Transition to a Climate Farm

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You could be forgiven for thinking that an art as old as agriculture should be flawless by now. After all, research suggests that crop cultivation began some 23,000 years ago. It’s easy to assume that we’ve worked out any issues in all that time.

We haven’t. In fact, soil degradation is happening worldwide, and modern agricultural practices are largely to blame. Intensive farming techniques, including tilling, over-application of fertilizers, and erosion, are stressing our soils, resulting in environmental harm and reduced food production.

You could also be forgiven for believing that corporate or conventional agriculture are the only culprits in our soil crisis.

Climate Farming practices turned a monoculture mayhaw orchard into a food forest.

Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

Organic farming has had the benefit of some excellent publicity since the early 1900s, when the modern organic movement began. In reality, though, organic farming isn’t much better for the environment. Because the focus tends to be narrow—ensuring consumers don’t eat pesticide-soaked produce—organic farming often misses the forest for the trees.

It’s vital we collectively begin farming in a way that combats climate change by Put soil-friendly practices in place on your farm and reap the rewards of sustainable land management practices turned a monoculture mayhaw orchard into a food forest regenerating our soil. That’s why a new wave of farmers are transforming the way they tend their land, using a practice called Climate Farming.

What’s Climate Farming?

Climate Farming merges proven sustainable farming practices in a cohesive and realistic way.  We practice (and evolve) Climate Farming at the Johnny Appleseed Organic Village, a sustainable living development near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia. Our goal is to improve topsoil health and empower farmers to sequester carbon and fix nitrogen.

Mayhaws were planted in single rows before the plot was turned into a series of guilds (below).
Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

A series of guilds.
Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

Climate Farming is a blend of the time-tested agricultural methodologies of permaculture, syntropic farming, and regenerative agriculture. We accomplish this using a combination of historic agricultural management practices and modern scientific research.

Why bother combining these disciplines into one cohesive method? Because sequestering existing atmospheric carbon is key to fighting climate change. Agriculture has the potential to lead the climate revolution, and Climate Farming is a natural and effective place to start.

In this article, I’ll walk you through two specific case studies from our farm to give you ideas to implement and experiment with on your own operation.

Monoculture Orchard Case Study

Before it was turned into a Climate Farm, Johnny Apple seed Organic Village was a typical organic agricultural operation: well-intentioned, but not enough — and even a little misguided — for mitigating climate change.

One of our first solutions was to transform an established monoculture orchard of mayhaws into a regenerative food forest. You can apply this same concept to any row-planted trees, bushes, or perennials you have on your property. Previously, the mayhaws were planted in perfectly straight, directional rows, which created three main problems:

  • The narrow row beds facilitated topsoil erosion, which destabilized the trees by exposing their roots.
  • Because the row beds didn’t follow the natural contours of the land, water from large rain events carried invaluable soil and nutrients away from the beds.
  • The mayhaws had no support species, and no co-plantings had been established. The trees were all the same! It was a sad monoculture.

To fix the issue, we had to reach outside of typical organic agricultural practices. Inspired by permaculture designer Matthew Reece, we excavated soil from between the mayhaws and placed it around the trees, creating raised islands of soil around each trunk. The mini-ditches left between the mayhaw islands now keep water and nutrients from running off-site.

Climate Farming principles can be applied to any farm or garden. Before getting started, brainstorm how they’ll best work on your own property.
Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

Next, we planted support species around each tree to further improve the soil and help attract pollinators. This arrangement is called a “guild.” Bill Mollison defines the term “guild” in his 1988 book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual as “a harmonious assembly of species clustered around a central element (plant or animal).  This assembly acts in relation to the element to assist its health, aid our work in management, or buffer adverse environmental effects.”

Guilds reduce competition from unwanted plants, create biomass and nutrients, provide shelter, and ease gathering and harvesting. We also like the term “consortium,” which refers to the same concept, but in the context of syntropic farming — a form of regenerative agroforestry focused on natural succession. In syntropic farming, a consortium describes a cooperatively grown blend of trees and vegetables. The terms are similar, but we like to use both “consortium” and “guild” as an ode to each practice.

Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

We planted the same consortium around every tree, but in different variations to make each island guild unique. We selected species for their accessibility, as well as their ability to withstand our climate. The nitrogen-fixing species we planted have naturalized in our area along roadsides and tree lines, which shows us they’ll do well on our farm. We also planted larger tree species in the raised islands, which we’ll manage with regular pollards and coppices throughout their lives to prevent them from dominating the guilds.

