I was hoping that this year would give me time to catch up a bit. After all, the late rains kept me from planting a proper breeding nursery on my farm. And I was going to use all this time to set up the non profit organization (vs the de-facto one that I operate) that you all sent good names in for me to contemplate. THANK YOU! I kept hoping to be writing an announcement of it's opening. But, well, see, here we are mid December and I am only now sitting down long enough to begin the regular newsletter.
It seems that this was the year for wells on my farm to become inoperable. Either floods shorted power out, or decades of minerals finally clogged the perforations in the agricultural well casing, but water although abundantly abundant last Winter, has remained something that has taken me a great deal of time and money to pump and transport to crops and the sheep pretty much every single day this year. The illusion of "time to get organized" evaporated right along with the cash flow required to pay a lawyer to set the thing up.
Yet, I digress from the real reason that I am sending this out at long last. I am going to toot our own horn about the documented carbon sequestered on this farm that I have been privileged to steward these past 19 years, thanks to the support of all of you.As many of you know, we have a Fibershed organization that I am a founding member of. They have been supporting, among producer members, the quantification of soil carbon sequestering on our farms and ranches. Perhaps you are familiar with the term "organic" farming, but like me really never got why in the heck they decided to call it "organic" versus biological, or non toxic.... So, it turns out that that word organic was chosen because it was about building up the organic matter in the soil. That when the first synthetic fertilizers were invented and applied to farm land impressive yields of harvestable plant materials were gained. But the soils that had these compounds applied to them seemed to suffer from a reduction in organic matter content. The founders of the organic farming movement were extremely concerned with this and advocated that fertilizing materials applied should be derived from biologically active sources, not chemically synthesized ones. They also maintained that plants artificially stimulated by synthetic sources of nitrogen were more prone to insect pest attacks and that plant diseases had an easier time getting established. They promoted a system where soil health remained the most important component of farming. Stewarding and increasing the soil organic matter (SOM) remains the foundational requirement of all of the organic farming standards. On my farm, I have been documenting my efforts to increase the SOM at every single organic inspection that I have had on this farm that I began tending in 1998. Before this farm here in the Capay Valley of California, I was increasing the SOM of the organic farm in Aguila, AZ. And before that I was documenting my efforts to increase the SOM on the first farm that I had the great privilege of owning (thanks in no small part to my siblings lending the money to me to purchase) in Kern County, CA. This foundational work is done by all organic farmers.
We may make our best efforts to increase our SOM, does this mean that we succeed?
Our Fibershed organization paid for a soil scientist to test and analyze our SOM every year to figure out if indeed we are making progress. This year was my first with them. It was meant to establish a baseline. And for all of us participating in this program, we will have our soils tested every year and this will help inform us about the usefulness of our methods. Whether we be organic farmers, or ranchers using some tried and true methods that organic farmers have been perfecting for a few generations already.
I received the first set of results a few months after the testing and it was revealed that the SOM of the soil tested in this particular 40 acre field was 2.6%. Which is not high for soils back east, or even in the midwest, but for our arid western lands, this was a marked increase over the expected ( and what my soil was registered as in the historical data) 1% normal for my soil type. And so what does an increase in organic matter of 1.6% actually mean in terms of carbon sequestered over these 19 years.
Here is the data portion of the results:
ProducerField# of SamplesDepth (cm)Avg. Bulk Density (g/cm3)Avg. Total Carbon (%)Total Carbon Range (% variance)Avg. Inorganic Carbon (%)Total Organic Carbon (%)Avg. SOM (%)Avg. Carbon Content (kg/ac-15cm)
Sally FoxSonora Wheat30-150.9941.680.2380.1561.522.6220232.93
Sally FoxSonora Wheat315-301.390.2160.1801.212.0916122.50
Sally FoxSonora Wheat330-450.830.1370.1970.631.098420.41
For the Sonora Wheat Field, your total carbon per acre, down to a depth of 45cm, is 44,775.84 lbs. In other words, every acre of this particular field has trapped the equivalent amount of carbon contained in 8,353.86 gallons of oil.
Agroecology Assistant Research Specialist - Gaudin Lab
Department of Plant Sciences - University of California, Davis
So, if my SOM started at 1% and now it is 2.6% perhaps I did not sequester all that carbon. I would need to back out what I started with 19 years ago when I purchased the farm.
Heather Podoll (Fibershed's soil specialist) approached it this way. We subtracted the carbon originally there in all three profiles and got this : 8420.41 kgs/acre x 3 = 25,261.23 kg/ac So, if the entire profile is 44,775.84 kg/acre- 25,261.23 kg/acre = 19,514.61 kg/acre of carbon that was sequestered over and above the baseline that I began with. And when I multiplied the number of acres handled the way the field tested was I get 40 acres x 19,514.61 kg/acre = 780,584.4 kg from that one field. In pounds that is: 1,720,894 lbs of carbon.
To put this in perspective Heather brought up the Paris Climate Accord's soil carbon sequestering goal of 4 per mille per year for agricultural soils. As it is not only about reducing the carbon released into the atmosphere, but grabbing that carbon already out there and bringing it back into the soil and getting it out of the atmosphere. When Heather did the math for my farm using this data she got 30 per mille per each of these 19 years.
