A Systems Approach to the Climate Emergency
In 2007-2008, as we were selling Laura’s Lean Beef and I was recovering from a horseback riding smash-up, a Donella Meadows Fellowship focused my attention on climate change.
I had entered the program thinking the biggest environmental problems confronting agriculture had to do with the use of chemicals in farming, and, in economics, externalities, and, related to this, industry concentration.
What I learned changed my mind. The facts are there – climate change is an existential threat. So, my husband and I gathered up our possessions, sold our retirement place, and moved back to our farm in Kentucky. It took several more years and several iterations of our plan to get started. We are 62 (me) and 71 (Bill), so no spring chickens, but we have a young team of leaders capable of working with us to pull this off.
In the decade since the fellowship, my strategy crystallized. Most climate activists are intent on limiting the burning of fossil fuels…shutting down the carbon pumps…and we are doing this too. We have installed solar panels and are increasing our commitment to the local food system, starting a farm-to-table restaurant and a craft distillery, growing green employment while decreasing food miles.
Simultaneously, we are developing our land as a carbon sink. The Rodale Institute and others say that it is possible to sequester all…let me say that again…all 52 gigatons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents emitted annually… by switching to farming practices which maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of carbon returned to the soil.
LAURA HAS DEVIL COWS...OR NOT?
At the Meadows Fellowship, I felt like I had three eyes and horns because I was in the cattle business…yes, the “good” cattle business, working against CAFOs and factory farms…but the cattle business, nonetheless. Cows belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. All ruminants do. No way around it. Taking this seriously, after the fellowship I reduced the size of my cow herd and increased my crop acreage. My actions demonstrated one cardinal rule of sustainability: the farm had to stay in business, had to be “economically” sustainable, and without cattle, I needed the crop income to make payroll.
We are sampling fields we hay and graze.
One Christmas after we’d been at this a couple of years, a highly respected scientist and sustainable farming proponent came to visit. As we were walking the farm road and talking about climate, she pointed to group of cows gleaning an organic corn field, and said, “I don’t see how you can do it without animals.”
“What? Cows weren’t so bad?, “ I thought. I was familiar with Allan Savory, but didn’t know enough … so off I went reading and attending field days, until I became pretty sure that pastured cattle, rotated correctly (and I had a good rotational system, set up in the mid-1980s) with their hooves and manure were part of the solution. We needed to measure it, by measuring the organic matter in rotated cattle pastures.
COVER CROPS AND PHOTOSYNTHESIS
We’ve been working with cover crops on crop land for more than a decade. John Graham, an NRCS agent, convinced me to use covers when he was assessing a tobacco farm I ultimately purchased. The pH was 5.6 , years of salt fertilizers had done their jobs, and the soil porosity was non-existent. I started with fall covers, learned to use tillage radishes, learned to use spring oats and winter peas in the spring if I was too late for rye, and discovered buckwheat for summer cover and smother crop.
In addition to the incredible contribution to soil health, cover crops in the late fall, winter and early spring are still green, which means they are photosynthesizing. Photosynthesis sequesters carbon, in one of nature’s miracles. This is how you pull carbon out of the atmosphere year-round.
We fight the weather always, but get most of our crop fields covered in the fall, for this sort of biomass before planting
I like to give talks with this poster at my side, showing the most important chemical equation ever, as far as I’m concerned.
With all this need to sequester carbon, haven’t most crop farms taken up cover crops? While cover crop acreage has increased, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census cover crop acres equaled only 3.9% of U.S. cropland. The upside of this number is the upside…We’ve got 96% of the farms to go. Forget geo-engineering, expensive and dangerous. Farmers should plant cover crops. They are safe, proven, and cost-effective.
ORGANIC OR NO-TILL?
During the Laura’s Lean Beef years, I toured scores of organic farms. I knew the “sin” of organic was excessive tillage. Weed control was necessarily mechanical, and soil structure suffered badly. Thus, for my carbon experiment, some fields were organic and some fields were non-gmo no-till, which means they were never plowed or even harrowed, but had herbicides applied.
As I write this, I plan to convert more of my no-till crop land to organic, a three-year process with short-term negative implications for farm income. Right now, my hay and crop acreage is about 70% certified organic and 30% non-gmo no-till.
Here is my conclusion: we can improve organic matter, soil carbon, with certified-organic farming, and profit from an activated soil biology. Indeed, our organic corn crop this year proves to me that activating soil biology works! We are going to yield more grain than our cover crop plus compost applications indicate. So onward with organics for Mt. Folly. Stay tuned.
