Fossil Fuels – From a Pasture Based Farmer’s Perspective

Global warming and the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels is often in the news. There are two main camps, those who are concerned about the damage to the environment from the use of fossil fuel and those who think that global warming is all hype and not really an issue. It is easy for us to become puppets of the opinions of what we hear from everyone around us, especially from the media. It is important for us to try to be independent thinkers, to research facts for ourselves, and to step back and try to look outside the "box" that everyone is looking in.

One day as I was thinking about fossil fuels, I suddenly realized what the words "fossil fuel" means. "Fossil fuels" means that it is a fuel that came from fossilized plants and animals from years gone by. In other words, oil is soil fertility buried under the earth! The Middle East, which has had some of the richest supplies of oil, is largely desert. Their soil fertility is buried underground! The Middle East at one point must have have had very, very fertile soil (the Garden of Eden?).

Until recently, I had the impression that fossil fuels, being a non-renewable source of fuel, were like a foreign chemical that we shouldn’t be burning, and that we are contaminating the earth with it. However, when fossil fuels are burned, matter is not destroyed. It is changed into a different form. One form is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to live. Plants take in carbon dioxide and create oxygen. The carbon that existed in the carbon dioxide is stored in the plant tissues and in the roots.

Now, as a pasture based farmer, carbon is a very important element in soil fertility. It holds many times its weight in water. Increasing the carbon in the soil is like making the soil into a giant sponge. The more water that the soil is able to hold means that there is less runoff during a rain storm. That means less soil erosion. It  means that soil nutrients are held in the soil and are not as readily leached out. The more carbon that exists in the soil, the more drought resistant the soil is. Carbon is also important to the many microbes, bacteria, and fungi in the soil.

On a pasture based farm such as ours, carbon is sequestered into the soil from the grasses in the pasture. The grass that we see is only half the plant. The roots are equal in size to what we see above ground. When grass is cut, an equal amount of roots die back. For example, if grass in the pasture is one foot high and the animals eat it down to 3 inches high, 9 inches of roots die off. When those roots die off, the carbon in the roots is sequestered into the soil. Therefore, allowing grass to grow and then mowing it off (preferably with animals)  a number of times throughout the year is an important part of sequestering carbon in the soil.

In observing our farm this year, I noticed that there were two one acre plots where the grass grew the best. One was the chestnut orchard, the other was the broiler pasture. Both of those were mowed the most often last year. This year we are increasing the number of times that we mow the laying hen pastures. First we run the sheep and cows in a pasture. Then, after they are moved to the next pasture, we mow off the weeds and any remaining tall grass. This process increases the amount of carbon sequestered into the soil and increases the soil fertility.

Conventional crop farming releases a lot of carbon back into the air. Conventional no-till is better in that it does sequester some carbon into the soil. However, organic is even better at sequestering carbon. Rodale Institute Research Farm has found that organic crop farming will sequester 1000 lbs of carbon per acre per year, which is about 4 times the amount of conventional no-till.

We are facing a global food crisis. From my perspective, after understanding that fossil fuels are really the soil fertility from years ago buried in the earth and knowing the importance of carbon in the soil, I believe that it was a blessing to mankind that oil was discovered so that we can produce more food now when we need it the most. Much of the oil reserves are in places that can’t be farmed – under the ocean floor, Alaska, and in the deserts of the Middle East. We need that buried soil fertility so that we can feed the world. There may be a better way of transferring the soil fertility from fossil fuels to the soil than by burning them and then trying to sequester the carbon through plants. That is for us to discover. However, there is already a lot of soil fertility that we have put up in the air (carbon dioxide) that needs to be sequestered so that we can clean the air and increase the soil fertility of our farmlands. This is just one more reason why organic and pasture based farming is the better way to go than conventional chemical farming and the confinement rearing of animals and chickens.

The answer to many of our environmental concerns – air pollution, soil erosion, the contamination of our water supplies from farm chemicals and animal manures, the polluting of the Chesapeake Bay, etc. is in developing better ways of sequestering carbon into our farmlands and in making the soil a bigger sponge with greater fertility. As you hear all the negative environmental news, remember, all is not doom and gloom. There is a better way of farming and you are supporting it!

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