Interview with David Montgomery, Champion of Soil Health

NB: Can you explain the nitrogen/carbon oxidation nexus?

DM: A big part of why nitrogen draws down carbon is the ratio of C to N in living things. If you are going to get that nitrogen into a living organism you need a lot of carbon to pair it with.  So if you are fertilizing soil in a way where you have either microbial growth or fungal growth thats unlimited in terms of nitrogen its going to gobble up a lot of carbon. There are different ways to get the carbon into the soil... the microbial degradation of organic matter basically turns it into carbon rich compounds that stick around better....A lot of the soil organic matter is actually microbial in origin, so you can think of the organic matter wether its being added by roots sloughing off or pushing out exudates as a great way to feed microbes and grow fungi in the soil, or wether its cattle trampling and merging that down into the soil where microbes can get at it, there are different ways to do it or if its just planting legumes that can partner with microbes to get enough out of the atmosphere to fertilize a crop. I was impressed with the magnitude of N fixation that can happen when you really promote the development of the microbiota that are N fixers. 

NB: So its harder to be carbon regenerative in tillage agriculture

DM: The combination of tillage and a lot of nitrogen application wherever you got the nitrogen that by itself is a recipe for burning up organic matter and drawing down fertility, no-till is one of those things where if you just study it by itself it can either build organic matter or it can do very little or it can even lose organic matter,... the combination of three practices of no-tillage, planting cover crops/ keeping the ground covered and having a diverse rotation not just growing the same things over and over, the combination of those three elements is what really builds organic matter and fertility. 

NB: How is soil decarbonized?

DM: If you don't keep recycling the living matter, if you're fertilizing and plowing you're getting carbon into the system and then venting it, .... if you don't plow you can build up your reservoir and then cycle it... Coupled with plow based agriculture We've demonstrated that we've lost about half the organic matter in n american soils.

NB: How much anthropogenic carbon has come from burning fossil fuels versus soil oxidation

DM: There was a study done in 1978 by Minze Stuiver, the trend is pretty clear... Minze Stuiver looked at carbon isotopes and found that about a third of the CO2 that had been added to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution did not come from fossils fuels but came from soil organic matter mostly from plowing up the american midwest and western russia, at that point it was about a third, I haven't seen an update quite like that but my guess is that its somewhere in that same ballpark, in other words its a lot, and that is carbon that in principle could be put back in the soil were we to rebuild soil organic matter on our agricultural lands. A farmer in Ohio that i visited essentially weaned himself off nitrogen and herbicides he was using about 10% of what his neighbors were using, he cut his costs by 90%, he ran me through the farm economics on a per acre basis, his neighbors were losing... about a $100/acre , meanwhile he  has rebuilt soil  organic matter levels from about 1/2 percent he started to around 5-10%,  values comparable to what the original soil carbon content, .. and he's making $400/acre.... so, Instead of subsidizing destructive conventional practices we ought to be subsidizing regenerative practices that are better for the farmers, better for the soil life, better for the pollinators and the birds that visit and arguably better for the food we we eat.

NB: Thoughts on soil testing?

DM: Conventional soil tests will simply look at the amount of plant available nitrogen or phosphorous or whatever and thats a narrow lens with which to look at it because that assumes you cant change whats in the soil, particularly for elements other than nitrogen. Whats available in the soil in the soil is enough to grow plants for centuries , the problem is getting it out of the mineral particles in the soil, the rock fragments , the clay minerals and getting it into forms the plants can take up, thats the job of microbes thats what fungi do thats what bacteria so if you just take a random soil test and you look at the available nitrogen the available phosphorous what thats telling you is what the plants can take up out of that soil without any benefit or assistance from microbial life but we know there are microbes that can fix nitrogen thats 19th century science that predates Haber-bosch, we also know that fungi will scavenge certain nutrients like phosphorous from rocks and trade them to plants but none of that phosphorous that the fungi can scavenge and none of the nitrogen that microbes can fix out of the atmosphere of which theres plenty, were bathed in it what.. 79% of our atmosphere is nitrogen, the trick with nitrogen is getting it out of our atmosphere, Haber-bosch can do that, but half the synthetic nitrogen we apply to are fields never make it into the plant and because were applying it in a soluble form, it runs off it gets int groundwater, it gets into streams, its whats causing the great dead zone in the gulf of Mexico and causing the city of des moines to sue the local farmers for polluting the water supply.... but if instead you think of nitrogen fixation from microbes as putting nitrogen from the atmosphere into the roots of plants right where you need it, that stuff doesn't run off it tends to get used......, if then you plant a cover crop that circulates nitrogen, its available to plants as that material decays, its a steady supply,. Its even more important for the micro nutrients which are critical for plant health, so in terms of soil tests one of the things that I did not know as a geologist, going and talking to farmers and agronomists, realizing the distinction between whats readily plant available and whats there in the soil ready to be unlocked by the microbes in the soil that can get them to the plants , again thats where biology in the soil becomes so central and important to fertility because if you just look at it through the lens of readily available chemistry it might look like you really need to add a ton of nitrogen and phosphorous to grow something, then you go and visit some of these farmers that are instead rebuilding the organic matter to feed the microbes that then unlock the sources of phosphorous and provide the n fixation in the soil and their able to grow comparable crops with hardly any fertilizer relative to what their neighbors are using makes you wonder wether we've missed a piece of the equation and thats the biology.

