Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 009: CARBON FARMING
JARED BLUMENFELD: This is Jared Blumenfeld. Welcome to Podship Earth. This week, we discover how farming can literally save the planet. It's all about the soil under our feet and how it can help absorb excess carbon in the atmosphere. We'll hear about how carbon farming practices also allow more water to percolate into the soil, resulting in big increases in the quality and amount of food we can grow. Later in the show, we visit Dino Giacomazzi and his 104 year-old grandma
Lillia on their 125 year-old farm in California’s Central Valley. What's the key to living a hundred years?
Speaker 3: Well, one thing is I have olive oil.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Olive oil. I love olive oil. What do you do with it?
LILIA GIACOMAZZI: Well, I cook with it all the time.
JARED BLUMENFELD: We began with John Wick and his wife Peggy Rathman, who in 1998 purchased 540 acres of grazing land in West Marin, California. They spent the next 20 years becoming farmers, carbon farmers, and in the process, they invested $12,000,000 and founded the Marin Carbon Project to help the rest of the planet understand the soil science needed to bring the climate back into healthy alignment. When John moved onto the land, he and his wife, Peggy, wanted to help heal the grazing pastures so they evicted the cows and hoped for the best. I sat down with John and his carbon advisor at Calla Ostrander to get the low down.
JOHN WICK: We had some assumptions that proved to be wrong, one that nature would do better without us. And we had this uninformed idea that nature would heal itself if we got out of its way. And we had this vision of wilderness.
JARED BLUMENFELD: When you came into this, did you know what you were getting into?
JOHN WICK: No, not at all.
CALLA OSTRANDER: I think what's so interesting is what you learned so changed your perspective and approach and maybe relationship with that landscape.
JOHN WICK: Yeah, it's true. My approach to managing this landscape made everything worse. You know, I am not afraid of hard work. I have a tendency to use equipment and technology and so as the weeds increased, and the brush increased, we tried everything to hold it at bay and recover what we'd lost and nothing I was doing worked. And it wasn't until we considered reintroducing living systems into it, like grazing, that we started to get a handle on it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And that's when you started noticing the changes in the health of the soil.
JOHN WICK: That's right. So, on earth, there are several terrestrial systems. There are forest systems. We actually have now an urban system. There are desert systems and tundras, but it turns out that the single largest covered type on earth is grazed rangelands. 3.5 billion hectares of land mass. Range land by definition occurs where there's not adequate water to support a forest, so it's a drier system made up mostly of grass and grass plants. There's up to 40 percent brush and tree cover, but it's mostly grass and on earth grass coevolved with grazing animals. Grass needs to be grazed and we didn't know that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay, so at this point you sold that by returning grazing to your land, the property started to get healthier, the weeds and invasive species began to disappear, and then you and Peggy took this investigation to the next level by going to UC Berkeley and asking them to explain the science behind this recovery. Right?
JOHN WICK: I just think it's very important to understand that this was not random. It wasn't just science for the sake of science. We actually had an observation and we had a scientific theoretical framework, so in 2007 we were able to ask our original question, is my grazing management increasing durable soil carbon?
JARED BLUMENFELD: So just to be clear, when you say durable soil carbon, durable means that the carbon will stay in the soil for a very long time.
CALLA OSTRANDER: So previous thinking was that you did have an increase in soil carbon from a grazing management, but this question was how quickly could it become more durable? How much carbon could we get to stay in the soil? Not to just come right back out again.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, John, you've become an expert in soil health. Maybe you could explain how this entire system works.
JOHN WICK: So, carbon, which is was carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now carbohydrates in plants and there are four pathways where these carbohydrates can now enter soil systems. First, physically they're there in the root tissues which are carbohydrates. All of the carbon and carbohydrates came from the air and nowhere else. I never knew that, and I never thought about it. I assume they probably came in through the roots. It's not that way, and that was actually our question. Does carbon actually flow the other way, and can we build up the soil carbon through management? So atmospheric carbon becomes carbohydrates, becomes plant tissues and roots. And the fourth pathway is this natural accumulation of plant tissues, maneuvers that come onto the surface of the soil and soil systems globally have developed different strategies for this carbon now to be pulled down as the plants and systems need it. So, we have four pathways
where carbon can enter the soil system.
