Kristin Ohlson is an independent journalist and author of the book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet. A prolific writer, her articles have been published all over the place. Currently, Kristin is working on a book about two of our favorite things here at Rootstock: Cooperation, and nature! Better yet, she’s writing about cooperation in nature.
On this episode…
Kristin talks about what it was that got her interested in soil in the first place, and details her journey from knowing very little about the relationship between carbon, plants, microorganisms and soil, to writing an entire book about it. Even armed with all of this knowledge, Kristin talks about how she continues to be amazed by the way nature is so flawlessly designed to keep its ecosystems thriving–if only we would let it.
Tune in to hear about…
- How are farmers are really “citizen scientists”
- “Carbon farming” and what that means
- How plants leak what Kristin calls “carbon fuel” to one another and what that does for the soil around them
- How many billion tons of carbon scientists estimate are released from the soil due to human activity (brace yourselves…)
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Kristin Ohlson
Air Date: September 17, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am so delighted to be here today with Kristin Ohlson, who is a freelance journalist and author of the book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, which looks at the work of pioneering scientists and agriculturalists to develop land management practices that respect nature and heal landscapes. In other words, today we are going to look at the world under our feet! Kristin, welcome.
KRISTIN OHLSON: Thank you, Theresa. It’s so great to talk to you.
TM: You too. And I also know you’re from Portland, and so am I, so we Portlanders, we like to talk about anything to do, I think, with dirt. But you know, underground, the world under our feet, our relationship with the soil. This is your most recent book, and it’s one of several, isn’t it, Kristin?
KO: Yes, I do have a couple of other books and I’m working on another one right now, sort of taking off from the soil book and talking more generally about cooperation in nature.
TM: Wow, Kristin, that is very different. So this begs the question, how did soil get on your agenda?
KO: Ha ha! Well, soil has sort of always been on my agenda, in one sense. I mean, I come from a family that was very into gardening and very into agriculture. I grew up in the Sacramento Valley, and there was never a trip that my parents and I went on—you know, car trips around California—where we didn’t stop and look at somebody’s garden or look at the crops that were growing in the fields. And my father was involved with agriculture; my grandparents were farmers. So I always, I grew up thinking a lot about food and how it was grown, and feeling that it was so beautiful. I just loved looking at how things were grown.
And about seven years ago, I had written an article for Gourmet magazine about a chef in Cleveland who was really one of those first chefs, back in the ’80s, to start featuring local and organic food in his restaurant. He was really a pioneer, and he sort of single-handedly started to rebuild the pipeline between small, local farms and restaurants. And anyway, so I had done a profile about him for Gourmet magazine, and we sort of stayed in touch because he was such an interesting guy and I was so interested in a lot of the things that he was involved in. And one day I called him up and said, “Well, what’s going on in the world of food? What do I want to write about right now?”
And he said, “Carbon farming. That’s what all these progressive farmers are talking about. They’re talking about a kind of agriculture that puts more carbon into the soil than it releases.”
And I was just blown away by that. I mean, I had never thought before about the connection between agriculture and carbon, the plants growing and carbon. But it immediately seemed that that could be a huge development if we could embrace it. If we could embrace a kind of agriculture that took more carbon out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil and kept it there, that it could be a huge gain as we try to understand and grapple with our climate problem. So I sort of took off from there.
And at first, you know, it was really interesting because I started sort of fishing around looking for scientists that were studying this, scientists who were involved in this. And there were a couple, but right away, one of the scientists that I approached said, “Really, you need to talk to the farmers, because they are so far ahead of this than the science is. Science is not paying attention to this, and these farmers are.” So—
TM: Farmer as scientist!
KO: I think farmers are fabulous citizen-scientists. You know, their whole living depends upon how they observe and interpret nature.
TM: I think our listeners maybe can understand now why you called this The Soil Will Save Us. And you’re basically saying that you’ve discovered that farming can sequester carbon. So tell us a little bit more about what you learned about carbon farming.
KO: Well, when I first started doing the book, I didn’t really have any understanding whatsoever of how farming could put more carbon into the soil. And I didn’t even understand that carbon went into the soil. I knew that plants conducted photosynthesis and that they removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that they used that carbon dioxide for their own needs—to grow fruit and trunks and leaves and stems and all that. But probably the most staggering thing that I found out right away was that plants share that carbon. So they make this carbon fluid—and I often call it a carbon fuel, because that’s what it is for them.
