What is Carbon Farming?

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Carbon farming has recently appeared in the news as a set of agricultural practices that promises to help alleviate CO2 issues and combat global warming. However, this area in agriculture science is still under development, and there are many questions as to how farmers, companies, and governments can carry out the practices described in carbon farming.

With that in mind, we’re dedicating this article to discussing what carbon farming is, how carbon gets stored in the soil (and why this is a good thing), the environmental impact of carbon farms, and methods of carbon sequestration in soil. Carbon farming is destined to spring up in environmental discussions soon, and regardless of view, everyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture or is concerned about CO2 impacts should know the basics of carbon farming and the soil carbon cycle.

What is Carbon Farming?

Carbon farming is a set of practices that transfer carbon from the atmosphere and back into the soil and plants. Carbon sequestering is the actual physical process of capturing carbon and putting it back into soil and plant matter, while carbon farming is the broad array of practices used in agriculture to accomplish carbon sequestering. The most widely held carbon farming definition includes both elements of land management, environmental science, and agricultural practices.

How is Carbon Stored in Soil?

Carbon is stored in soil through a process called soil carbon sequestration. In this cycle, regular photosynthetic processes and natural plant matter decay via soil microbes and create soil organic matter which traps and sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere. High levels of organic matter indicate a healthy soil system, which means that particular plot of land can adequately store carbon. This healthier soil is rich and loamy, as opposed to the thin soil found in deforested areas.

Deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, mining, and other human processes strip the land of soil organic matter, resulting in more CO2 being released into the atmosphere.

The Environmental Impact of Carbon Farms

Carbon farms are agricultural and land management projects that work to benefit the environment and revive the land, rather than take up limited resources. They are specifically designed to store carbon in soil and to increase the health, water retention, and vitality of land areas. Carbon farms also function as productive agricultural ventures, usually creating their own compost by regularly rotating crops. These farms don’t always have to be agricultural—tree farms and soil reclamation projects can also have a carbon farming component.

Carbon farms are designed to restore soil through a positive feedback loop. Carbon in the plant and soil system (as opposed to the atmosphere) leads to healthier agricultural and local ecologies. Additional practices, such as reducing the use of pesticides, organically boosting soil nitrogen levels as opposed to using synthetic nitrogen products, and moving away from monoculture farming to mixed crops will help sequester carbon in soil and reduce greenhouse gases.

Carbon Sequestration in Soil Methods

Reduced Tillage/No-Till Farming

Tillage is the preparation of soil for agricultural use by upturning and breaking up the soil. This practice is a major cause of erosion: it destroys plants’ root systems which hold soil in place. These root systems are also essential for storing carbon and water. Over time, tillage strips soil bare of life-giving properties by ripping up root systems and killing essential microbes.

The negative effects of this practice have resulted in the birth of the no-till farming movement. Before the invention of the plow, all agriculture was no-till farming. Now with modern advancements in technology it is easier than ever for farmers to move to a no-till farm system. No-till soil also provides more food for plants, resulting in more nutrient-dense crops. No-till agriculture keeps soil bacteria and root systems intact, preventing erosion and sequestering CO2.

Erosion Control (Terracing, Contour Plowing)

Control of erosion goes hand in hand with carbon sequestration in agriculture. Indeed, great soil quality and high levels of soil organic matter create stable soil that is resistant to erosion. Carbon sequestration via terracing (planting on the side of hills and slopes in rows) has been used for centuries to prevent erosion. Contour plowing, plowing along the contours of the land, follows the same principle. This method prevents gullies and rills from forming, allowing water more time to filter into the soil.

Organic Amendments (Crop Residues, Manure, Compost)

Spreading crop residues, manure, or compost over your land delivers microbes and nitrogen directly back into the soil in a non-toxic fashion. Compost and crop residue from rotated crops provide a cheap alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers so that farmers can supplement or replace them entirely.

Using Cover Crops

Cover crops, like clover, can reintroduce nitrogen back into the soil. When livestock grazes on cover crops, their manure can benefit root systems and restore nitrogen balance to recently-farmed land plots. Cover crops are a historically traditional way of restoring land fertility, and they help create soil that is naturally absorbent of CO2.

Cool Effects Answers Your Questions About Carbon Farming

Do you have questions about carbon farming, carbon sequestration, and carbon offset programs? If you’re a farmer, a scientist, a government worker, or an employee of an adjacent business, we can help you. Contact us!