Plants and Carbon

By Connor Newman

When people think about saving the environment and working toward doing something about climate change, it’s pretty normal to think things like – switch to paper straws, buy electric and save gas, support using solar power. With 150 million tons of single-use plastic being produced every year and fossil fuels being burned at unprecedented rates, these are of course noble undertakings. However, many do not consider the hardest working climate stabilizing organisms on our planet – plants.

How plants use carbon affects their response to climate change - Tech  Explorist

Plants clean the air we breathe, sequester carbon, and dominate the small water cycles that exist over land masses, just by doing what they do. When a plant photosynthesizes carbon dioxide is actually pulled out of the atmosphere, the carbon is turned into sugar and that nasty “dioxide” is turned into just plain old O2, as in the kind that we breathe. Not only is this process not part of a tax payer funded initiative, nor does it have to balance the dichotomy of being extremely resource intensive to set up for its “sustainable” end goal, but it has literally been solar-powered since the dawn of time

So where does the carbon go?

It gets sequestered in a more complex, sustainable, and sophisticated way than any scientist or team of engineers have been able to even approach. Carbon is the only element on the periodic table to get its own dedicated branch of chemistry, for good reason. All life on this planet is carbon-based. So not only is the plant made of carbon, but some of that carbon is transferred to the grazing animal that eats it, then to the wolf, then the vultures, then the beetles, earthworms, and microorganisms. Some of the carbon that the plant turns into sugar – actually about 40% – is pushed out through the roots and used to feed beneficial consortiums of bacteria and even fungi.

Some astute biology students may even be thinking “ah, but what about respiration? Where does that CO2 go?”

It’s true, plants do respire and produce about as much CO2 as they break down (at least in the sense of a balanced chemical equation). To be more precise, plant roots do the respiring and that CO2 is released into the soil. Healthy soil, which is about 25% water, actually dissolves that CO2 into compounds like carbonic acid – key mechanisms for braking down solid rock and creating even more healthy soil. As it turns out, the soil is actually the key to the whole carbon sequestration thing. While carbon may remain in an organism for a time – a tremendous amount of carbon might be “sequestered” in an oak tree for a couple of centuries – it is the carbon content in the soil that gets really exciting. Something like 3100 gigatons (3100 billion metric tons) of carbon exists in land ecosystems and about 80% of that is found in the soil. Unfortunately, this enormous store of sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared and the land is tilled, claiming about a third of total COemissions.

What’s the solution?

The truth is, there is no silver bullet. Reducing consumption of fossil fuel-intensive plastics and transportation will of course help, but simply letting the plants grow and do their thing is a powerful step forward. Look for ways to support plant growth around your own home and workplace – keep in mind that the more flowers, bushes, and trees there are, the less grass there is to mow! Support your local park and green spaces and talk to your local extension agent (yes, even Charlotte has an extension office) and find out how to get involved in community gardens and wetland planting initiatives. Make your voice heard by knowing who supports greening land and who just can’t get enough of the Carolina red clay. Don’t forget about those of us that grow plants as a way of life! Support farms, markets, ranchers, and co-ops that encourage no-till, intercropping techniques, and don’t leave their soil bare. There are powerful ways to get involved beyond using paper straws and buying an electric car.

We Have Chicken!

You may have noticed that we’ve got chicken available on our website now!  It has been the best chicken I personally have ever tasted (but I’m a little biased).  I wanted to take a few paragraphs and talk about our chicken operation and tell you why our chicken is so good.  

All our chickens are pastured, which simply means that they are raised outside on pasture for their entire life, except for the first two weeks or so.  Those first two weeks are when they need a lot of attention from their mama hen, so we have to provide that attention in the form of protection from the elements, warmth, and easy access to food and water.  After that, we open up the portable brooder shed and they spend the rest of their life on pasture.  We do this because it is just the right thing to do for the chicken’s well being.  The chickens have space to roam around and express their natural behaviors, eat bugs, lay in the sun, etc.  All things that chickens raised in a modern industrial farm will never get to do.  

One of our main tenants of farming is that we are regenerating the land, so, therefore, we also follow a practice called “rotational grazing”.  We move the chicken’s shelters to a fresh spot of pasture every single day.  The chickens prefer to stay near their shelters because that is where the bulk of their impact is.  Since we move them every day, no part of our pasture ever has so much impact that it doesn’t recover quickly, and the manure left behind by the chickens actually makes that ground more fertile than before they arrived.  They show up, eat the grass, bugs, etc., and leave behind a spot of ground that is primed to see an explosion of new growth.  We are actually planning our crop rotations based on where the chickens were the season prior. 