NB: Revolution is a coming!

DM: Thats where the title of my new book, "growing a revolution" is as much about how we think about soil as it is about is about how we farm, the philosophy that underpins how we look at soil. wether you view it as a chemical reservoir to  be topped up with the ingredients you need to grow plants or wether you view it as an ecological system where you r trying to cultivate the species you would like to be productive and then increasing their cycling so you can shave a little off the top as a farmer, thats a whole different philosophy of soil. Modern farming has basically created large fields of the same plant that are stressed because they are over-provided with major elements and under provided with micro nutrients and we have increased our pest and pathogen problems and that creates a need for insecticides and...

NB: Chemical dependency...

DM: Yea, its a recipe for chemical dependency, that's it exactly.

NB: What are the scenarios where the farmers you studied need to spray herbicides

DM: We live in a society that is fairly polarized in terms of political views...there is a significant proportion who don't want to be doing the hippie farming thing, but they are perfectly happen not spending money on pesticides and fertilizers... one farmer said I haven't actually used herbicides in 3 years, he hasn't needed it but he wants to be able to just in case.... Why did farmers till in the first place, weed control! And why are herbicides particularly glyphosate are good at weed control.. why because it kills everything unless it has a gene in it that has been modified to let it live through glyphosate. The development of gmo crops helped the adoption of no till because it made weed control easy. Now there are other ways to control weeds that don't involve herbicide. A number of the farmers I visited with who were conventional farmers had been experimenting with different cover crops to outcompete the weeds, instead of the kill everything model....they basically went to the "lets outcompete the weeds" model so what you do is as you plant your primary crop you plant a cover crop either shortly after or along with it that will come in under your main crop and basically shade out the weeds and outcompete them. If your cover crop isn't harvested but you knock it down so it rots... it keeps the weeds out and its drawing nutrients into biological play in organic matter, then you let that organic matter rot. Theres this great invention called a crimper roller that is a crimper roller that goes along with no-yill planting that could completely replace the herbicide dependence of some of the no till farmers and the big criticism you'll often hear is that they use a lot of herbicide, but its not necessary, thats a practice, its a choice..... so a roller crimper is basically a steamroller drum with metal chevrons on it that you roll over and crush the cover crop, you put one on the front end of your no till planter, crush the cover crop and plant through it, what it does is create an organic mulch, and that mulch both keeps moisture in the soil its made out of organic matter that will rot and provide nutrients back into the soil, and it provides really good weed control. And you're basically putting this organic mulch down but you've just planted your seed so they have the head start, the first thing that comes is your crop and the weeds are suppressed because they take longer to come in because that mulch is keeping them down.. so the philosophy these farmers have adopted is one of ecological wisdom to replace one of sheer chemical brute force.

NB: Nixon passed the clean water act, the endangered species act, Is it possible to think that under a Trump we could see a carbon farming act?

DM: I think we have a real opportunity in terms of the farm act of 2018, trying to prioritize things that rebuild soil health, I honestly think this is where red states and blue states can come together.... building soil health is good for american farmers... a side benefit would be rebuilding soil carbon. Even some of the big agri-chemical giants are starting to see the long term wisdom of going towards more regenerative practices, some are switching up their product mixes , some are trying to get into designing microbes that fix nitrogen..., there are all kinds of arguments you could have about genetic engineering and the wisdom of wether or not you put a gene in a microbe will it stay put, I mean horizontal gene transfer is not gonna let that happen. (laughs) But those are all different arguments than wether or not we should be embarking on a national infrastructure project to rebuild soil organic matter. 

