This story was originally published by HuffPost and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

Tropical Storm Isaias downed power lines and trees across the greater New York City area in early August, snapping limbs from the ancient oaks that ring Patty Gentry’s small Long Island farm.

Dead branches were still dangling a month later. But rows of mustard greens were unfurling nearby, and a thicket of green vines reached toward the sun, dotted with tangy orange bulbs.

“These sungold tomatoes were toast,” Gentry said, sounding almost astonished. “But now look at them. They’re coming back. It’s like spring again.”

Over the past four years, Gentry has transformed two acres of trash-strewn dirt on Long Island’s southeast coast into a profitable organic farm by betting big on soil. Instead of pumping her crops with pesticides and petrochemical fertilizer, Gentry grows vetch, a hardy pea-like plant, and rye to cover the exposed soil between the rows of greens intended for harvest. She layers the soil with specially mined rock dust that replenishes minerals and pulls carbon from the air. And in the spring and summer, she uses a system of crop rotation ― shifting around where different crops are planted ― so that one plant’s nutrient needs don’t drain the soil. These practices are collectively known as regenerative farming.

Tests of the soil show the organic content is now seven times higher than when she began. The result is produce so flavorful that she can’t keep up with the number of restaurants and home cooks looking to buy shares.

Gentry’s farm is also resilient, one where healthy soil soaks up rainwater like a sponge and replenishes the crops. She barely missed a delivery after the storm.

At a moment when fires and storms are wreaking havoc from coast to coast, mounting research suggests that practicing the soil techniques Gentry uses on a much wider scale could remove climate-changing gases from the atmosphere and provide a vital bulwark in the fight to maintain a habitable planet. They’re part of a mix of solutions experts say are needed to keep global temperatures from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, beyond which projections show catastrophic threats to our coasts, ecosystems, and food and water supplies.

Regenerative practices range from growing trees and reverting croplands to wild prairies, to rotating crops and allowing remnants after harvest to decompose into the ground. The techniques, already popular with small-scale organic growers, are steadily gaining traction among big farms and ranches as the chaotic effects of climate change and financial pressure from agribusiness giants eat away at their businesses.

“This is about covering the soil, feeding the soil and not disrupting it,” said Betsy Taylor, the president at Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, a consultancy that focuses on regenerative agriculture. “Those are the basic principles.”

Countries such as France are promoting large-scale government programs to encourage farmers to increase the carbon stored in soil. Members of Congress have also proposed legislation to push regenerative farming in the U.S., and several states are designing their own policies. Progressive think tanks call for small shifts in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and beefed-up research funding that could trigger the biggest changes to American farming in almost a century. Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate pitched paying farmers to trap carbon in soil as a key plank of their climate platform, including nominee Joe Biden.

Joe Biden and other Democrats are backing regenerative farming, which pulls carbon from the atmosphere and restores nutrients to soil. But is it ready for prime time?

“We should be making farmers the recipients of a climate change plan where they get paid to absorb carbon,” the former vice president said during a CNN town hall last week.

While the benefits to soil and food nutrition are difficult to dispute, there are some critics of the push for regenerative farming. They argue that its climate advantages are overhyped or unproven, the product of wishful thinking about a politically palatable solution, and that the focus on regenerative farming risks distracting policymakers from more effective, if less exciting, strategies.

Industrial Agriculture’s Bill Is Coming Due

At the end of World War II, federal farming policy started to transform the breadbasket of the Midwest into vast plains of corn, soybeans and grains. The same principles of mechanized bulk production that turned the United States into a military powerhouse capable of fending off the Japanese and Nazi empires were applied to farming. Surplus chemicals from weapons manufacturing found new uses eradicating crop-eating insects, and nitrogen plants that once made components for bombs started producing ammonia to feed fields.