PLUGGING SUSTAINABLE MT. FOLLY INTO THE INDUSTRIAL
FOOD SYSTEM DOESN'T WORK
Mt. Folly is a tiny bit of the food system. My goal is to develop a model of the whole, which can be localized, tinkered with, replicated and quickly scaled. The current food system involves driving from the farmstead to an aggregation center, driving then to huge plants, sorting the commodity in in various ways during different phases of processing, achieving an end product, driving the product on trucks to far flung warehouses coast to coast, loading the end product on yet another delivery truck to an individual store or restaurant, and finally selling to a “consumer,” who eats the food there and drives home, or puts the food in a car and drives it home. This is part of the systems challenge.
Our solution thus far has been to avoid perishables for national distribution, distribute non-perishables regionally, and distribute hemp products and Mt. Folly cornmeal and grits nationally by mail.
Make sure you LIKE Mt. Folly Farm on Facebook so you’ll know when we open.
I’ll be transparent about how it works.
Part of our climate change solution.
Distill farm products in our
BUILDING A LEARNING COMMUNITY IN A COAL STATE
The President of our distillery several years ago asked me if he had to give up his” Friends of Coal” license plate. In August, we hired someone who’d worked for 7 years at a coal company. Both didn’t quite know what to make of me and this project. My great-grandfather started a lumber mill here in Winchester, sawing trees during the mountain timber bonanza that fed the building and car making boom in the rest of the nation. I “get” mountain industry and know that we all have to eat. Kentuckians deserve to prosper.
Our job is to create jobs: good ones, green ones, here in east-central Kentucky. This is a different system challenge than my friends confront in San Francisco, New York or London. It is different than the one in Cambodia or Brazil, too. But the steps -- reducing carbon pumps and expanding carbon sinks; staying afloat financially; learning from others, sharing successes – are the same.
The work needs to be local and international all at once. It needs to be data driven and people driven. We cannot fail.
Plastics Straws and the Climate Emergency
The holidays are over, a new decade is on. Yet one exchange with a family member still echoes for me. It started at lunch in the small town of Winchester, Kentucky. Mt. Folly Farm is 8 miles away, and Winchester is the county seat.
My husband and I invited the family to our new farm-to-table restaurant and distillery for a tour and a meal. I explained that we are growing much of the food served at the restaurant and all the grains distilled for moonshine and spirits. The Winchester distillery complex, with its restaurant, bakery, kitchen, and stills, has a partner, 1 South Main. By April we’ll be in, opening a Laura’s Mercantile, Homestead Alternatives storefront and offices, downtown apartments above it, a full solar array powering it. At the farm, we are doing our best to practice regenerative agriculture, with the goal of making the organic farm a carbon sink.
Almost everyone who works on the project is local, preferably from counties east, where the coal economy has rightly failed, taking the good paying jobs with it. We’ve made something from almost nothing, defining a local food system and local economy. Now, the job is to study what we’ve done, tinker with it, and demonstrate that is carbon neutral and economically sound.
Once this is accomplished, our job will be to help replicate it throughout the Appalachian region, bringing good jobs, some wealth, and carbon neutrality with the local food, local economic system.
It’s an enormous effort, a big financial risk, the sum of my best thinking on what I could actually do about the climate emergency. It’s most likely my last big commitment (I’m 62). I hope to work on this for the next 20 years. If something happens to me, I’ve trained a young set of leaders to carry on.
Back to lunch: I’ve explained all this to the family, and dinner is served. A lovely, progressive, thoughtful family member turns to me, points to a child whose drink has been served with a top and straw, and says, “You need to get rid of plastic straws.”
I said she was right, then tried to make the point that individual choices about straws weren’t going to solve the climate emergency. “Yes, but it is what I can do. Don’t pollute the oceans and kill the dolphins.”
I love my family, but too many of them think the climate crisis can be averted if we make changes to our consumption habits, leading to a “greener than thou” contest. This not only does no good, but diverts attention from national and global policies and economies. This diversion sidelines the real power we all have.
Let’s stop feeling guilty and hopeless, stop green shaming, start discussing the root causes and scale of the problem. Then, we need to team up with others seeking change on an adequate scale.
I consider my efforts to be part of the “drawdown” movement, hitched to the local economy movement. If this isn’t possible for you, there are active youth movements, solar and wind lobbies, political candidates who are making their climate stances known, environmental groups with climate focus. But team up! You’ll be more effective, and there is not a moment to spare.