NB: Is there a danger that all this innovation might be guarded carefully as intellectual property?

DM: One of the things that impressed me about all the farmers that i visited None of them suffered that problem, they all wanted to share and talk about what they had done. They were genuinely interested in spreading something that was good for people and the world. 

-Nik Bertulis

I met with David, my favorite soil writer, at a small coffeshop near Green Lake in Seattle on May 7th of this year to discuss the release of his new book "Growing a Revolution."

The Elephantidae, the Flame and the Chainsaw - Wildfarm Release

The Elephantidae, the Flame and the Chainsaw -  Wildfarm Release

trees grow tall as a defense against browsers and the elephants’ response is to get big enough to push trees over, creating photosynthetic super-highways for the acorn-chestnut-berry-tuber and grass polycultures that wild mammals and their domestic proxies, pigs, goats, sheep, cows thrive in.

Rewilding Agriculture - Carbon Farming the Inter-Wilds

 

Dear non-sciencey people, please indulge a moment of jargon: plowed soil oxidizes carbon to the atmosphere; zoogenic fecal deposition sequesters atmospheric carbon.

Let me rephrase: plows exhaust soil, animals build soil. 

There is three times more carbon in the soil than the atmosphere. We have lost an est. 50-70% of soil carbon to the atmosphere since the advent of plowing. 

Now imagine 40 million pronghorn antelope, as many buffalo and probably more deer trolloping across every prairies, forest and desert in these lands. That’s a $weet-load of manure that soil microbes and arthropods (think dung beetles) feast upon and pull into their cavernous subterranean condominiums. 

Replace that image with phosphorous and potassium strip mines, billion dollar nitrate factories, trainloads of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, millions of semi trucks hauling the whole mess down our freeways and you’ve got the industrialization of our landscapes that commodity brokerages thrive upon but leave the rest of us with little more than an epidemic of junk food malaise. 

Wolf Shepards

Lazy cattle overgraze. Misgrazing is as ubiquitous as it is tragic. Without a recovery period, pasture grasses and forbs don’t get enough time to photosynthesize or go to seed, which means lower value weeds end up thriving and we end up with low value pasture and the resulting compacted, eroding and lifeless soil that does not support nutrient cycling let alone a healthy rural economy. 

Holistic grazing practitioners have learned that by methodically rotating a high density of livestock through pastures to mimic the behavioral effects of predators, plants get a recovery period and the pasture thrives. But to mimic a predator is a lot work. Moving your herd every couple of days and then setting up complex grids of electric fences is labor intensive. Cattlemen (and women) in wolf country report their herds move around a lot more, they are warier and leaner. High density rotational grazing is automated. Livestock guard dogs like Mastiffs, Anatolians and Pyrenees have been bred for millennia to protect domestic animals and it all makes for a very exciting atmosphere. Agri-tourism is guaranteed to boom in this scenario. In the rare event of a depredation, compensation funds, both public and non-profit, can conciliate the monetary loss to ranchers. 

The same “bunching” pattern can be seen with wild elk, deer, pronghorn and bison. In the absence of predators the herds laze around and overgraze the same pastures. The deeper rooted, more nutritious perennials get grazed into oblivion and the shallow rooted, nutrient poor annuals take over. This is why wolves are called keystone species; without the keystone the whole

Ancient Polycultures

Here is a word that deserves more frequent utterance in the popular lexicon, “polyculture”.  En espanol “policultivo.” It is the opposite of a monoculture (monocultivo), the growing of a crop in isolation from animals and other species. 

Who among us has hiked the chestnut, hickory and persimmon food forests of Appalachia, the mesquite bean, prickly pear and chili pepper wild gardens of the southwestern deserts, eaten pine nuts and wild grass pinole from the great basin, ridden horseback across the buffalo, sorghum, sunflower prairies of the midwest, paddled the wild rice and ancient sturgeon of the northern lakes, the salmonid and wild berry river valleys of the northwest. Some people call these natural cornucopias Permaculture; but Permaculture is only a documentation and hybridization of what native peoples have been practicing for millennia. So a big heartfelt thank you to all the native people that nurtured, stewarded and, drumroll please, yes, even, bred these staples. Tlazokamati.  Ma cie. Wa do. Thank you indigenous tenders of ancient polycultures.   