Geopolitics only hastened the trend, as widespread Soviet crop failures forced Russian officials to buy grain from overseas and the Nixon administration capitalized on the opportunity. Agriculture Secretary Earl “Rusty” Butz, who served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, directed farmers to “plant fence row to fence row,” and quantity trumped all else. Farmers took out loans to expand operations, turning “get big or get out” into a mantra, as Butz promised that any surplus could be sold overseas.

The damage to farm soil kicked into overdrive as farmers planted the same monoculture crops year after year and added more chemical fertilizers to make up for the sapped minerals and dead microbes. The cumulative effect has been twofold. The U.S. loses top soil at a rate 10 times faster than it’s replenished. And carbon and other gases seep from the plowed, exposed soil into the air, contributing to the emissions rapidly warming the planet and increasing the frequency and severity of destructive droughts and storms.

Less than two weeks after Tropical Storm Isaias made landfall over Gentry’s farm, a powerful storm known as a derecho ― or “inland hurricane” ― formed in Iowa, some 1,100 miles west. The storm destroyed nearly half the state’s crop rows. “This will ruin us,” one farmer told a local newspaper. Another called it a “catastrophic scenario.”

Losses from extreme weather are only expected to grow in the years ahead. Even if warming is kept within a 2 degrees Celsius warming scenario, the less ambitious goal spelled out in the Paris climate accords, U.S. corn production will likely suffer an 18% hit, according to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For many farmers, the federal crop insurance program has been a lifeline in tumultuous times. But it also encourages them to plant in harm’s way by providing incentives to cultivate every inch of land, including marginal acres prone to flooding, and it promotes monocultures by making it difficult for farmers to insure a variety of crops at once. In 2014, the federal Government Accountability Office found that, as a result of the insurance program’s policies, farmers “do not bear the true cost of their risk of loss due to weather-related events, such as drought — which could affect their farming decisions.”

“As farmers, we’re trying to make rational economic decisions in an irrational system,” said Matt Russell, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer who promotes regenerative soil practices. “We have externalized the pollution so the public pays for those costs and nobody in the supply chain pays for it, while at the same time, when I do something good, I can’t externalize the cost at all.”

‘You’ve Got A Win’

Plans to shift federal incentives to favor regenerative farming aim first to loosen big agribusiness’s grip on the industry.

The think tank Data for Progress has proposed overhauling the federal crop insurance program to limit the total acreage eligible for coverage, phase out incentives for single-crop planting and create new tax credits designed specifically for family-owned farms, restricting how much corporate giants could benefit from the subsidized insurance.

With that stick would come a carrot: Under Data for Progress’ plan, Congress would increase the budget for the USDA’s existing conservation programs.

As farmers, we’re trying to make rational economic decisions in an irrational system.
Matt Russell, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer

The Conservation Stewardship Program already provides farmers with cash payments of up to $40,000 per year and technological assistance for steps such as assessing which plots of farming and grazing land should be allowed to go natural. With an expanded mandate to sequester carbon dioxide, the program might fund a national assessment to determine which areas are best suited for rewilding or carbon farming and compensate farmers directly to do that.

The program paid out $1.4 billion last year alone. Data for Progress proposed that the USDA significantly increase funding for both the program and research, and provide employees in all its conservation programs with training to understand and help regulate regenerative farming practices.

“There are so many wins in regenerative agriculture,” said Maggie Thomas, a former climate policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) who serves as political director of the progressive climate group Evergreen Action. “You’ve got a win for farmers. You’ve got a win for soils and the environment. You’ve got a win for better food. There’s no reason not to do it.”

The hopes for such changes are dim under the Trump administration, which spent its first three years sidelining climate science and spurring an exodus of scientists from the USDA as frustration over political appointees’ meddling with research grew. (A five-year proposal the agency released in February did seem to show a growing acceptance of the need to address climate change, offering what InsideClimate News called “hopeful signs.”)

Maryland already pays farmers $45 per acre for fields maintained with cover crops. Montana state officials collaborated with a nonprofit consortium paying ranchers to adopt sustainable grazing practices that increase carbon storage in the soil.

