The Most Amazing Thing I Have Learned While Traveling
...or the most surprising way to heal the Earth
It is really bad form to start a blog or website and then abandon it for months. And that is exactly what I have done while I have spent this sabbatical year traveling. I have just returned and I have been trying to figure out what the most important thing for me to share about what I have learned on this amazing journey through Japan, Australia, Serbia, Switzerland and Spain.
The essential role of microorganisms...really...trust me...keep reading...they are absolutely amazing. I can't keep from thinking about them, wanting to encourage every young person I know to become a soil scientist, or a regenerative farmer. I have gone on and on explaining to anyone who will listen what these microscopic creatures are capable of, especially if we help them. They, quite frankly, can restore the balance on Earth - but only with our help.
Sure, I have known about microorganisms for a while now. We made tons of compost for the garden, experimented with bokashi, and discussed compost tea. But what I am learning now about the collaboration between farmers, plants and microorganisms is so surprising, exciting and vastly hopeful, and makes me a bit sad that I haven't done more here at Songaia to support microorganisms.
You often hear people today talk about how our planet is dying...they are talking about the huge die-off of insects, birds and animals labeled the 6th extinction. At the root of this process is post-WWII chemical bath we are pouring on the land. Scientists developed two products essential for defeating the enemy during the war, chemical warfare agents and man-made nitrogen for bombs. After the war was over the manufacturing companies looked for post-war uses for the products and we began to use them in farming to eliminate nasty pests and to fertilize the fields. Unfortunately there are huge unintended consequences for these modern uses. These products destroy the vast and essential web of life in the soil - microorganisms.
And what do they do that is so essential? They collaborate with the plants, bringing them essential nutrients, trading the sugar the plants make for water, minerals, and nitrogen...everything a plant needs except for oxygen and sunshine. They build soil, sequestering carbon and holding vast quantities of water through long drought periods. Modern farmers like Gabe Brown, Will Harris, and Joel Salatin describe themselves as growing soil microorganisms now instead of grass, or animals. Microorganisms feed the soil, the soil feeds the grass, the grass feeds the animals and the animals feed us. Their farms have become more profitable, the food they grow is more nutritious, and they (and their animals and employees) are happier.
But here is what I have learned that is so amazing...by providing microorganism the right environment, they can build soil at the rate of up to three feet a year, sequester massive amounts of carbon and rehydrate the soil.
Here are the Numbers:
It is always hard for me to get my mind around the numbers, but here you go.
An acre of topsoil with 1% organic matter holds 5 tonnes of carbon, 18 tonnes of carbon dioxide is removed from the air by the plants in order to sequester 5 tonnes of carbon. If we can help the microorganisms build topsoil at the rate of 3% per acre/per year, the microorganisms in one acre can remove 54 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. The US emits 5.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. We have 915 million acres of farmland in the US. If we changed to regenerative agriculture we could sequester 915,000,000 x 54 = 4.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Nearly all of the US current annual output....is my math correct? And it is more profitable! Numbers are always estimates but here is another calculation from one of my favorite sources Drawdown.org.
In the movie "The Biggest Little Farm" they talked about having sequestered 18" of rain (100 million gallons of water) when around them, on other farms, topsoil was washing away to the sea. This was possible because they had helped the microorganisms build several inches of soil on their land.
And, if what I have said so far isn't amazing enough, the most recent research indicates that if soil is planted with a cover crop of a minimum of 15 different species of plants, then the microorganisms can build soil at an exponential rate - an astounding foot or more a year, depending on the amount of moisture they get. This new understanding about microorganisms is called "quorum sensing." Here is a link to a talk by soil scientist Christine Jones from Australia. It is a talk she gave this year at the "No Till on the Plains" conference.
We can restore the Earth. But we have to flip the narrative. Conventional farming is destroying the Earth. Regenerative farming can feed the world and restore the habitat of its flora and fauna. Support regenerative agriculture.
If you haven't seen the movie "The Biggest Little Farm" yet, I recommend you do. It is a beautiful story about a couple that restored an old apricot farm in California and a perfect illustration of the power of microorganisms. I showed it to my family after a recent wedding and everyone loved it.
And now, for the really nerdy ones like me who find this fascinating, here is a link to the Jena Experiment, a research institute in Germany, that has more than 400 experimental plots testing the response of microorganisms and the plants they support to higher variety cover crops and various amounts of added nitrogen.