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Carbon offsets, and other green practices for the farm this year

Part of my winter reading has included the study of carbon footprints and carbon offsets. I think the movement earns a lot of its skepticism when it makes wholesale attacks against entire industries like beef or dairy, while I do still think it’s incredibly important to think about, and plan for. So, whatever your beliefs on the issue, hear me out!

If you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change, the rest of this article will make you pretty ornery though, and feel free to bail on it now, because I doubt I’ll change your mind, if it hasn’t been changed by scientists. We know that climate naturally varies through the epochs, and it’s not like we’re claiming that those things aren’t also in play. What we do believe, is that the recent, massive release of extra carbon by humans has tipped the scales enough to accelerate those natural variations, to the general detriment of most people on the globe. Some regions will turn out a little “better” by some measurements, but for most, the change will not be good. 

When the next predicted resource war is “water for irrigation,” the point will be made clear (funny enough, I wrote this before Vice President Harris said so in public a few days ago).

 When the US gets pulled into a regional conflict on behalf of an ally in a water-scarce region, and young Americans come home in body bags, maybe it’ll come home to some of us that it matters. Read up on Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Israel, and the politics of water. Think of the Himalayan glacier-melt that powers the agriculture of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, where the glaciers are melting faster than they’re rebuilt by new snowpack. It’ll be reframed in territorial, religious, or other terms, but ultimately, it’ll be about people starving or facing economic ruin due to high food prices, and susceptible to the next leader who blames anything or anyone but the glaciers, and the nations burning fossil fuels at a rapid pace.

Anyways...about carbon offsets! The idea is simple- that while we work on technologies and practices to eliminate carbon production in the first place, a stopgap measure we can do is to try to offset our carbon footprint by investing in projects that counteract it. It’s not to give a carte blanche to those industries, or to absolve us from working on eliminating those things, but when done right, it staunches the wound. Key to these projects being responsibly done is that you don’t design perverse incentives. A great example that happened in Ireland was that businesses could get a government tax credit for every ton of peat they agreed not to burn. (Peat is a sort of non-renewable, or very slow to renew fuel resource, made up of compacted organic matter in bogs). What happened is that businesses, before the credit plan was in place, started burning more peat than ever, to heat empty buildings, to create a higher baseline amount of peat usage. They then got credits for agreeing to burn far less peat the next year. It was a fiasco in Ireland when people realized how much peat had been burnt wastefully in the leadup, followed by tax dollars given to businesses who did this deeply cynical, evil thing.

Common in most criticism of carbon credits is a failure to distinguish this failure from the actual merits of the goals of the program. Those who don’t believe anthropogenic climate change are an issue should be dismissed from the conversation- they will never engage in good-faith efforts to build good programs. But a second tier of insidious resistance is to conflate this failure of human goodness with the non-soundness, in principal, of a credit program. I think it takes a very cynical, ultimately evil-minded person ,to find a loophole like that, a year in advance, and exploit it rather than alert their elected officials to it. It’s a cynicism I hope to never have.

Mathematically, the programs “work,” in that companies who produce emissions by necessity (i.e. they’re in an industry that does not yet have a commercially viable green alternative), make sure to use some of their profits to repair the damage to “the commons” that they’ve inflicted. A pound of carbon is a pound of carbon- so, if you’ve calculated your usage, and calculated your offsets fairly correctly, then you can in fact do some good. It requires a holistic understanding of it all and is a challenging thing to figure it out- but smart people are working on it, and its imperfection-of-calculation is also not a permission slip to dismiss it. Credit scores are imperfect reflections of your repaying ability, but we still use them. SAT scores can’t predict all college successes and failures, but we still use them. All measurement is imperfect so it’s disingenuous to demand perfection- or else you won’t participate.