CALLA OSTRANDER: Essentially what they discovered was that you could get carbon into the soil and it could get in to these more durable fractions much more quickly than we thought. We used to think it took hundreds of years to build topsoil and to build soil carbon, and what they discovered was that actually it can form in a very, very little amount of time.
JARED BLUMENFELD: By applying just half an inch of compost to different control groups of range land, the Marin Carbon Project found that the soil radically increased its ability to absorb carbon in a very short amount of time. In America, we throw away 50 percent of all produce, amounting to some 60 million tons of material that could be turned into organic compost and then applied to the soil. Worldwide, we throw away 1.3 billion tons of food. Don't get me wrong. The first goal should be to reduce all that food waste, but anything that is wasted shouldn't go to waste.
In a growing number of cities, there are now curbside collection program for food scraps. In San Francisco, for instance, more than 600 tons of wasted food attend turned into organic compost each day. So, John, given these enormous numbers, what do you think the global impact of applying compost to range lands could be?
JOHN WICK: We actually believe we can stabilize the earth's climate, lower the temperatures, and
increase the resources from which to produce even more solutions for human material cultural needs.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It doesn't really get much more profound than that. Now that you have science and the proof of concept, how have you been working to get carbon farming adopted into the rest of California and beyond?
CALLA OSTRANDER: The Marin carbon project built out an example of what could work within an existing system, so there's already a mass network of conservation districts out on the ground whose sole purpose is to help stop erosion. So, they were smart, and they said, what if we built this concept of carbon farming into those people's work so you could just go out and just be there, and that's what we helped advance.
JOHN WICK: So, it's really critically important to appreciate that all farming is actually carbon farming and farming is the art of transforming atmosphere carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. What we've discovered is there's a version of it that moves it into the soil.
CALLA OSTRANDER: Which makes our farmers our new environmental heroes.
JARED BLUMENFELD: We visit with Dino Giacomazzi, a farmer in the central valley, who's worked out a way of applying carbon farming techniques to row crops like wheat. Cousin David and I traveled to the small town of Hanford in California, San Joaquin Valley to meet up with a fourth- generation farmer, Dino Giacomazzi, and his amazing 104 year-old grandmother Lillia.
LILIA GIACOMAZZI: I was born about twenty miles from here and I've been living here since 1936. So, I’m 104 now.
JARED BLUMENFELD: You look incredible, you really do.
DAVID KAHN: I’ve never met somebody 104.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I don’t think I've ever met anyone over 100. So, tell us about the farm when you grew up here. What was it like?
LILIA GIACOMAZZI: At that time, you grew up in, you didn't have much money, but we were lucky. We had the cows and then the milk and the chickens. And so, we were okay cause we had a lot of our own food and didn’t have to buy a lot of stuff. But you didn’t buy anything unless you needed it. I lived a happy life on the farm. And I had to milk cows, but that was my job to do and it never bothered me because we always had a lot of parties, accordion music, and dancing. And I used to love to dance, dance about four hours straight. And then another thing I ate, I still eat my three meals a day. And then one thing it, I think it's very important if you're healthy to be very active. This ranch is 125 years old, run by the same family. So, Dino now, you’re in the fourth generation?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Fourth, yep.
LILIA GIACOMAZZI: He's a fourth generation.
JARED BLUMENFELD: That must make you very proud.