In January, Vermont proposed a plan to incorporate carbon sequestration by farmers into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade scheme that includes most of the Northeast states. In March, Minnesota officials gathered for a summit on using soil to combat climate change. In June, Colorado solicited input for a state-level soil health program aimed at “advancing climate resilience.”

Investors see potential profit in the shift to regenerative agriculture. In January, the Seattle startup Nori was able to raise $1.3 million to fund its platform using blockchain technology to pay farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And Boston-based Indigo Ag, a similar startup, announced in June that it had brought in another $300 million from investors, becoming the world’s highest-valued ag-tech firm at an estimated $3.5 billion.

But some fear these platforms offer dubious benefits, particularly since the credits generated by the farmers’ stored carbon could be bought by industrial giants that would rather offset their own pollution than eliminate it.

“It’s right to be skeptical of these companies,” said Mackenzie Feldman, a fellow at Data for Progress and lead author on its regenerative farming proposal. “It has to be the government doing this, and it can be through mechanisms that already exist, like the Conservation Stewardship Program.”

Are The Benefits Being Oversold?

But not everyone is jumping on the regenerative farming bandwagon. In May, a group of researchers at the World Resources Institute (WRI) offered a skeptical take, arguing “that the practices grouped as regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and yield some valuable environmental benefits, but are unlikely to achieve large-scale emissions reductions.”

“No-till” farming ― a seeding practice that requires growers to inject seeds into fields without disturbing the soil, which became popular with environmentalists several years ago ― has had only limited carbon benefits because farmers inevitably plow their fields after a few years, WRI argued, pointing to a 2014 study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

And cover crops can be costly to plant and difficult to propagate in the weeks between a fall harvest and the winter months, WRI said, highlighting the findings of an Iowa State University study. The group also cast doubt over the methods used to account for carbon added to soil.

In June, seven of the world’s leading soil scientists published a response to WRI’s claims, which they said drew too narrow conclusions and failed to see the potential of combining multiple regenerative practices.

WRI researcher Tim Searchinger renewed the debate last month with his own response to the response, accusing the critics of his critique of relying on misleading information from a 2007 United Nations report to inflate the potential for capturing carbon in soil at large scale.

“The realistic ability to sequester additional carbon in working agricultural soils is limited,” he wrote. “Because what causes carbon to remain in soils is not well understood, further research is needed, and our views may change as new science emerges.”

Rock You In A Hurricane

Some of the latest science sheds light on one aspect of regenerative farming that didn’t factor into the recent debate at all. In July, a major new study published in the journal Nature found that spreading rock dust on soil at maximum scale in the world’s three largest carbon emitters ― China, the United States and India ― could collectively remove up to 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year.

The process, known as “enhanced rock weathering,” occurs when minerals in the rock dust react with carbon in rainwater and turn into bicarbonate ions. Those ions are eventually washed into the oceans, where they’re stored indefinitely as rock minerals.

“The more we looked into it, the more it seemed like a no-brainer,” said David Beerling, a soil researcher at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield and the lead author of the study.

That’s a leap Thomas Vanacore took nearly four decades ago. The Vermont farmer and quarryman realized in the 1980s that mineral-rich dust from basalt and shale quarries could replenish nutrients in soil without using synthetic fertilizers, which would appeal to his state’s organic farmers. But as he studied climate change, he also concluded that his product could help pull carbon from the atmosphere.

“You can’t do what modern farming has done for years, where you kill everything and expect to grow life,” Vanacore said, standing before a pile of black shale at a quarry in Shoreham, Vermont. For farmers looking to make the shift to regenerative practices, “rock dust is the jumpstart,” he said.

This month, he delivered his largest shipment to date to an industrial farm supplier in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Vanacore said he expects to ship another 245 rail cars full of rock dust over the northern border in the next 12 months.