I’ve been looking into understanding my farm’s carbon footprint since then, and I’ll be honest and personal here- part of it feels like I want to give myself a pat on the back. I know I’m doing some good things, and it’s like one of those quizzes you fill out that you know the answer to. But I also want to share that it is, in fact, on my radar and something that is important to think about. Most of my friend-circles tend to support “local agriculture” and things like that- often buying from me because of that very reason- so it’s interesting to also have part of my business involve shipping hundreds of pounds of garlic across a continent. There is a paradox there, and it’s okay. Alternates include buying more garlic from much closer farmers- but not many people have the range of types I have. You could also buy from a more local farmer who has less ecological practices than I do- a higher production footprint, even if they have a lower distribution footprint. I won’t get into denigrating your other options, but hopefully, you think them through for yourself.

I hope to eventually find a calculator, online, that does help me sort out what I’m doing, exactly. My website platform (Shopify) lets me install an app that shows the carbon footprint of each shipment, based on weight and distance, and it offers to let me pay an offset that goes to a regional program to counteract it. I think it also offers to let the customer cover that cost if you so choose. So, during checkout, you can check a box to say you’ll pay that extra fee (by my beta-testing, it looks like it would add 30-40 cents to a $40-$60 garlic purchase, so quite reasonable), with me pledging to pay it if the customer doesn’t. I think that is a likely direction I’ll go, to make sure I cover the most anomalous and strange part of my farming venture- the whole “shipping across a continent” thing.

On the second front, I just want to review my practices, and do a better job of sharing them with you, the customers who may see more value in your purchase when you know what kind of farm you support. I’m open to improvement but also want to get messaging out there. So, for starters, I’ll focus on the garlic operation, and how I stand in relation to other garlic producers.


Fossil Fuel Usage-

Long ago, for my farm, I decided to not own much heavy equipment, instead, I pay neighbors to do my annual plowing and discing. I often plant right into disced ground, or follow with a single till. While some farms are eliminating plowing, they often over-till as a side effect of that, and one plowing is less damaging than multiple tillings- for organic matter burnt off in a flush of activity, for microorganisms disrupted, worms killed, etc.

Renting equipment doesn’t absolve me of their use- but it does make an existing piece of technology do more work, reducing its own footprint. I don’t need to buy a $10,000 tractor, made of steels, plastics, etc, if someone else’s tractor has an idle time slot and can be paid to come do it. We need tractors and tractor-work, no getting away from that, but sharing equipment, or renting/contracting, is a good thing. I do it out of business sense, but I believe it also helps in that regard.

I hand-weed everything in the garlic, while by necessity, I use a gas-powered cultivating tractor to manage some early weeds in the Three Sisters. Luckily, the squash is large enough, by late July, to eliminate the need for more.

All of my harvest is by hand- I carry crates of garlic straight from the field to a nearby drying tunnel. I use a wheelbarrow to patrol my corn and squash fields for harvest, to bring to drying or storage points (or with squash, I directly load my truck straight to my wholesale point). It seems like extra work but I follow minimal-handling principals that I’ve gleaned from manufacturing practices like Lean and such. In the winter, I make diagrams to count how many times I touch an item, as a simple measure of possible inefficiencies, and I try to cut that down. What is good for the bottom line tends to also be good for the environment. By harvesting garlic into small crates that only hold 20-40 lbs, I can directly carry them into the drying racks without a secondary transfer. Added transfers tend to get tiresome- and that’s when people are susceptible to advertisements of fossil fuel transport systems. I don’t need a Ford F350 and a truck payment, I am powered by diet, rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, and an indefatigable sense of humor.


Storage, drying, and curing

While fans don’t use much electricity, I’ve still been able to eliminate them from my drying by being positioned in a well ventilated area. This is an accident of location, but it does allow me to dry my garlic naturally and slowly. I work for another vegetable farm on the side- and I have “rescued” greenhouse plastic from there for all of my drying tunnels so far. On the larger scale farm, we use 130 foot long plastic tunnels to grow tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants- but when a major rip happens in the middle of such a piece, there’s little choice but to toss it. The farm uses what it can of these pieces- for odds-and-ends needs, but often enough, there is a large unneeded piece that otherwise would have to be trashed. This is of course very thrifty and nifty from an economics standpoint, but I also love it for knowing that another couple years of use are gotten out of a fossil fuel product. It would take me a very long time to acquire enough second-hand glass to make a drying operation out of that, so this is the next best thing.


