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Partners in Practice

February 17, 2017

Using Carbon as a Tool to Maximize Soil Health


By: Christine Mason, farm operations manager

If you have read my articles in the past, you know that I think it is impossible to separate soil health from nutritional health.

People probably get tired of hearing me say that our food cannot be healthier than the soil it is grown in and that although we have beautiful crops and much to be proud of here at the Standard Process farm, our crowning achievement is the soil itself. Admittedly, you have to be a bit of a soil geek to think, “Beautiful!” when you look at dirt.

Standard Process takes soil samples in the fall utilizing GPS and grid maps. We are extremely aware of the macronutritional and micronutritional levels of the soil. But science is beginning to think that we should dig even deeper (soil humor) into soil health and also be aware of a farm’s carbon levels.

There are many important attributes of soil health tied to carbon. Organic matter is approximately 58 percent carbon, and soils with high organic matter are the soils most apt to be able to keep up with the food demands of our planet’s population explosion. Scientists are now beginning to understand that we are going to have to teach farmers and ranchers how to maximize the carbon in soil, not just for the bounty and health of the plants grown on top of it, but also for the health of the planet itself.

According to the Carbon Cycle Institute, land management is the second-largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions on the planet. Farm equipment that runs on fossil fuels, tilling the soil, and utilizing the fossil fuel-based fertilizers and herbicides that much of the conventional ag world relies on all result in significant carbon release. We are now learning that adjusting agricultural practices can have a huge impact on carbon levels in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide dissolves in water, and 70 percent of the planet is covered in water. In order to sequester carbon, it must be put back into the 30 percent of the planet covered in soil. The Earth’s soil has the physical capacity to hold excess atmospheric carbon because the soil is where it originated; fossil fuels are extracted from the soil in the first place.

There are many known factors that can help maximize carbon within a soil. Crop diversity is one way to build organic matter. In a teaspoon of healthy soil there are more microbes than there are people on the Earth.1 By mass, over 90 percent of the soil microbial community is bacteria and fungi. In order to maximize soil life, diversity is essential. To me, the healthiest soils on the planet are found in undisturbed prairie or forest floor. These are about as far away from monoculture row crops as you can get.

Diversity equals soil health. If you can maximize the diversity of crops grown and also try to maximize the diversity of a cover crop mixture, you are coming closer to a “natural” soil system in which a greater variety of soil organisms can find their preferred diet (as exuded by soil roots). Keeping tillage to a minimum helps build carbon levels. The use of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers seems to seriously reduce or in many cases eliminate soil carbon buildup, but for reasons not quite understood the use of organic compost and animal manure do not impede carbon increase within the soil.2, 3

In the summer of 2016, The Ohio State University asked the Standard Process farm to participate in a study on different farming practices and the resulting carbon levels within the soil. I am very pleased to announce that all five Standard Process soil samples submitted tested above average for both active carbon and mineralized carbon. Future testing will allow us to see if the trend continues and if it is significantly different from what other organic farmers are achieving, but it looks as though we are definitely building organic matter for the future. This is important for the quality and health of future Standard Process crops and, ultimately, supplements.

In a summary of the study, the university stated, “Carbon is the backbone of life and is the currency that plants and the soil food web use to cycle nutrients and energy throughout the soil.” It feels pretty good to know that Standard Process is farming with a strong and healthy “backbone”!

As talk intensifies about rewarding farmers for carbon (carbon credits), it will be more important for soil scientists to develop reliable methods of testing soil for carbon. As reported in Modern Farmer magazine, “Measuring the actual amount of carbon sequestered in soil and plants is a costly and inexact science, which is one reason that farmbased approaches haven’t been widely accepted by carbon credit programs yet.”4

Standard Process is very pleased to participate with agricultural universities that are working to develop reliable carbon testing and to have the opportunity to highlight how our organic practices are creating a healthy soil environment. Scientific reinforcement of what just feels right is a nice bonus.

  1. 1. “Understanding Soil Microbes and Nutrient Recycling,” Ohioline Ohio State University Extension, accessed January 4, 2017, http://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/SAG-16.
  2. 2. Christine Jones, interview by Tracy Frisch (“SOS: Save Our Soils”), Acres 45, no. 3 (2015).
  3. 3. “The Farming Systems Trial 30-Year Report,” Rodale InstituteTM, accessed January 11, 2017, http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/farming-systems-trial-30-year-report.
  4. 4. Brian Barth, “Farmers Are Capitalizing on Carbon Sequestration: How Much is Your Carbon-Rich Soil Worth?” in Modern Farmer: April 6, 2016.

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