His customers swear by the stuff ― including Gentry, who started buying bags of his brix-blend basalt when she first started her farm. Without the rock dust, Gentry doubts that her soil would be as fertile as it is today. Her embrace of pioneering techniques is reflected in the name of her plot: Early Girl Farm.

Want your grandchildren to eat well in the future? Support smaller mixed farms, local farmers and follow Britain's James Rebank @herdyshepherd1.
Be safe.

I know Canadian farmers are innovative and trying to preserve their soil. Does anyone know how regenerative ag is practiced in Canada? Mostly smaller farmers I assume

I'm a regenerative farmer in Ontario. The following five organizations have combinations of practical and policy recommendations.
The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario at efao.ca
Holistic Management Canada at holisticmanagement.ca particularly the "regenerative accelerator program"
Farmers for Climate Solutions at farmersforclimatesolutions.ca
Food Secure Canada at foodsecurecanada.ca
The best source (in my opinion) is the National Farmers Union at nfu.ca particularly their report "Tackling the farm crisis and the climate crisis" under Campaigns > Climate Change and their campaign for Agroecology.
For a greater focus on science see the blogs of ThorstenArnold.com
Happy reading!

Great references by Rob Campbell.

Here's another one. Lana Awada, a researcher with USask, published the results of a long-term study in 2019 on regenerative agriculture with hundreds of Saskatchewan farmers, starting in 1985. The conclusions were remarkable in that they measured an extraordinary soil sequestration of atmospheric carbon in the period 1985-2016 of 125 MT CO2 equivalent -- far more than the farming activity generated overall. One pundit worked out the carbon absorption was equivalent to taking 3.4 million cars off the road. That is twice Metro Vancouver's entire car numbers.

Moreover, a huge improvement in soil structure, drainage, nutrients, organic material, and so forth was documented. The experimentation of using legumous cover crops along with conservation tillage resulted in nitrogen-fixing inputs that offset a large portion of the application of N-based artificial fertilizers while also improving crop yields. They outcompeted weeds and other competitive plants, therein requiring far less herbicide application on large-scale, non-organic commercial wheat farms. In addition, the huge decrease in tillage saw a reciprocal decrease in expenditures on equipment purchases, maintenance and fuel, parallel to reduced petrochemical inputs. Put another way, regenerative agriculture generally creates more profit for farmers.

Source: MEASURING GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS IN THE SASKATCHEWAN CROP SECTOR, Lana Awada APAS, 2019.

Here is a link to a Power Point presentation on the study:

https://apas.ca/pub/documents/News%20and%20Events/Events/2019%20Policy%2...

The Rodale Institute has also dome great work on this topic.

One consequence of the full recognition of regenerative agriculture's ability to sequester carbon into soils through natural processes is that it places other high-tech and / or very expensive methods to remove and store carbon into perspective.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in the fossil fuel industry has never taken off due to its expense and the fact no rock strata is completely geologically stable enough to guarantee the CO2 will never eventually seep out through cracks and fault lines. Sucking CO2 out of the air directly with giant machines and compressors also seems overly complex and outrageously expensive at the vast scales needed to succeed than simply letting plant photosynthesis, transpiration and respiration do it naturally and effortlessly over thousands of square kilometres of farm land under a regenerative agricultural program sponsored by several levels of government.

Electrifying the domestic economy, pricing and regulating fossil fuels (i.e. the part you burn) out of existence over the next decade (at most two, with job loss mitigation policies), fostering greater urban efficacy through transit and zoning initiatives, and regenerative agriculture together will have an indisputably huge impact on total and per capita emissions in Canada.

Ready for prime time? What an intellectually impoverished throw away comment!
There is so much data available about the falling nutritional value of the farm produce we get from the giant Ag-business industrial farms that anything that improves this situation should be welcomed with shouts of joy from the purveyors and consumers of FOOD. I mean, of course, the raw unprocessed stuff our bodies need instead of the chemical laced, nutritionally vacant junk that fills our big box grocery shelves.

We are way overdue for a fundamental makeover with our farming practices.

