Watch biodynamic farmer Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, New York speak about agricultural’s pivotal role in reversing Climate Change, why he believes no-till isn’t always the gold-standard, but can be incorporated into a mixed vegetable operation, and the importance of pasture and livestock to help heal and build soil.

Jean-Paul Courtens

What Have We Learned? Healthy Soils For A Healthy Climate

2019 Real Organic Symposium
March 2, 2019

I was asked to speak on Climate Change because when Linley visited the farm (Roxbury Farm, New York) I passionately spoke about what’s happening to the climate and what our role is as people within that, especially as farmers.

Now I recently became a grandpa. How many people of my age became a grandpa/grandma recently? Wow!

It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, isn’t it? It’s the most incredible thing that can happen to you, but at the same time it makes you look at this wonderful human being and think what’s the world going to look like in 2100?

Will she have a viable future?

And the big question I ask myself is “What do I, as an organic farmer, either contribute or not to help her to have a more livable planet?

roxbury farm csa diversification breakdown

And let’s not beat around the bush here, agriculture has a terrible reputation on the environment.

When hunting and gathering became displaced by farming, it caused a lot of disruption on the planet. Desertification and loss of biodiversity are just two things that happened.

Actually, land use has contributed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and annually it’s responsible for about 13 to 14 percent of greenhouse gases. And we all know that it’s responsible for significant pollution of rivers, oceans, and groundwater.

Agricultural Solution to Climate Change

So the question is, can farming change from having a negative impact on the environment to becoming a positive contributor?

I actually believe that the solution will not come from technology, although maybe there will be some technological solutions.

I actually believe that the change that is needed needs to come from people who work with the natural world, including organic farmers.

wild spaces and native plants are left to bloom and attract pollinators at Roxbury Farm

Wild spaces and native plants are left to bloom and attract pollinators, create habitat and promote biodviersity at Roxbury Farm.

It’s like what we need here is a ‘future thinking’ – thinking outside the box. And we have to come up with something that will allow nature and help nature to come back in the equilibrium that we have disrupted.

Organic farming, as it was intended is based on the fundamental principle of integrity; that everything in nature is interdependent, and that a farm is a living organism.

I’m a biodynamic farmer and I quote here from Rudolf Steiner that “the farm can be conceived as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity. Every farm ought to inspire to the state of self-contained individuality.” Now this state cannot be attained completely, but it needs to be approached.

Now let me share with you how I understand that statement, and it leads to this kind of ‘future thinking’ – that I think we need to actually turn farms from being a threat to this planet to actually being part of the solution.

So, the farm as a ‘living self-contained individuality’? I think of a single-celled organism as the simplest life-form for an analogy of the farm as a self-contained organism.

Any organism has one or more semi-permeable membranes and semi-permeable membranes are not designed to keep everything out or to keep everything in. They discriminate what comes in and they discriminate what goes out.

And it’s really the membrane that allows it to have integrity. A more complex barrier to consider is actually our own skin, and we know that healthy skin protects us from the environment.

The Soil Membrane and Loss of Organic Matter

Now if we view the farm as a ‘self-contained individuality’, the analogy of all that I have told you earlier is found in the soil.

The soil is really that membrane that allows the farm to have integrity.

(I’ve been working the land for most of my life and I’ve opened up the soil quite a bit, but I have actually concluded every single time I open it up isn’t like opening up the skin, or somehow allowing that membrane to be violated.)

But the rapid depletion of organic matter on the prairies, now that gives us plenty of evidence of what happens when you open up that skin.

When the settlers took the land and started plowing it up, there was indication of 15% organic matter. I mean if you go out to the Midwest today, if you can find even 5%, you know that’s pretty good.

Building Soil to Hold Nutrients

The other thing is that it doesn’t just reduce organic matter, it reduces or even eliminates the mycorrhizal fungi that Linley was talking about. And we know how incredibly important they are.

Now this particular study that was done recently actually proves that arbuscular mycorrhizae when inoculated in soil – it was actually in dune sands – led to reduced nitrogen and phosphorus losses under heavy rainfall. Because mycorrhizae act like a filter.

Beneficial fungi growing between crop rows at Roxbury Farm CSA on left, mixed harvest on right

Mycorrhizae allow the soil to hold these nutrients. So if you want to have integrity in your soil and you don’t want to wash your nutrients away, you need these mycorrhizae and disruption of the soil eliminates that network.

Pasture Animals Build Healthy Soils

So isn’t it safe to conclude that a healthy farm has most of its land covered? You know, at least most of the time.

And the best way to do that of course, is to cover it with grass and legumes and put some animals on it.

And I’ll make another step.

I think that a healthy farm, it has to include livestock.

There has to be a way in which we incorporate livestock into the farm as an organism.

I’ve actually done that at Roxbury farm. It’s 425 acres. We took a corn and potato farm and took a lot of land out of production of cropland and put it back in grasses and legumes. Whereby about 10% of the land is opened up each year to put into annual vegetable crops, another 10% is put into green manures, specifically to build soil and the rest of the land is allowed to remain in a natural state for biodiversity purposes.

A new generation of piglets huddles with their mother

Alternating Pasture with Cropland

So here’s the question: Why can we build soil on a larger scale?

