Monthly Archives: May 2018

Can Dirt Save the Earth?

Agriculture could pull carbon out of the air and into the soil — but it would mean a whole new way of thinking about how to tend the land.

When John Wick and his wife, Peggy Rathmann, bought their ranch in Marin County, Calif., in 1998, it was mostly because they needed more space. Rathmann is an acclaimed children’s book author — “Officer Buckle and Gloria” won a Caldecott Medal in 1996 — and their apartment in San Francisco had become cluttered with her illustrations. They picked out the 540-acre ranch in Nicasio mostly for its large barn, which they planned to remake into a spacious studio. Wick, a former construction foreman — they met when he oversaw a renovation of her bathroom — was eager to tackle the project. He knew the area well, having grown up one town away, in Woodacre, where he had what he describes as a “free-range” childhood: little supervision and lots of biking, rope-swinging and playing in the area’s fields and glens.

The couple quickly settled into their bucolic new surroundings. Wick began fixing leaks in the barn. Rathmann loved watching the many animals, including ravens, deer and the occasional gopher, from the large porch. She even trained the resident towhees, small brown birds, to eat seed from her hand. So smitten were they with the wildlife, in fact, that they decided to return their ranch to a wilder state. For nearly a century, this had been dairy country, and the rounded, coastal hills were terraced from decades of grazing. Wick and Rathmann would often come home and find, to their annoyance, cows standing on their porch. The first step they took toward what they imagined would be a more pristine state was to revoke the access enjoyed by the rancher whose cows wandered their property.

Within months of the herd’s departure, the landscape began to change. Brush encroached on meadow. Dried-out, uneaten grass hindered new growth. A mysterious disease struck their oak trees. The land seemed to be losing its vitality. “Our vision of wilderness was failing,” Wick told me recently. “Our naïve idea was not working out so well.”

Wick was especially bothered by the advance of a prickly, yellow-flowered invasive weed called the woolly distaff thistle. He pulled it, mowed it, doused it with herbicides. But the distaff kept moving into what had been pasture. He thought about renting goats to eat the weeds and brush, but they were too expensive. He even considered introducing wild elk, but the bureaucratic hurdles seemed too onerous.

Then Wick and Rathmann met a rangeland ecologist named Jeff Creque. Instead of fighting against what you dislike, Creque suggested, focus on cultivating what you want. Squeeze out weeds by fostering conditions that favor grasses. Creque, who spent 25 years as an organic-pear-and-apple farmer in Northern California before earning a Ph.D. in rangeland ecology, also recommended that they bring back the cows. Grasslands and grazing animals, he pointed out, had evolved together. Unlike trees, grasses don’t shed their leaves at the end of the growing season; they depend on animals for defoliation and the recycling of nutrients. The manure and urine from grazing animals fuels healthy growth. If done right, Creque said, grazing could be restorative.

This view ran counter to a lot of conservationist thought, as well as a great deal of evidence. Grazing has been blamed for turning vast swaths of the world into deserts. But from Creque’s perspective, how you graze makes all the difference. If the ruminants move like wild buffalo, in dense herds, never staying in one place for too long, the land benefits from the momentary disturbance. If you simply let them loose and then round them up a few months later — often called the “Columbus method” — your land is more likely to end up hard-packed and barren.

Wick was persuaded. He began preparing for the cows’ return. He dug wells for water, pounded in steel posts and strung nonbarbed wire. He even bought a molasses lick to supplement the animals’ diet of dry thatch. He didn’t want medicated livestock excreting drugs that might harm the worms and insects living in his soil — most cows are routinely dewormed — so he tracked down a herd of untreated cows and borrowed them for the summer of 2005.

The cows beat back the encroaching brush. Within weeks of their arrival, new and different kinds of grass began sprouting. Shallow-rooted annuals, which die once they’re chewed on, gave way to deep-rooted perennials, which can recover after moderate grazing. By summer’s end, the cows, which had arrived shaggy and wild-eyed after a winter spent near the sea, were fat with shiny coats. When Wick returned the herd to its owner that fall, collectively it had gained about 50,000 pounds. Wick needed to take an extra trip with his trailer to cart the cows away. That struck him as remarkable. The land seemed richer than before, the grass lusher. Meadowlarks and other animals were more abundant. Where had that additional truckload of animal flesh come from?

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Originally published on the New York Times Magazine.