So they make this carbon fuel, and up to 50 percent and sometimes more of that carbon fuel is leaked out through their roots. And you think, you know, plants are working so hard to make this carbon fuel, why are they leaking it out? Well, they’re leaking it very strategically to the community of microorganisms that live around plants. You know, I had always heard people talk about “the soil is alive, the soil is alive.” And when they said that, I would always think they meant that it had worms in it or that it had little beetles in it or that it had little rodents living in it, and stuff like that. So it was a huge revelation for me to discover that there are microorganisms in the soil. Some scientists have estimated that there are billions in a teaspoon of soil, of these microorganisms. Some of these microorganisms that are in the soil are fungal, and the body of the fungi are these long silken threads called hyphae, and that when we set a foot down in the forest, under each of our feet there are 300 miles of these fungal hyphae. So—
KO: I know, I know, it’s just utterly mind-blowing. But around all plants, there is this incredibly complex and active ecosystem of bacteria and fungi and protozoa and all these things that live in the soil around the plant. And the plant is strategically feeding these things, these living things in the soil. It’s strategically sharing its carbon fuel with them in exchange for services that those microorganisms provide to the plant.
So some of those services are mineral nutrients. You know, the fungi and the bacteria can bring minerals that plants can’t access to the plants, make them available to the plants. Some of the bacteria that are in the soil—and this is something that a lot of people know—but there are bacteria living in the soil that cooperate with the roots of the plant to fix nitrogen in the soil. So before we had chemical fertilizers, nitrogen fertilizers, the only way that plants got nitrogen, which is hugely important to their growth, hugely important—nitrogen is plentiful in the atmosphere, but the only way that plants can accept it is either from a lightning strike, which converts that nitrogen into a form that plants can use, or from these bacteria that live in the soil and they sort of set up shop in the roots of the plants and convert nitrogen into the form that the plants can use.
So there are all these services that the microorganisms, the ecosystem under the soil… You know, I often think of it, it’s like that’s the magic kingdom. It’s like this dark netherworld where, really, everything that matters to us above the ground is happening.
TM: Well, carbon is part of soil. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere—
KO: And there’s not enough in the soil.
TM: There’s not enough in the soil.
KO: There’s not enough in the soil. So yeah, you know, one of the things that I found when I worked on the book is that humans have been releasing carbon from the soil ever since we started agriculture. You know, we started agriculture some 12,000 years ago, and probably even before then humans were adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning, by starting fires so that we could chase game. But when agriculture got going, people really did start to clear vast amounts of land by burning. And there were other things that came with agriculture that also released the carbon that was in the soil. And the carbon gets in the soil, the carbon got in the soil originally through what I was talking about before: through the roots of plants. Plants feed that carbon fuel to microorganisms that live in the soil, and those microorganisms use that carbon fuel for their own growth. And it just sort of builds up in the soil through that ecosystem of living things that live around the plants.
So that’s how the carbon got there to begin with. And then humans started to release that carbon from the soil through a number of ways. One of the main ways that we release carbon from the soil is by tilling, when we open up the soil, when we strip away those plants that are growing on the surface of the soil—which is completely unnatural, you know. In nature, you hardly ever have bare soil. Nature always wants that thick cloak of vegetation on top of the soil, because that’s a relationship that’s been in place for millions and millions of years, that relationship between plants and the soil microorganisms. So it’s unnatural to have soil that’s not covered by vegetation.
So one of the ways that we release that carbon from the soil is we remove the vegetation and we open up the earth. And when we open up the earth, we’re exposing those microorganisms in the soil to oxygen and they consume, they start to consume at a faster rate, that carbon that’s stuck in the soil, that’s fixed in the soil. And it releases that stored carbon to the atmosphere and it goes up and it becomes carbon dioxide. So that’s how we add to the carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere.
TM: Yeah, and we lose it from our soil.
KO: We lose it from the soil. So scientists have estimated that 80 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been released from the earth’s soil by human activity.
TM: Wow! You know, here in the Midwest where I am right now, we lose two bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn that we grow. And I’m assuming that in those two bushels of soil there’s plenty of carbon that goes down the Mississippi River and it dumps off into the dead zone there.
KO: Right, yeah. Yeah, in the course of doing this book, as I said, I was not only talking to scientists, I was talking to farmers, brilliant, brilliant farmers who have figured out a lot of this stuff on their own. They realized that their lands were not resilient enough, that their businesses were failing or in danger of failure because their lands weren’t resilient, and their lands especially weren’t resilient given the really difficult weather extremes that people all over the country are facing. The scientists who had talked about global warming always said that it wouldn’t be just warming—it would also be climate weirding. So you would have weird cold spells and weird downpours and weird droughts. And that’s what not just farmers but people all over the world are experiencing.
