likely to decrease soil carbon and damage soil structure and microboita. However, a little plowing can be useful, particularly where the existing vegetation isn’t desirable, or when there’s a tangled woody thicket that adds little in the way of productive growth, carbon capturing, or soil building.
Pigs, when confined and moved in a systematic way, will help clear these areas while stirring the soil so you can replant the matrix with a mixture that produces human food directly, or forage for subsequent generations of carbon-capturing animals—including pigs! And pigs will do this work for you without any need to invest in machines and the fuels to run them.
After the fieldwork is complete, move the pigs back to a semipermanent enclosure, or a thicket needing to be cleared. Take all your compostable materials, and pile them in that pen. The pigs will eat, churn, root, and eventually leave you with a lot of fiber and manure that’ll compost and make an amazing soil amendment.
—Oscar H. Will III, editor
Stay tuned for the second part of our Climate Farming series in the August/September 2021 issue of Mother Earth News. — Mother
Jeff Meyer and Joshua Andersen are the founder and farm manager, respectively, of Johnny Appleseed Organic, an eco-village and online store that provides farmers and gardeners with resources to fight climate change. Learn more at Johnny Appleseed. (Climate Farming is a registered trademark of Johnny Appleseed Orchards LLC.)
Want to learn more about Climate Farming? Climate farmer Joshua Anderson leads an online series of demonstrations that cover the key principles involved with preparation and planting. You can view the series now at MOTHER EARTH NEWS fair.