Using Soil to Slow Climate Change

The economic demands on farmers and ranchers to maximize production on their land can inadvertently lead to damaging the soil. Unhealthy soil stores less carbon and depends on an increased use of chemicals and fertilizers which in turn can increase pollution and loss of soil to erosion. The good news is that the stewardship and determination of today’s agricultural producers can help solve these problems. And, under the 2020 Oregon Climate Action Plan, there is an opportunity right now to set ambitious new goals to address soil health and combat climate change.  

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration

Photo by Markus Winkler | Unsplash

Soil health is a term used to describe a high functioning soil ecosystem. Soils are combinations of mineral solids, water, air and organic matter. A healthy soil has a well-established biological community of worms, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms, working to break down the organic matter into a nutrient-rich solution that plant roots can absorb and use as fuel for growth and seed production. But there is more going on in that living, breathing soil. Soil organic carbon can be 52-58% of soil organic matter. This carbon is retained or “sequestered” in the soil rather than circulating in the atmosphere.

On forest lands, most of the sequestered carbon is held in the biomass of trees and other plants. Rangeland, farmland and other non-forested lands sequester carbon in the soil, making the protection, improvement and restoration of soil health an essential part of our strategy for addressing climate change. Best practices for improving soil health reduce agricultural releases of greenhouse gases (both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides from fertilizer off-gassing) from poorly managed soils, and in some cases may even capture and store greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Not all soils are capable of storing carbon at the 50% level; however there are best management practices that can increase soil health across a broad range of soils. Such as:

chickens eating apples on the ground of an orchard

Photo by Skylar Jean | Unsplash

  • Reduced tillage and cover cropping, to reduce disturbance of the soil ecosystem, including compaction, allowing carbon to stay in the soil rather than being released into the atmosphere.
  • Precision application of agrochemicals – fertilizers and pesticides — to reduce chemical reactions that release carbon and nitrogen into the atmosphere and to avoid killing off soil biota necessary for building healthy soils.
  • Soil-building crop rotations, to reduce pest and disease pressures, increase carbon storage, and reduce leaching of soil nutrients.
  • Shifting to perennial crops for some or all of the production cycle.
  • Taking marginal lands out of production and shifting to rangeland or native plant communities, which, when managed properly, can store more soil carbon.

To increase producer uptake and implementation of these practices, we need to:

  • Develop an inventory of the carbon sequestration potential of Oregon’s natural and working lands so we understand the opportunities available for improving/restoring soil health.
  • Provide incentives and cost-support programs to producers to help with the costs of transitioning to soil health-focused farming.
  • Provide technical assistance for producers – ensuring that state agencies, research universities, the Oregon State University Extension, and on-the-ground partners have information to share and enough staff to do the sharing.
  • Ensure Oregon is poised to take advantage of federal programs, most of which require a state match to access federal funding.
  • Develop a clear, concise, comprehensive plan for moving forward.

The Status of Soil Health Policy in Oregon

Oregon’s natural and working lands can play an important role in attaining our goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon. We are fortunate that the Oregon Climate Action Plan (OCAP), Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20-04, explicitly directed the Oregon Global Warming Commission (OGWC) to develop goals for increasing carbon sequestration on those lands.

Since OCAP’s signing, OEC and our partners have worked to advance positive outcomes for our climate, communities, and economy through OCAP implementation. This includes extensive engagement with our natural resource agencies and the OGWC in the development of climate-smart natural and working lands goals. Across our climate and water programs, OEC is  advocating to ensure that Oregon sets ambitious goals to maximize climate change mitigation on Oregon’s forests, agricultural and range lands, and wetlands. 

Tractor plowing a barren field

Photo by Chris Ensminger | Unsplash

The OGWC has met frequently over the past several months to learn from scientific experts, federal agencies, and community stakeholders, and inform the natural and working lands goal. At the most recent meeting, the OGWC heard from experts on opportunities for carbon sequestration on natural and working lands, and from Oregon National Resource Conservation Service on the many federal programs available to support climate-friendly farming, and shared and discussed a strategy for increasing Oregon’s policy and programmatic commitments to sequestering carbon on natural and working lands. The next meeting, scheduled for August 4th, will focus on reviewing and finalizing the draft Natural and Working Lands Proposal, which includes our recommendations listed above. OEC will be providing feedback on the draft report, which is open for public comment until August 2, 2021.

At the same time, OEC continues to partner with farmers and other landowners across the state on other opportunities for making agriculture more climate-friendly, including the use of electric farm vehicles, like tractors, utility vehicles and pick-up trucks. Irrigation equipment, usually a power-hog on the farm, can be run entirely without fossil fuels using a combination of pressure from piped irrigation systems and solar energy. Farm fields and pastures can be dual-purpose – some researchers at OSU are installing solar panels tall enough for animals to graze under and tractors to operate below them.

Ensuring that Oregon’s agencies are implementing good climate policy and delivering positive climate benefits through climate-friendly programs — such as Oregon Department of Agriculture’s new soil health position — is a key part of OEC’s programmatic work.  You’ll be hearing more from us as policies are put in place and programs are implemented on the ground. Stay tuned.

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