So some of the farmers that are in my book started to figure out very early, and before the science was there to back them up, that if they changed certain practices that their lands would be more resilient. So one of the main farmers that I wrote about in my book is a man named Gabe Brown, and he’s a farmer in North Dakota. And not long after he had his farm, he realized that when he tilled the soil, which is so much drier and they don’t get a lot of rain there, so he realized that if he was going to keep all the moisture that fell into his soil, he needed to stop tilling. So he went no-till really early. So his land was starting to get healthier, but then he was hit by four years of just really terrible, weird weather. You know, a hail one year, a late frost one year, a drought one year, something else the fourth year. So for four years in a row he could not harvest his crops. He just—
TM: Oh my!
KO: He just had a big mess on his hands. So he started doing some things without even realizing the kind of impact he was having on the land. So one of the things that he did was he didn’t want to spend money on heavy machinery, so he started having his cattle go into his ruined fields and having them clean up the mess that was left. He couldn’t harvest the crop, but he didn’t want to also go in there with the heavy machinery and remove all the crop residue, so he had his animals do it.
TM: Ah, no waste!
KO: No waste, and also those animals have a really beneficial impact on the land, if they’re grazed through there properly—if they’re not grazed through and stay there so long that they kill the grass, that they actually make the land so much healthier. They chop up the surface a little bit so the rain can get in easier; they poop and pee on it, and that delivers valuable nutrients and microbes to the land; they stomp down some of that residue. So they have a good impact on the land if they’re just cycled through in a timely manner.
So anyway, he went no-till, he started having his animals go in and clean up his residue, and he did start to plant cover crops. And he also stopped using all the chemicals that he used to use, just because he was in danger of losing the farm—he didn’t have money to spend on the chemicals that he used to use. And anyway, you know, it just had this marvelous outcome where all of a sudden he started to realize that his land had returned to health, and the land of the farms around him that were still doing things the old way were still struggling with these weather extremes. And on his land, the soil had gotten amazingly friable.
One of the things that was so amazing when I was there visiting him, he handed me this long metal rod that he was walking around and sort of pointing things out with that. And first he showed me that he could push this long metal rod, which is about three feet long, straight down into the soil. And I thought, well, yeah, he’s got really big strong arms, and I’m a writer—I’ve got skinny, weak writer arms. But I could also take that rod and push it straight down to my knuckles. That’s how incredibly friable that soil was.
So it’s farmers like him who really have been changing everybody’s minds on what can happen on a farm. I think that the way people used to look at things was, well, we can either have a really healthy farm, a really healthy organic farm, or we can have a profitable farm. You know, we can’t have both. To have a profitable farm you have to till and you have to spray chemicals and you have to do all that. And he was showing that, you know, he wound up showing that no, that’s not the case. You can have a really profitable, successful farm and have it a really healthy farm that nature, like the birds and the insects and the other animals that he now sees on his farm, that he welcomes on his farm, have multiplied vastly because it’s a really healthy ecosystem.
TM: Well, that is so exciting. And his name was Gabe Brown, you said.
KO: Yeah, google Gabe Brown and “regenerative agriculture.” I mean, that gospel has spread, it’s spreading around the world, and there are so many farmers doing really exciting things. And for me it’s just that there is a lot of cooperation that exists in nature, and we have to cooperate with nature. And when we do, when we do cooperate with nature, we find that life is not a zero-sum game. It’s not like what we take, the rest of nature loses. We can have activities and take from the natural world, and at the same time be giving to the natural world. We can, through our farming, turn really degraded landscapes back into beautiful, healthy, functioning landscapes.
TM: If you are just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Kristin Ohlson, a freelance journalist and author of the book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, and we are talking about farmer as citizen-scientist. And it’s so exciting to know and it’s so believable when you hear that the farmers are using techniques on how to deal with this changing, you called it “wacky weather,” I think, in your book. And I kind of agree with you, we do have some wacky weather. I know that you’re in Portland right now and there are fires all around your city.
But, you know, I wanted to ask you, Kristin, you must have had a lot of fun interviewing a number of farmers. I bet you interviewed a bunch, didn’t you?
KO: Yeah, I’ve talked to—I have talked to and continue to talk to a lot of farmers. I just find, they have this living system, these living things that they’re in charge of, and I just find their work so fascinating. And creative—infinitely creative! The kinds of solutions that farmers are coming up with all the time are just really exciting.
And I think, you know, oftentimes people in cities put down farmers because big agriculture, it’s true, does not have a good impact on the rest of the ecosystem. I mean, it doesn’t even produce very good food, in my opinion. But I think that we all have to understand that farmers are just like the rest of us: they don’t want to live and work in a toxic environment. They want to be able to contribute to the good things that are going on in the world. I think that for years and years, for decades, our universities and our government have been pushing farmers to do things that were not healthy for the planet. And it’s really exciting to see so many farmers breaking away from that approach and really figuring out how to farm and raise food with nature in mind.