LILIA GIACOMAZZI: Oh, absolutely. Because without Dino, we wouldn't be having, I don't think that I’d be living here. So, I'm very fortunate that he decided to carry on. He stayed with this. So, we thank God for that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What does it mean to you to be a fourth-generation farmer? Does it feel like a big obligation on your shoulders to keep, keep it going?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: It is a big responsibility, but it’s a responsibility that I proudly take on because, you know, I really value what it is that we do. I mean producing food and taking care of, you know, the natural resources of the planet is a noble venture I think. It's something of value to do and I'm proud that I have been able to make a difference for my family and still be here.
DAVID KAHN: When you were growing up or when you were going to college, did you ever consider that you wouldn't continue the family business and try something else?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: I left the farm just after college and spent 10 years, 13 years actually, off the farm. I was in San Francisco during the first dot com bubble. Kind of waiting for the next one. I got called back to the farm when my father had contracted lymphoma and asked me if I would come back and watch things for him. I kind of fell in love with agriculture and had a very different attitude about agriculture having a left the farm, move to the city and come back. And I'm still here now, 16 years later. When I moved back to the farm, the only way I knew how to work was just be looking into the future, trying to spot a trend, and then start today to work towards meeting that trend when it comes. Right? Otherwise you're sort of left behind.
JARED BLUMENFELD: We're talking about this with your grandma. When she was born, a large percentage of the population was in agriculture. Now you said less than one percent. So, people don't know farmers?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Right.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, but you've really distinguished your career by kind of bringing that knowledge to think about conservation practices. How did that begin?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: So, it's funny, my father, who passed away in 2011, who was a very conservative, you know, very dedicated tenant Rush Limbaugh sort of character, who often complained about, you know, people on welfare and what not. Despite that, he loved to go down to the natural resources conservation service office, you know, once a year to see what kinds of free stuff we could get from the government, right. And, he went down right about the time I came back and signed up for a grant that would pay us $30 an acre, which is, I mean, almost nothing. It's like pennies, to implement a program that would produce less dust in the farming process.
What we discovered was there were some practices that were being used in the Midwest, essentially designed to minimize soil erosion. So, we took some of those technologies and modified it and adapted it to our conditions and came up with a system that reduced dust by 85 percent. What was magical about it actually is that not only did it reduce dust by 83 percent, it actually improved our yields. It increased our yields and improved the quality of the feed that we were growing to feed our cows.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Maybe help us understand what the difference between healthy active soil and less healthy soil is and why that's important to a farmer.
DINO GIACOMAZZI: There are more living things in an inch of soil than there are on top of the earth, right? Entirely. In the first inch, there's more things living then in all, everything on top, right? So, it is a very thriving, biological area. And everything that happens in soil happens through biologies. So how nutrients get into a plant, like how fertilizer goes from, you know, the back of a truck that's spreading it, onto a field. And in our case, a lot of it is cow manures or fertilizer, how it gets into the plant is that one set of bugs breaks it down into something different, like transforms it from one thing to another. And then another set of bugs take it and bring it into the plant, right? It's called mycorrhiza. It’s the bugs that live in the rhizosphere around the roots, right? The ecosystem around the roots themselves have special bugs that bring the nutrients in and out.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So you used to drive a tractor over the fields, which I think you called passes, a lot. How did that tilling impact the soil?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: What I discovered is that in heavy tillage, which exposes anaerobic bugs, bugs that don't like air to air, bugs that don't like sun exposes them to sun, causes them harm. So, it used to take us 11 passes, 11 dirt moving passes, because of the nature of…we were growing the crops on raised beds, so you know, we would have to basically remove the wheat stubble that was on the field first.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you'd go with a tractor and disc it.
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Yeah, we would disc it, chisel it, we would make beds. Then we would cultivate those beds multiple times and mulch it and do all this kind of stuff to create this very nice looking, you know, environment for a corn plant to grow. But we're also producing somewhat of a sterile environment because of all of that movement. And so, what we came up with was this process called strip tilling and so we went from 11 passes to really a half because we were only actually disturbing half of the land in a strip, and leaving the stubble from the previous crop on the ground, which is good food for the bugs. Right? So, instead of losing it as a carbon source. Because when plant matter breaks down under ground, it tends to flash off, the carbon is released into the air. But when plant matter decomposes on top of the ground, it gets sequestered and stored. And, and as a result, our soils have much higher carbon content as a percentage than they used to because of this new process. And the carbon is what feeds the bugs. So, there's been some great opportunities there.