To cool the space, I intentionally build the drying tunnels near hedgerows, so they receive some guaranteed shade for most of the day. Garlic does not need full sun to dry- it just needs the right combo of air movement, dry air, and some sun, to do a nice slow natural drydown. I also add supplemental shade cloth- in the form of compostable burlap- to turn down the heat in July and August. The burlap is dye-free, cheap burlap that can be composted at the end of its use- though I’ve reused the same pieces for years now. Burlap is a natural fiber that can be regrown sustainably.


For the corn operation, I rely on simple, old fashioned drying practices not much different from the Native practitioners. I harvest by hand, peeling the leaves back, and I lay up the cobs in another spare drying tunnel (same make and model as the garlic ones), and I let weeks and weeks of partial sunlight and ventilation bring the kernels to appropriate moisture. Luckily, for the beans, I am able to let them field-dry, but if needed I can bring them in to such a tunnel.


The only issue with these tunnels is that I rely on the ventilation created by wide spacings, but since they’re built cheaply with second hand plastic, and placed in hedgerows that aren’t good growing space, it works out.


For the squash, I’m happy about the footprint because I harvest into second-hand cardboard boxes, I carry them to my truck, and luckily, my buyer is a larger scale farm with efficient facilities to store their own squash, so I deliver straight from the field. Rather than climate-controlling my own tiny space, it helps with scaling to bring it to a larger place. The mathematics of indoor temperature control are considerations of the square footage exposed to exterior temperatures, related to the cubic footage of storage inside, mediated by the r-value of the insulation used. Basically- small places have a higher ratio of square footage exposed to cubic footage conditioned, leading to inefficiencies. Taking part in larger scale storage is an efficient practice, and I love getting that squash off my hands ASAP.


Fertility / Fertilizer / Organic Matter

Now this one is a doozy. Much is said about how inorganic fertilizers cost a lot of fossil fuel to produce- some of them are direct products of fossil fuels, while others simply consume them (in the form of heating, drying, mechanical crushing, etc) in the course of manufacture. All these things are true and real concerns. However, while I am proud to use organic fertility, it is a dehydrated, mechanically broken down product, so I suspect it’s an energy hog to produce. That being said, it’s chicken manure from an egg farm, so it’s a byproduct of an industry not going away anytime soon. Basically, all fertilizer takes some energy to produce. Refined or concentrated products inevitably require dehydration or crushing, while bulk products like local fresh animal manures are incredibly heavy (due to moisture content) in relation to their actual pounds of fertility, and require a whole lot of diesel and steel to move from A to B, no matter if the local farm is a mile away.


I used to have some goats I used for landscaping, and the yearly stall-mucking allowed me to supplement my gardens with that. Loading in wheelbarrows, and being a compact little homestead, I brought it directly to where needed, so it was pretty great. However, 2 goats did not produce enough manure to take care of even my small farm needs. I wish I could integrate animals into my operation, but there are huge scaling issues with animal operations- if I had animals to create my own on-farm fertility it would very much be the old case of “the tail wagging the dog.” I’d be a goat farm with a side operation of garlic. 

I applaud the farms that do find that mix though- I think draft animal farms are in a cool spot because they can power their plowing through steeper pastures, rougher grasses, and recycle those nutrients onto the worked portions of land. Alas- I’m not the size farm that needs a permanent ox or draft horse team.


A critical part of my farm’s success has been my use of straw mulch. Straw mulch breaks down into organic matter- stable organic matter- that is a direct sequestration of carbon. Roughly every 10 lbs of raw organic matter will become 9 lbs broke down, and 1 lb sequestered in the soil, of stable OM. Organic matter is not pure elemental carbon, per se, but is by definition, mostly carbon. By using straw mulch instead of plastic mulch, I avoid the carbon footprint of single-use farm plastics manufacture, while also sequestering nearly 500 lbs of organic matter/acre into the soil, per year.


This organic matter reduces my fertility needs, compounding the positive effects there. It also eliminates the need, in my climate, of watering the garlic, so I have avoided the energy costs of irrigation, drip tape, etc. Acting as weed control, it reduces my need to burn fuel in cultivation and tilling- allowing me to switch to once-a-year contracted plowing and discing.