TM: Well, I just want to point out to our listeners that that was one of the charming things I found about your book, because you were telling stories about farmers telling you stories. And I’m interested in the title of your book, as we look at “How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet.” Well, I thought, foodies? What do they have to do with it?
KO: Well, foodies have a lot to do with it. I mean, and all of us are sort of foodies, most of us. I think more and more, especially as we understand better that there’s a big difference for our health and for every single part of our lives, what we eat. What we eat matters a lot. It’s not even just the problem that a lot of industrial foods that come out of corporate kitchens have toxins and poisons in them. It’s just that if we put any value on our lives at all, it behooves us to eat the very best food.
So foodies, meaning the vast numbers of people who are paying more and more attention to what goes into our mouths, the kinds of foods that we eat, foodies exert a lot of pressure on the food system. One of those changes that’s occurred—and there are a lot of changes. People are more and more looking for organic foods in their grocery store. People are more and more looking for not just produce and meats and dairy from farms that are called organic—they want to know something about those farms. They want to know something about how those farmers do things. People are being much more particular and really eager to find the best food. And so one not-so-small example of that is grass-fed beef. We know, the science has been showing steadily, that meat that comes from grass-fed animals is healthier.
TM: And milk.
KO: Absolutely. Meat and milk and butter and other dairy products that come from grass-fed animals has all these health benefits. When that first came out as an idea, there were a lot of ranchers that were resisting. You know, “That’s how my father did it, that’s how my grandfather did it—I’m not going back to that.” Well, lo and behold, many of them are, because there is this fabulous thing called consumer demand, you know, and consumers have been demanding more and more of that good grass-fed meat and dairy.
So foodies can exert a huge amount of pressure on the food system. I mean, just look at the growth of farmers’ markets. You know, when farmers’ markets first started out, that was just like a little fluke, and they just have been growing like crazy. People want to come and make sure that their food is fresh. They want to know how people are growing it. They want to have a relationship with their farmer. These are all wonderful things.
TM: So, Kristin, tell me, where do you think we’re going as a society? You have put forward a solution, and one that seems very, very tangible, very doable. What do you think the future is for trying to adopt that more worldwide, and what is your vision for how this might work through the world and become more adopted?
KO: I think that one of the things that, the best things about this movement, and why I’m so confident that it’s going to take off—and that it already has taken off, but that it’s going to have a major impact on our world—is that farmers who are doing this are more successful than farmers who don’t. Because if you realize that under the whole regimen of tillage and chemicals and fungicides and herbicides and all of those things are ways of just trying to beat nature back—and they’re very expensive ways of trying to beat nature back. Well, if you’re not doing that anymore, if you’re working with nature instead of against nature, and you’re not pissing away all this money on tools to beat back nature, then you could be much more successful with your farming.
Your farming might look a little different. Certainly the farms that do this kind of agriculture look messier—you know, they’re not in neat rows with bare soil between them. There’s a lot of stuff going on there, and sometimes the farmers change and add businesses that they might not have thought about before. You know, they might add in a rotation of goats over their field, or a rotation of chickens over their field. But the thing about it is that farmers can be really successful using this method, and they can go back to a kind of farming that inspired them in the first place to get into farming. You know, mostly farmers love their land. They love their land, they love seeing things grow. They don’t want to put on hazmat suits and spray.
So I think that that’s the greatest single factor in propelling this forward: that farmers can be successful at doing this. The big losers for regenerative agriculture are the big chemical companies and the big industrial ag companies. If people are learning how to farm, working with nature, and getting the same kind of results by understanding nature that they used to get from big heavy machines and spraying chemicals, then that’s a big loss for those big agribusinesses.
So that really is the thing that’s propelling this movement, is that farmers, on their own land, are determining, hey, I can do this a better way. And now I can learn how to do it a better way, because there are other farmers, like Gabe Brown, or there’s the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is holding educational fora and putting out videos to show me how to do it differently. So this really is a grassroots revolution.
TM: Well, that’s a lovely way to describe it, a grassroots revolution. And I am so with you on this. I think it’s exciting. And I’m also very grateful that you are confirming what those of us in the organic agriculture already know, and that is when conventional tells the public and the world that we don’t get the same results and we can’t feel the world and we don’t have the same quantities and volume that they can produce, that that’s not correct. I think that organic agriculture, in my world, we do and always have put the soil first, and then regenerative, or like I like to say, “agro-ecology,” with not just the same results in yield, but also better results on the environment and on the butterflies and the bees and all the critters, too, that are out there. Kristin, thank you so much for joining us today.
KO: It was really great to talk to you, Theresa.
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