Fiber Producers Fight Climate Change With Carbon Farming

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The concept of carbon farming in fashion has made waves in the food movement. “There is a rich opportunity here to completely realign the politics of agricultural and environmental policy,” wrote Michael Pollan in an op-ed in the Washington Post last December. Those opportunities extend to food and fiber farmers.

At the forefront of carbon farming in the fiber world is Rebecca Burgess, the founder of Fibershed. The Board Chair of the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI) she and Fibershed have been working hard to promote carbon farming as an agricultural practice, as well as build the tools to help producers implement the right strategies to make their production climate-beneficial.

What is carbon farming?

According to Marie Hoff, a Fibershed producer who operates the Capella Grazing Project, carbon farming is built off of the idea that “there is too much carbon up in our atmosphere and there is too little of it in our soil.”

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One of the first Fibershed members to implement carbon farming strategies was Lani Estill, building rotational grazing, compost applications, creek restorations, and land management practices such as no-till farming into her overall ranching practice.

Carbon is a part of the natural cycle, but today, thanks to fossil fuels, we release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the earth can absorb. Carbon farming is an attempt to bring that cycle back into balance, pulling carbon out of the air and putting it into the soil. Not only does that mean removing carbon from the atmosphere which helps to curb climate change, it also means restoring the land. Modern agricultural policies have had a severe effect on the soil. Today it is estimated that the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock, a loss that has seriously affected soil health. Through carbon sequestration, we can improve soil productivity and even minimize the effects of floods and drought.

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The world is covered in cropland and grassland, and with practices that encourage carbon building, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), we have the potential to restore 23.7 gigatons of carbon to the earth every year. The NOFA estimates that to get us back to the safe level of carbon in our atmosphere (350ppm, we are currently over 400ppm), we need to restore 106.25 gigatons. Taking the organization’s estimates, that could be accomplished in less than five years if agricultural practices were focused on carbon farming.

Implementing carbon farming in fiber production

“We’ve spent the last 150 years getting as much carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air and it’s time to switch that,” says Hoff. At Fibershed, that takes the form of the 1% for Regenerative Fiber Systems, an initiative for brands and artisans to invest directly into a nonprofit fund to pay for the implementation of carbon farming practices on local ranches and farms. But of course, an essential part of growing the interest in carbon farming – both in food and fiber – is how to translate that benefit to the consumer.

As Hoff puts it, “no one is harvesting carbon to sell at farmers’ market.” To help with making carbon farming easier to understand for the consumer, in conjunction with making it easier for ranches and farms to implement carbon farming practices, Fibershed is working in conjunction with the CCI to develop a Climate-Beneficial certification for producers implementing carbon farming practices. This will allow consumers to easily identify products which have been produced with the climate in mind, products that are made to last.

“If you’re going to drop a couple hundred dollars on a sweater… but it’s produced in a fashion that’s beneficial for the landscape, the idea is that that sweater is going to outlive you,” says Hoff. “You are going to give it to your grandchildren.”

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One of the first Fibershed members to implement carbon farming strategies was Lani Estill, building rotational grazing, compost applications, creek restorations, and land management practices such as no-till farming into her overall ranching practice. The resulting Merino wool from her Rambouillet breed of sheep is a fiber that’s made with the earth in mind.

Carbon farming practices

Whether we’re producing food or fiber, land management is the second largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions on the planet, so focusing on regenerative practices that increase plant biomass and build soil organic matter is essential if we are going to tackle the issue of climate change. There is a long list of what goes into carbon farm practices, but a large focus of Fibershed and the producers that it works with has been on compost. Applying compost to land can exponentially improve the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. According to the Marin Carbon Project, applying compost to grasslands, if compost were applied to just 5% of California’s rangelands (grasslands where livestock roam), where animals graze, we have the potential to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 28 million metric tons per year, the same as removing nearly 6 million cars from the road.

Then again, just composting does not constitute carbon farming. Instead, it’s important to focus on “Whole farm planning,” says Hoff. “If someone just applies a layer of compost onto their property, that’s great, it may or may not qualify as carbon farming.” Instead, Fibershed works to help their producers to make a full assessment of what can be implemented on their property, and what will have the most benefit. That could mean planting cover crops, implementing no-till practices or reviving vegetation along creeks. “What might be most important for one property might be different for various different properties,” says Hoff.

But no matter what strategies are implemented, carbon farming is an approach that considers the whole, as opposed to just the individual parts. In the end, it is all about the natural cycle. As Hoff points out, it’s “The intention of how you’re farming.” And when that intention considers the environment, social and health implications, it is a part of a larger, restorative system that might just help us to combat climate change.

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The natural lifecycle of carbon and clothing

“If you look at everything in the cyclical fashion, everything seeds into everything else,” says Hoff. Food and fiber is grown, it gets turned into compost and then put back into the earth, starting the system over again. In this soil-to-soil system, clothing made from natural fibers produced on land that implements regenerative practices is grown from the earth, and eventually returns to the earth to break down, unlike synthetic materials. That leaves the consumer with a product that was not only made with the earth in mind, but throughout its lifecycle has a minimized impact.

“With your clothing, after all the processing and manufacturing,” says Hoff, “you have a product that is continuing to do well in the world as opposed to continuing to pollute the world.”

Images: Paige Green Photography