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Green waste creates a nutrient-rich compost that stimulates plant growth when layered on top soil. Photo submitted by John Brown.

‘Carbon farming’ is used to restore overgrazed rangelands

BILLINGS, Mont. — When it comes to farming, John Brown’s approach is more sustainable to crop diversification and better provides for carbon sequestration.

“As I was holding this handful of seeds, something shifted in me. I asked myself: why am I addicted to monoculture?” says John Brown, who has been farming since the 1970s. “It’s not just about what happens to corn and soybeans, but about what happens to our body when we only eat these crops? What happens to our culture and society when we only see these crops?”

Homegrown Prosperities, a carbon sequestration initiative led by the Northern Plains Resource Council, is underway. This grassroots conservation and family agriculture group organizes Montana citizens to protect water quality, family farms and ranches, and the state’s unique quality of life. This project aims to explore how soil health is the base of ecological, social and economic well-being, while connecting and supporting producers in the forefront.

“Agriculture, as it is turning out, is one of the best ways to draw out carbon from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil where it came from, and even enhance it,” Brown says.

The process of carbon sequestration, or “carbon farming,” is a technique that restores overgrazed rangelands into fertile fields by using photosynthesis to pull in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, while releasing oxygen. This sequestration, coupled with crop diversification and green waste composting, is an innovative approach to no-till agriculture.

Gabe Brown, owner of Brown’s Ranch in Bismarck, N.D., began crop diversification and soil sequestration in the mid-90s after losing crops four years in a row. He credits this new approach to five basic principles that bring the process of farming back to natural ecological approaches. This includes no-till agriculture, crop diversification, cover plants, continuous growth cycles and the incorporation of livestock and wildlife.

“We came to the realization that we need to focus on regenerating our soils and that in turn would lead to a more profitable production,” he says.

According to the Ecological Society of America, carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of carbon in oceans, soils, vegetation and geological formations, and although oceans store most of the Earth’s carbon, soils contain approximately 75 percent of the carbon pool on land, ensuring soil’s major role in maintaining a balanced global carbon cycle. Through the process of photosynthesis, certain plants are able to retain and restore carbon into the soil, reducing the atmospheric content.

“People get excited when they recognize that they have an active management role in changing things,” John Brown says. “When there are demonstrations of practicing, those management exercises can really turn things around quickly.”

A spokesperson for the NPRC says many Montana producers are seeing the longevity of the benefits of soil health, and this new “back to nature” practice is revitalizing and realigning farmers with their strong land ethic.