DAVID KAHN: I just want to say that I never learned any of this in biology class.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Did you take biology class?
DAVID KAHN: I have no idea. At some point I must have taken it. And all of this sounds brand new to me, that bugs are bringing nutrients to the plants. I have no idea. I didn't even know that this is the main thing of agriculture. I think I took it when I was probably like an eighth grade and then I skipped like the next level of biology and I remember taking some classes where I was like in way over my head. I feel that way. Right?
JARED BLUMENFELD: That's a lot important information. Just like we heard with the Marin Carbon Project, we have learned by having a lighter footprint on the farm, by exposing just a very thin strip of the soil to the atmosphere just once a year, you're keeping all the healthy biological processes intact. In term, this absorbs more carbon and water into the earth. And it also reduced the amount of money spent on diesel for the tractor. Dino, how did you measure all these impacts?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: So, we did a, we did a bunch of research projects here and we had the National Soils Tilth Lab out of Ames, Iowa contracted with the space dynamics lab in Utah. And these guys took a bunch of sensors, like lidar and all this stuff that they actually generally put in like probes that they launch into the atmosphere of Saturn and, you know, try to see what it's in it. They brought that stuff to my farm and spent a year like they had it installed for one year. It was an 83 percent reduction in dust and an 83 percent reduction in diesel emission.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Their research also shows that it absorbs a lot more water.
DINO GIACOMAZZI: It holds more water.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Exactly. Holds more water. Have you found that as well?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: It's absolutely true. Yes.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And were you able to like survive the drought in part because of. How did you survive the drought?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Barely. I understand from, you know, the science of it, that carbon in the soil, it's like a, it's like a charcoal filter, right? Carbon has these like millions of micropores and those micropores are what trap things in order for a filter to work, right? Like why you have a carbon filter in your Britta as an example. So, the soil works a bit like that, right? But it's highly variable because soil texture is very broad, right? I mean everything from very gravelly, ground and sand and silt and clay, which is very fine particles. So, you know, we have soil here that is kind of fairly ideal, right? Like we're very fortunate in that we farm in one of the best places on earth.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Others view you as kind of an environmental champion for bringing these conservation practices on the farm? Do you think that's an apt title or how do you see your work?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Why I did it was because it was the most economical way to farm. And sustainability starts with economics because we did it for the benefit of our neighbors. You know, I didn't want my kids and my employees’ kids who lived near the farm and their kids who go to the school behind my farm exposed to the bad air in this valley. I mean I live here. I want to improve that, right, but it had to work. It had to work economically or there was no point.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Now that it has worked economically, how have you seen the adoption by others because even when things save money, sometimes it's difficult to get people to change that habit?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Habit changing as a really a, a is a big challenge. But you know, the University of California has done a really good job of promoting this practice. When I was started doing this, there was like another guy doing something similar, and you know, maybe what we had between the two of us, was six or 700 acres in conservation tillage and now there's over a million, a million and a half, something like that. In I would say maybe since like 2004, you know, and it's been nearly doubling year, year over year. So, you know, I think it's becoming pretty widely adopted.
JARED BLUMENFELD: That's incredible. Dino, I know from our history that you're not a fan of environmental regulations. What informed that perspective?