Here are the species we planted and the specific roles they play in the mayhaw guilds:

  • Mayhaw (Crataegus aestivalis), as a fruiting subcanopy species.
  • Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), as a fruiting herbaceous species.
  • Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus macarthurii), as a coppicing species, for support, and to create biomass.
  • Pink silk tree (Albizia julibrissin), as a nitrogen-fixing species.
  • Sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea), as a nitrogen-fixing species.
  • Jerusalem thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata), as a pioneer and support species
  • Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), as a nitrogen-fixing species.
  • Silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), as a nitrogen-fixing species.
  • Cassava (Manihot esculenta), as an herbaceous-rhizosphere species.

Since the guilds are a work in progress, this list isn’t exhaustive. These are simply the plants we’re working with currently. One of our favorite aspects of Climate Farming is that systems are never static, and we fully expect the mayhaw guilds to evolve in different and unexpected ways as they progress.

Minimal-Till Crop System

Another part of developing a Climate Farm is considering how you till. Or, more accurately, how you don’t till. We’re currently working toward minimal-till practices on our farm.

Given the popularity of no-till farming, you may wonder why we’re focused on minimal-till. In The Carbon Farming Solution, author Eric Toensmeier refers to no-till methods as those in which soil isn’t turned over with plows or shovels after establishing. But, “This rules out perennial root crops,” he explains, “which require digging for harvest.” Added to that, several factors — including soil type, previous land use, time, increased labor force, money, vision, and costly tools — mean that the reality of no-till farming is difficult to attain for many farmers. As a viable alternative, minimal-till farming means what it sounds like: We do till, occasionally. The idea is to avoid tilling unnecessarily.

Johnny Appleseed Organic farmers use a minimal-till system to manage a syntropic-style vegetable field that includes corn and sunn hemp (below).
Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

Recently, we redesigned a ­5/8-acre off-contour sugar cane field into semipermanent vegetable beds between syntropic- style tree rows on-contour. This transition did require tilling. But now that we’ve planted the new rows, we won’t need to use mechanized tilling again. (We will, however, use hand tillers, because we have co-plantings of eddoe and yautia, which require digging to harvest.)

  • We don’t adhere to a strict no-till philosophy, but instead implement the following principles and practices to reduce tilling and soil disturbance as we work toward being a minimal-till farm:
  • We never till deeper than 6 inches. For larger spaces, we use a disc harrow to till the ground. For smaller areas, we use a rotary tiller that doesn’t dig deeper than our 6-inch limit.
  • We’re establishing perennial growing systems like those used in syntropic agroforestry and permaculture food forests. Once created, these don’t require mechanized tilling.
  • We use animals as gentle earth movers. We cycle pigs and chickens through our cell-grazing systems. The animals naturally till the soil with their feet, beaks, and snouts.
  • We grow plants with large taproots, such as daikon radishes, that help break up our tough clay soils.
  • We keep the soil planted with cover crops that we cycle through seasonally, or cut with a flail mower.
  • We interplant biomass-creating species among productive fruit and vegetable species within tree rows.

Why is it important to minimize soil disturbance? Thanks to decades of mismanagement, our soil needs replenishment. In No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, Bryan O’Hara explains that tilling destroys plant canopies, while creating an open soil surface to easily plant into. But barren soil can’t feed and protect itself adequately, which means a loss of fertility and profitability.

Sunn hemp
Photo by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard

On the other hand, undisturbed soils that are high in organic matter hold more water — and hold it deeper (for passive use by plants) — and are more fertile. This means the soil has greater success capturing and storing rainfall, while also reducing runoff and flooding. In addition, high-carbon soils are rich with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. They’re also less vulnerable to erosion, and less likely to lose nutrients through leaching. The less we till our soil, the higher our potential for carbon sequestration is, which is foundational to the concept of a Climate Farm.

Whether you work toward a no-till system or a minimal-till system is up to you and the current state of the land you’re working. The vital piece is creating systems that regenerate soil with the least amount of disturbance.

Start Your Transition to a Climate Farm

When making the transition to a Climate Farm, the main thing to keep in mind is to allow the process, and your land, to evolve through trial and error.

You’ve seen how we transitioned a monoculture orchard into a food forest, and why guilds (or consortiums) are important. You’ve also learned how we transformed a sugar cane field into vegetable beds with minimal tilling (and why reduced tilling is better for carbon sequestration). Now, it’s your turn to take these principles and brainstorm how you can apply them to your land.

Agriculture is responsible for 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and yet the farming industry has largely escaped the responsibility to mitigate atmospheric carbon. It’s time to disrupt agricultural business as usual with Climate Farming. Together, let’s shift farming into a leading industry in mitigating climate change.

Jeff Meyer is the founder 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.)