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.