Part of the reason for reduced nutritional content of foods is that they are bred for uniform size, shape, color, and harvesting date, as well as being able to survive storage and shipping without losing aesthetic appeal.
In an interview, when a researcher at Guelph University was asked why they didn't also breed for better nutrient quality, or indeed, if they could. He said he saw no reason that couldn't be done, but no one had asked them to do so.

Full speed ahead on this. The enhanced weathering thing, taking up 2 gigatonnes per year is something, at least. Currently, we're pouring in 30 gigatonnes per year, so if a magic wand gave us zero carbon emissions, zero methane emissions, and zero nitrogen-oxide emissions (from soil fertilizers), then a negative of 2 gigatonnes per year would start undoing the last year's emissions. It would take 15 years to undo 2020. The next 150 years would undo back to 2010.

So we need all of this, and more.

I get an unpleasant feeling about most climate coverage, a feeling that it implies that if we stop emitting QUITE so much, get some electric cars, buy some organic groceries, the wildfires will stop in a year or two.

When the planet has zero net emissions of all GHG's, that's when the heating driver will stop getting worse. The heating caused by the then-existing GHG's will continue, the wildfires will keep getting worse; they'll just get worse at the same rate, not faster every year.

When this, and, I dunno, a "trillion trees" and "ocean iron-salting to promote algae" or whatever they are, all work, and the GHGs are reduced back to mid-20th-century levels, at least a century from now, then the heating will stop and the climate will BEGIN to cool down. Which will take decades.

When the climate is back to "normal", the landscape will again start adapting to what will by then feel like a "new" climate, one nobody alive has experienced except in books. That, too, will take about a century.

That's why I have trouble with the word "emergency": multiple generations will be born and die as the 200+ year "emergency" works its way through a very slow process.

Agreed completely that it's not so much a matter of individuals "not doing their part" within the existing context.
Thing is, it *is* an emergency: had we started dealing with it seriously 30 years ago, we wouldn't be having the runaway forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes where there used to be none, melted glaciers and permafrost, changed ocean currents, etc. And the longer it takes us to push governments into helpful policies, the hotter it'll get till we all die, and nature takes her own path out of the mess. We don't get a "do-over," but the earth will go on, and do what it does.
Meanwhile, TMX goes on ...

Racially, planetarily speaking, an emergency. But nobody has ever used "emergency" that way, before.

"Emergency", on a personal level, means "drop everything until solved". You don't go back to work with bodies lying in the street from a car accident, you drop work to get them help.

We can hardly all drop everything for 200 years. "Emergency" would mean, "stop making movies, nobody go to restaurants, everybody wear uniforms, divert all possible resources to the emergency".

We didn't even do that for WW2, and it only went on for five years.

We need an adjective to clarify the "emergency" is the kind that requires we divert a lot of resources to changing infrastructure and practices, pay more for many products, change our whole way of life. We do have to "go back to work" but change that work.

What's missing from this article is the net effect of rock dust. How much CO2 is emitted by transporting 245 railcars full of rock dust to Saskatchewan vs. the CO2 absorbed (adsorbed?). What are the dynamics of this? Rail transport and rock grinding put CO2 into the atmosphere immediately, but I suspect the the CO2 removal in the soil is somewhat slower, which could give us a net increase in the near term, continuing over however many years we transport rock dust. Another question: What happens when the bicarbonate flows into a river? Does it shift the pH? And what does that do to carbon fixation in the river systems? More analysis please, and preferably at the front of the article, not at the tail end.

Good point, I second. This new process seems very promising, but I was just wondering about the disadvantages (because there are surely some) of this new process. It would be interesting if someone could shed some light on these issues.

It's "adsorbed" (onto the surface of the reactant, rather than taken inside it) onto the rock dust briefly, then washes off it down into the soil.

It's enormously "profitable", using a small fraction of the carbon adsorbed.

No, it does nothing for phosphorus.

Does enhanced rock weathering restore phosphorous to the soil?