There is, of course, an off-farm production cost to this straw, which I have not calculated. A friend of mine who is a straw farmer, is of course consuming resources to produce that straw and get it to me, but I prefer that far more than keeping a plastics company in business. My friend farms a beautiful family parcel less than 10 miles away, responsibly grows his straw, and does a once-a-year delivery to me. I buy about 2 tons of straw each year, so I will be searching the internet to see typical production costs for that. As mentioned though, you always have to consider the “baseline alternate” - the plastic, or fossil fuel, that would be used for weed control, the 2-4 season use rowcovers used to keep garlic warm in winter, which end up in landfills, etc. It serves all those functions, and directly sequesters carbon into the soil at the same time.


Distribution

Now, there’s no getting around transportation’s release of carbon. With electric vehicles on the rise, this will get better, but we also have to green up our grid- plugging an electric vehicle into a fossil fuel powered grid is not so different from directly burning gas for mechanical energy. So...while we need to clean up our grid and switch to EV and other technologies, transport is the exact sector where direct carbon offsets are most important. That’s why I plan on installing the best app I can find which will calculate the shipping weight and distance, and quantify it down to a number that can be offset. I have no plans whatsoever to make someone cover that amount- but I’m hoping to find an app that offers that, with me pledging to pay if not. I really believe in community participation as a means to get people engaged. It will be pennies on the dollar, if so, so it should not break anyone’s bank to do the right thing- and I’ll definitely cover it if any customer chooses not to cover it.


Conclusion

In short…(after going very long about it)- I hope you know that every purchase you make, supports me in continuing to do the right thing. I love that what saves the planet also makes a better product- and my goal is to “find my tribe”- to find the people who notice and appreciate the difference. The same long slow cure that saves energy in curing garlic, also makes for a better tasting, better storing garlic that is also superior seed stock. My concern for excess fertility is why I test my soil frequently and think about my inputs- which again, results in superior garlic that gets less disease, fights off infections better, and has a healthier fall start when planted in your farms and gardens.


Possible improvements for the future on my farm...

Fossil fuel usage- while I keep my plowing and tilling to a minimum, my most common reason for needing it is when I let weeds get out of control on a piece of ground and need a restart. I try to get better at weed control every year, and pieces that are kept more weed-free need fewer tractor passes to replant. I view that as best chance of improvement for that topic.

Storage, drying and curing-

My current setup is as low-energy as I can imagine (other than producing my own renewable shadecloth), but the most insidious inefficiency is crop losses, or unsold product, etc. Every year, I produce cull bulbs that simply can’t be sold, due to market expectations of size. I also lost a fair amount of corn to pests, so every dollar and hour of effort that went into corn production, lost some of itself to that storage mistake. Producing fewer culls, and protecting corn in the field and in storage, is a way to respect and honor the effort that already went into that plant up til that point.


Fertility-

After enough years of farming, I have enough built up fertility that by next fall, I will sharply cut back my fertility inputs. It’s been a long effort to correct pH with lime, and get calcium, phosphorus and potassium where it needs to be. So, my efforts now are to research organic options that focus on key micronutrients while not building up excesses of others. I’ve got very high P and K, adequate levels of most everything, but I currently have diagnosed a potential zinc shortage, which is important in garlic, and corn, and need to have a plan how to address that. I also want to get better at cover cropping on a less sloppy schedule- twice now, I’ve sown cover crop right before a seasonal drought (not intentional of course), and got a poor stand out of it. After two years in a row, I have learned that that timing is risky, so I must learn to get it out and on sooner. Better cover cropping also improves the weed situation, saving on the fossil fuels, so it’s all connected.


Distribution-

As mentioned, I will install a carbon offset app so that the retail web-order shipping portion of my business offsets itself. My local wholesale deliveries are 1 mile and 3 miles away (Perry’s Orchard and Moses Farm Stand!) so I’m pretty darn happy with that, for all the practical reasons as well as the warm fuzzy ones.


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