There were 40 million bisons on the prairie. There are nine million dairy cows. There’s about 31 million beef cows.

bison grazing on the prairie

What a novel idea if we actually start looking at these farms in the Midwest as a diversified operation, whereby pasture and hayland is being alternated with cropland. Just a thought.

So here’s the argument against this, right, every time you talk about grass-fed beef and everything else – oh my god, you know the greenhouse output.

Here’s a recent study from UC Davis. All we have to do is feed them one pound of seaweed a day and we actually can reduce their methane output. We know that methane is a harmful greenhouse gas, so I’m not trying to minimize that. It’s 30 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. But there are ways that we can be better about this.

Alternating pasture with cropland is definitely an important step towards making agriculture part of the solution instead of the problem, but how are we going to grow all these human food consumption crops? Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t live off grass.

Cows on pasture at Roxbury Farm CSA on left, new rows of crops being planted on right

You can Build Soil and Till

So we need to find ways that we can be more regenerative in our approach to soil building. And you might conclude from what I said earlier that I would be a proponent of no-till, that everything should be no-till, and the USDA will say that no-till that’s the gold standard.

Let me make this clear: no-till is not the gold standard.

Might be a little shocking to hear. No-till might keep the soil in place – but it doesn’t build soil. And there will be another speaker here talking today about what no-till does, so I will not go into that.

You can build soil even if you do applied tillage, but the way in which we do that is a responsible tillage. Some of the things that we do at Roxbury are mulching after we till to protect the soil again and incorporating full standing crops of green manures. We actually found that we really can build soil. Not inverting the soil by moldboard ploughing, but by using a chisel plow or a yeoman plow. And constantly trying to keep the land covered at any given time – so as soon as the vegetables are out of the ground, we plant the cover crop.

And what have we seen? We started with a very low organic matter soil, and this is on land where we did not rotate in with the animals, this is just alternating lands with cover crops. The soil organic matter goes up, you start tilling it, it goes down again, but it’s a gradual way of stepping it up.

Suppressing Weeds With Living Mulch

Ok this is great, we are actually building soil even though we do tillage. But I want to find a way that I don’t have to till the land when I actually plant my vegetables. You cannot do it for all vegetables, but we did some experimentation with rolling and crimping, whereby we actually take a full standing cover crop and we roll it down and then we plant directly into that. Here with a transplanter, we transplanted sweet corn. In other plots we planted broccoli. We planted cauliflower.

You can see here that there’s excellent weed suppression and we did a side-by-side comparison.

planting corn in rolled and crimped vetch

We had very good yields of sweet corn. I would say they were equal to the conventional tilled plots, except for that the ears were healthier.

Now here’s the ticker. This is a picture taken from the conventional till, where we disrupted the soil before we planted broccoli and I don’t know if you can see, but it’s wilting. Now this is where we rolled in Austrian field peas, which didn’t give us a lot of weed control, but you can see, same irrigation practices and these plants stand upright.

The water holding capacity of the soil is so much greater when we didn’t disturb the soil.

Cauliflower is very interesting. Our crew said, “Can we just harvest in that plot? Because it doesn’t stink!” That was interesting. So we thought, like ok ,let’s go dig around, you know, let’s see what’s going on. Always gotta keep a shovel with you.

We started digging around and look what we saw, earthworms everywhere, wormholes, the soil structure was round. You know we went through the disturbed soil, same field, same soil, and the soil was blocky and didn’t hold together as well.

Measuring the Impact of Building Organic Matter

We’re are at an interesting point in the history of mankind, I think. We are able to look back, seeing that our planet is a living organism. In some ways we’re also at an interesting point where we can say that agriculture, with all the knowledge we have right now about the soil and everything else, that we in agriculture can turn things around.

We know we can do different.

I wanted to see what impact do we have actually have on our planet. And the amount of land that we actually have on this earth that is in agriculture, it’s really only about 11%, and only maybe a third of that is the land that we put into croplands.

Well, that alone makes you think. Because this is what sustains us right, so we better take care of that little sliver.

arable farm land on earth

This sliver of earth that’s planted in agriculture is the sliver where will have the most impact. I’m not talking about the impact we can have planting trees, but if we change the impact we have on our cropland, if we change our practices, if we apply the practice that I talked about, what could happen?

And so, I did a little bit of the back-of-the-envelope numbering. Like okay, what happens if we are able to increase the organic matter of Roxbury by about one percent over ten years?

What about if we use those practices on other land as well? So if one percent organic matter is 12 tons, that means that it’s about twenty five and a half tons of carbon dioxide.

That little sliver of land represents four billion acres. 1% organic matter on four billion acres is 102 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Now, if we think about doing rotational grazing on some of the grassland on the other land that we have, we can actually have an impact.

Agriculture can have a positive impact on climate change, but we do have to have the will to change it and it takes a lot of management.

Real Organic Farming

So Real Organic farming alone of course can’t reverse climate change, but it can take important steps in the right direction.

Real Organic farming fills an enormous important role in preserving biodiversity and also in protecting our water resources.

I believe the real change that needs to happen is that we, as people, all of us start realizing that nature is just not “out there.” The real ‘future thinking’ that is needed here is “We are nature. We are part of it.”

And by learning to work with nature being a better steward of that little sliver of land where we grow food, we can not only secure our source of nutrition but make a contribution to Climate Change and to greater biodiversity. And, you know, it’s a personal issue for me ensure that our children and grandchildren have a better future.

Thank you.