Evergreen Agriculture: rethinking modern farming


The Evergreen Agriculture Partnership was launched in 2009 to build the capacity of smallholder farmers to integrate trees in their cropping systems in order to increase productivity and incomes, while making farming systems more resilient in the context of climate change.

How is Evergreen Agriculture different to agroforestry?

Evergreen Agriculture re-branded what had been known as ‘tree-crop intercropping’. Agroforestry has too often been considered a type of forestry and the agricultural community has tended to ignore the potential of trees when grown in association with crops. But when grown among crops and properly managed, trees provide a source of biofertilisers, reduce temperatures, conserve rainwater in the soil, and produce abundant wood for cooking fuel and construction and nutritious fodder for livestock.

Evergreen Agriculture is a type of more intensive farming that integrates trees into crop and livestock production systems, to sustain a green cover on the land throughout the year. It is a matter of choosing and incorporating the right kinds of trees with crops, and managing them for optimal benefits. There are three main types of Evergreen Agriculture: farmer managed natural regeneration (farmers select trees that come up naturally in their cropland), conservation agriculture (zero tillage) with trees, and incorporating trees within conventional agriculture.

What are the main obstacles and drivers of success for this initiative?

Evergreen Agriculture is an under-appreciated but truly ecological approach. It is all the more relevant when climate change endangers world food security and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. The main challenges are conventional attitudes and technical constraints. Models of ‘modern’ agriculture typically promote a trend toward monoculture, which goes in the opposite direction to an ecologically-sane agriculture for the future.

How can the approach be scaled up and what support will be needed?

About 1.2 million farmers in Niger have established Evergreen Agriculture systems across 5 million ha of farmland. Evergreen Agriculture is also practised in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Senegal and Zambia, amongst others. Inspired by these successes, many international and national organisations, NGOs and governments are now working to scale-up Evergreen Agriculture systems. The research community is working to fill knowledge gaps and provide practical recommendations for this. Due to climate change, the world is realising that it needs to rethink how agriculture will be practised in the future. The most favourable option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture is to sequester much more carbon in agricultural systems, and the expansion of trees on farms is an obvious option to do this while achieving production, profit and environmental co-benefits.

Can Evergreen Agriculture increase food and nutrition security?

Food security is a major challenge since climate change is already affecting farmers across the world. Building more climate-resilient farming systems is key to overcoming this challenge. This is why the Evergreen Agriculture Partnership is deeply engaged in creating ‘climate smart agriculture’. Recently the World Agroforestry Centre hosted a workshop in Nairobi, gathering together the African Union, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, major development NGOs and many other organisations working in Africa, as well as country representatives. This meeting conceived an African Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, with a target of enabling 25 million African farmers to practise climate smart agriculture by 2025. I am a strong believer in the importance of creating a continent-wide movement to achieve this ambitious target and see that Evergreen Agriculture contributes to a more sustainable future for the entire planet.

Originally published on the Spore Website.



Uganda will use trees on farms to meet national biodiversity targets

Trees on farms in Uganda are the focus of a new strategy aimed at increasing biodiversity on agricultural land

Expansion of agriculture is one of the main drivers of global deforestation and loss of habitat. Like many other countries in the world, Uganda has experienced severe deforestation, with forest cover declining by nearly 60 percent from about 5 million hectares in 1990 to just under 2 million in 2015.

While the country is now making progress in conserving the remaining state-owned forest areas, tree cover on private land continues to decline at an alarming rate. Seemingly in contradiction, Uganda’s biodiversity, which relies on trees for its very survival, forms the backbone of a flourishing tourism industry that is a major contributor to the economy. Yet without the trees on farms and in privately-owned forests that allow a wide diversity of animals and plants to flourish and spread outside protected areas, this rich heritage is under grave threat, with associated ramifications not only for tourism.

The nations of the world have committed to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Part of this commitment is to ensure that benefits from conserving biodiversity are equitably shared. Uganda ratified the convention in 1993 and has since put in place mechanisms for implementation, including legislation and a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. One of the key instruments is sustainable management of entire landscapes, including agricultural areas, which also supports the country’s commitments to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

To support Uganda in its efforts, the country was selected to take part in a global project supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety through the International Climate Initiative. The project, Harnessing the Potential of Trees on Farms for Meeting National and Global Biodiversity Targets, also includes Costa Rica, Honduras, Indonesia, Peru and Rwanda.

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Originally published on the ICRAF site.

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