As conservationists, food justice organizers, breeders and maintainers of culture we can continue this tradition to create new cultivars of native food plants and unify the conceptual rift between the guardian vs gardener binary in wilderness ethics. This approach offers us not only the most climate resilient food system but also one that can reverse the extinction epidemic that hides in the shadows of industrial agriculture. 

One Health

Let me be clear. I am not proposing we return our wildnerness lands to farms. The peace and joy of passing time in machine free environments is incomparable. I am however proposing that we connect these wild sanctums of ecosystems past with wildlife corridors that feed people. The trend is clear that geographic “islands” of wilderness leads to inbreeding and the resulting loss of genetic vigor and ultimately extinction. Sad and lonely zoos will become the tragic fate for most wildlife. Unless, landscape scale ecological polycultures can provide safe passage for these feathered, hooved, finned and winged friends. These will have to be commercially viable operations because as it stands most of rural America don’t want to touch an endangered species with a ten foot pole. Why? Because property value. If a species on your land is listed as threatened or endangered a lot of your economic activity is frequently outlawed, not an attractive proposition for most hardworking farmers and ranchers. 

To be sure, its not just farms and ranches in the way of these migrations. These creatures will also have to cross, highways, wind farms and suburbs. Incentivize planners, government agencies, farmers and ranchers to provide these ecosystem services and provide high value foodstuffs to people everywhere and we have just reversed the tendency of civilization to destroy itself. 

Most importantly the nutrition, availability and taste of food will skyrocket all across the species continuum. 

For the physical and economic health of all life, one health. 

I am not a Luddite

Before you dismiss me as just another crazy dreamer, know this: low tannin oaks, blight free chestnuts, high yielding native berries, perennialized sunflower seeds, sorghum, corn, rice, and yes even wheat are being bred and studied by nurserymen and orchardists everywhere. Handfuls of scientists quietly working in far away places found the perennial progenitors for most of our staple cereal grains, i.e., perennial teosinte the ancestor of all corn. The task is to get these to cross pollinate with high yielding and delicious varieties.

The implication here is not neo-primitivism, but rather the marriage of the ancient practice of sustainable land management with the best of industrial mechanization. Like the slow food movement, this revolution is a slow one. We may have to swallow some efficiency losses (by monoculture metrics anyway) but we also will not need to eat as much. We won’t be obesifying ourselves with empty calories, desperate for some nutritional fulfillment. Ecosystem service gains will be harvested up the whazoo. Carbon footprints will plummet. Water quality, biodiversity and soil fertility will groundswell. Legions of environmental scientists, strong spined tree planters and geriatric green thumbs will find purposeful livelihoods. And best of all, good taste will rise again. 

From the boardrooms of Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill to the, natural food stores, C.S.A.’s and farmers markets, the conference rooms and classrooms of universities and government offices to the longhouses, sweat lodges and casinos of Native America I beckon us to reimagine, re-language and retool our food system. Long live the polyculture. 

Oh yeah, and if we do, we stabilize the climate.

Retirp- Toward a Lexicon for Reversing Extinction Trends

OR7, first wild wolf in California since 1924.

OR7, first wild wolf in California since 1924.

It has been said that mass extinction is one of the great moral crises of our time. I cannot argue with this notion; the evidence is exhaustingly evident.

The extirpation or the local extinction of a plant or animal species, is the precursor to extinction, which is defined not by death but the end of birth. 

Biologists have done a pretty decent job of cataloguing these extinctions and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has a database that chronicles the degree of extirpation of the worlds most threatened species. 

We know that even in wilderness reserves, public and private, animal numbers continue to dwindle because of inbreeding and loss of genetic vigor. Their only chance for survival is connectivity. 

Some near extinct species, like the California Tule Elk,  have been successfully reintroduced to former habitats and others have naturally dispersed back to where they once roamed, i.e. the California Wolf. Many a visionary have worked with farms and ranches to protect their livestock from predators, created wildlife crossings at highways and worked with landowners to enhance habitat. 

Yet there is no existing word that adequately describes the extent of this work, which is the opposite of extirpation, I therefore pronounce to the world the coinage of a new word: retirp, the local restoration of a plant or animal to their former abundance. 

If we stand a chance of recovering the former abundance of native food webs for the benefit and reverence of all life, then we need to be able to talk about it without relying upon quadri-syllabic jargon that you may only hear uttered across cluttered academic offices and lofty conference halls. 

May all holocenic lives be retirped to the full extent of their former glories.

-Nikolas Bertulis