DINO GIACOMAZZI: I mean, it's, it's getting to the point where a small family farm cannot function in California because we don't have the resources to manage the complexity. There are so many regulations by so many separate agencies that are operating in silos and have no cohesive plan or holistic plan to manage things that they're standing each in each other's ways to innovate the technology and the ideas that are necessary to solve the environmental problems.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What do you see is the road ahead, Dino? I mean, for one thing, I'm a libertarian. Okay. So, I have personally a very specific view about regulations. It's impossible to be a pure libertarian, right? I think a modern libertarian view is that there's the possibility of something that we could call smart regulation, right? Where there's flexibility, where there's communication involved between agencies. Unbridled capitalism creates unbridled control, right? And so, neither of those work, and right now we've gone the other way. We have gone too far and so us people, like in the middle, who see where the real solutions come, which is actually doing something. You could talk about it all you want. I mean, one of the greatest things for me about being somebody that cares about the environment is I actually get to do something about it, right?
JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, I give you a lot of credit because you're doing it. Like, I didn't really care what your political views are, you are showing me by your actions that you care about the environment.
DINO GIACOMAZZI: Well, you know, I do care and, and to be honest with you, every farmer that I know also cares, right? Every single one because you know, we have the most at stake, right? If we, if we ruin our resource, then we're out of business, right? A group of farmers and I in 2009 started a nonprofit organization called The Plant Foundation and we developed a program called Farm Academy. And our program teaches standards compliant science to k through eighth grade students using agriculture as the example so that we could teach kids how to think about anything right? To have that skepticism, to be able to break through their braces, to, to think through the scientific method, but also apply science to something that's really important - where their food comes from and the environment.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Going to visit Dino and grandma Lillia opened my eyes to how farmers are integral to protecting the earth. If we're going to apply the planet saving practices that John, Calla, and Dino shared with us today, we're going to need to build much stronger partnerships between urban and rural communities, between armchair environmentalists and farmers. Before we wrap up, let's check in with Calla from the Marin Carbon Project to find out about her latest efforts to secure funding for expanding carbon farming.
CALLA OSTRANDER: We were able to help build the Healthy Soils Initiative in California, which takes money from the Cap and Trade system and gives it to farmers to do these practices. And we also did a series of policies that helps move organics out of landfills and off of dairies, but it's challenging for a number of reasons. One, because it's so much easier to finance technology.
JARED BLUMENFELD: People love technology.
CALLA OSTRANDER: People love technology. If I went to someone and said that I have this great new technology which can sequester carbon and put it in the ground and keep it there and I can sell it to you and these are the modules and we're going to produce this thing, you'd get so much investment. Right? The challenge that we face is that composting is a natural process that just needs humans to do it. There's some technology involved. There is no patent. There's it's not new tech and so our financial institutions are not really able to finance the things that we need which are the farmers, the labor of the farmers, and the composting itself. So we're not challenged by technical capacity that the earth has, we are challenged by the systems that human have to reward each other to do these things. That's really the biggest challenge that we face and some of that we can overcome with policy, but a lot of it will require shifts in our fundamental economic structure as well and I think that's part of the next challenge that we have to address.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thanks to John, Calla, Lilia, and Dino for giving David and I a primer in the biology of soil science and for getting their hands dirty each and every day of the year. Through their pioneering work, they have shown us how to store carbon in the soil while we take the steps necessary to decarbonize our economy. As Calla said, this isn't a new technology, it's a natural system that we can engage. The benefits extend to producing higher quality agriculture and saving farmers money. Now that's something that we can all support. As Dino mentioned, scientists estimate that one gram of soil contains more than 10,000 different species of micro-organisms That's more biodiversity in one gram of soil than all the different types of mammals in the entire world.
What I took away from today's episode is that we need to help support our farmers by establishing food scrap composting programs in every community in our country and around the world. We can then work to help farmers get the technical support and funding they need to implement carbon farming programs. Just like fair trade and organic labels on food, we need to help consumers prioritize purchasing food grown by families like Dino's, who practice carbon farming. I've posted links on the website to this episode to help you start that conversation in your community.
In next week's episode, will blend two of April's big celebrations, 420 and Earth day, so get please ready to discuss the greening of wheat. Please like Podship Earth pages on Facebook and Instagram. Thank you so much for being part of the journey from the entire Podship Earth team: editor Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld. Have an absolutely fabulous week.