The other huge benefit of rotational grazing is that our chickens are much healthier.  They are not exposed to their own manure constantly like they would be in the modern industrial system.  This means our chickens just don’t get sick except for the very rare case.  Because of this, we never give our chickens any kind of medication (antibiotic or otherwise), and we don’t have them vaccinated for anything.  The sunshine and fresh air help a lot too!     

I think that you can really tell from the quality of the meat that these chickens had a great life.  Just like how grass fed beef has more flavor and less fat than feedlot beef, pastured chicken is the same.

I’ve got so much more I want to share on this topic (like what a Freedom Ranger is!) but that will have to wait for future newsletters.  For now, I’ll challenge you to check out “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts” which is a quick YouTube video about one of the farms that we are mimicking.  Will Harris and his family on White Oaks Pasture have a great story about how they are healing the land and growing fantastic food in a clean and humane manner.  

Thanks again for supporting our farm!  Without people like you, Charlotte would just have one more shopping center and the nature and history of this place would be lost forever.  

Good Bug, Bad Bug

By Farmer Connor

From an ecologist’s standpoint, each part of an ecosystem serves its purpose and, ideally, ought to be left to fill its niche – as Aldo Leopold put it, “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”. The entomologist, too, will be able to fill you in on all of the details for each of the probable dozens of species living within a few steps of your back door. The farmer and gardener, on the other hand, has long had a different view on insects and the roles they play. Since the days of dusting crops with arsenic, to modern-day RNA rewriting sprays, the general idea has been “the only good bug is a dead bug”. Other than honey bees and writing spiders, this was often my viewpoint as well. I am no stranger to the cringe factor when looking over plants and finding insects, regardless of what they were and assuming they were up to no good. The farmer and gardener are not hard sells on any number of methods promising to drop the hammer on the creepy crawlies that are methodically laying waste to all of their hard work. Often a full season of blood sweat and tears put into the land, only to watch cutworms wriggle under freshly shucked corn, or aphids dining on long-awaited strawberries. 

That being said, we all know that there are good bugs out there – honey bees, garden spiders, butterflies, and even the rolly pollies that are so important for breaking down leaf litter and entertaining kids – but how does the big picture really weigh out? When a broad-spectrum treatment is used, are we sacrificing a few to save the many, or is it the other way around? Many would be surprised to learn that most experts agree that for every one species of detrimental insect, there are another 400 species that act in beneficial roles, with some estimates putting the ratio closer to one pest to 3,000 beneficials. Another interesting fact is that most pest species are not particularly well equipped to defend themselves and are, in nature, typically found in isolation and relatively small numbers due to a wide array of well-equipped predators. A grasshopper, for instance, may be bad news for young plants, but his enemies in a healthy ecosystem might include spiders, wasps, ants, praying mantis, snakes, birds, frogs, bats and those are just a few potential foes. However, many of these natural bug hunters disappear overnight when faced with broad-spectrum pesticides, tilled earth and the simplification of habitat that comes with everyday tasks like mowing and weed eating. Now, having said all of that, I can almost feel eyes rolling with the notion of just letting nature take over, tossing vegetable seeds out and praying that natural selection picks tomatoes and carrots over nutsedge and pigweed (not likely) and that spiders and wasps take care of all of the hornworms and potato beetles. This is not what I’m suggesting and I myself have followed through on similar experiments and they have proven, for the most part, to be miserable failures. However, it also doesn’t make sense to take a sledgehammer to your car for every rattle and whine. Nature really does have a pretty good thing going and has been at it for a while and with a little time and effort spent, we can probably learn to keep more and more pieces intact, while still achieving what we set out to do. “The eye cannot say of the hand, I have no need of thee nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you” suggests that intelligent tinkerers have been paying heed to intuitively important pieces for longer than science has been telling us what they’re for.

My final thoughts? Don’t take an economic loss on your farm, or in your garden for fear of disrupting nature – you already disrupted nature when you cleared land to plant an artificial landscape. What I would suggest though, is to make use of your extension office agents, the public library and the amazing technology that we all carry around in our pockets to learn how the pieces go together and which you can rearrange, or remove altogether with as little time, money and effort spent as possible. You’re still the steward of your land, but who turns away good help when they can get it for the price of a little research and consideration?