Now that is something, isn't it? I could almost hear my mother saying : "imagine!"
Next I added up roughly all of the products produced and sold off of those 40 acres for the 19 years that I have been here trying to breed the cotton, farm and tend the sheep. This is the sort of wild part, as the cotton breeding nursery removes very little from the land, and so most of the cotton that I grow gets incorporated back into the soil. The sheep...well they are wool sheep and primarily it is only their wool that leaves this farm. And my merino's produce a very fine wool and not much of it per animal. And the hay that I grow on these 40 acres is fed to them. The heirloom wheat- Sonora- grows vigorously- producing copious root material in quantities equivalent to what perennial grasses produce, not the annual that it is. And 70% of the root material of crops produced can be sequestered. Sonora...well I have averaged 600 lbs of grain per acre all these years along with copious roots and long stems. Those stems have been eaten by the sheep and incorporated back into the soil as well.
Email me if you want to see the actual figures, but my estimate in pounds of the total products grown here that have left this farm in the the form of fiber (fleeces, yarns, seed cotton) and grain (heirloom wheat. milo) these 19 years on these 40 acres that were tested comes to a measly 111,210 lbs . Hay grown here has been fed to the sheep, so it has not left the farm.
Divide the pounds of product that has left the farm with the pounds of carbon sequestered over and above what was in the soil when I came here one gets: 15.5 lbs of carbon sequestered per pound of product that I have sold or am offering for sale.
Now, this 15.5 lbs of carbon per pound of wool, or cotton or flour from my farm is not comparable to other producers. And this discussion is not really finished with unless I calculate all the carbon that I released pumping water for the sheep to drink, along with the water to irrigate the cotton and alfalfa hay produced over these nearly two decades. But despite all the hype, the cotton only gets watered every two weeks and the Sonora wheat and ryegrass hay is not irrigated at all. The carbon used for those crops is only from the diesel used to power the tractor that did the reduced tillage required- thanks to the sheep eating all the stubble down after each crop. In a future newsletter I will look into those figures. And so clearly what I do on this farm does not resemble anything that a normal cotton, grain or sheep producer does. Even organic ones. Real shepherds produce way more wool, and most produce a lot of meat with their dual purpose breeds such as Rambouillet (this breed produces large fast growing lambs sporting good carcass weights and lovely wool, almost as fine as merino). Real organic row crop farmers produce 5 x's the amount of grain and cotton that I do- at the very least! And to tell you the truth it normally bums me out and makes me feel, in general, rather embarrassed when I am around these productive people.
I like to comfort myself by imagining my toils to be that of a naturalist scientist self funding her research by selling these (modest in yield only) products from the farm. These fantasies keep me motivated and allows me to sort of hold my head up. Because among farmers and ranchers it is all about how much one produces, and how efficiently one produces it. I see others in their nice big trucks- that can haul trailers of sheep or products to market and sales. While my miserable yields keep me still limping along with my 1991 Toyota pick-up sporting 247,000 miles before the odometer went out. But hey, it has new tires and still gets 20 mpg and passes smog! When I bring sheep anywhere I consider myself very fortunate to be able to rent a truck and trailer from a neighboring organic farm. The financial ramifications of so much R&D on my farm is humbling, to say the least.
But then this data came in. That is a whole lot of documented carbon sequestered. And I think that it shows that by using heirloom grains and by raising sheep responsibly, SOM can be built up considerably faster than what climate scientists thought was possible to even consider.
I am comforting my bummed wanna-be-farmer ego with these great carbon sequestering figures. I am looking at each skein of wool yarn, each fleece, each bag of Sonora wheat very very differently. That 2 oz skein of Pioneer Yarn produced by A Verb for Keeping Warm? Just about 2 pounds of carbon - pulled down and out of the atmosphere! That skein of Elderlana wool - 4 pounds of carbon down into the soil! That cone of Sierra Sienna 10/2 yarn- 15.5 pounds of carbon - down deep in the ground! The 2 pound bag of Sonora Heirloom wheat flour that you bought last week- 31 pounds of carbon sequestered! How about savoring that little fact as you eat the shortbread cookies you make from that flour?
For the Climate Beneficial Wool Fashion show we weighed my entry- the Persephone Tunic. When made with my wool and the cotton grown on this farm a whopping 22 pounds of carbon was sequestered! Sierra Reading (pictured below) not only modeled the piece she was also this entries co-creator. As she not only helped me with the sheep that produced the wool but for three generations of cotton helped me weed, tend the plants, pick and then gin this new cotton variety. That we decided to call "Sierra Sienna".
I am thrilled to share these numbers with you on this last day of Fall. I am hoping that they do not give you the brain freeze that so far they seem to have produced among everyone else that I have shared them with.
Thank you all sincerely for appreciating what I grow (ever so humbly by regular farmer and rancher's standards). Thank you for supporting my research by buying my products, and by donating to my efforts. For seeking my wholesale customers out and buying the incredible things that they make from the fruits of this farm and my life's work. Thank you for helping us take all this carbon out of the atmosphere and return it back into our of so precious earth.