Opinion: Colorado steps up on regenerative agriculture — #Colorado Politics

Crop residue. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

From Colorado Politics (Sarah Jensen):

The soil beneath our feet has the power to be one of the greatest solutions to climate change, and local farmers in Colorado are harnessing it.

That’s right, the earth’s soil currently holds 2,500 gigatons of carbon , which is three times the amount that is in the atmosphere. However, conventional agriculture methods deplete the soil of the nutrients needed to sequester carbon, leading to a net release of carbon into the atmosphere. This is because conventional agriculture relies on pesticides, fertilizers, tilling and monocrops that degrade the soil and reduce its ability to hold carbon.

Our traditional agricultural system contributes to climate change, but there is hope coming from some local farmers in Colorado who are implementing sustainable techniques known as regenerative agriculture. This type of farming helps maximize a farm’s ability to sequester carbon by focusing on rebuilding the health of the soil, maximizing its water capacity and increasing the nutrient density of the crops. These techniques use the power of photosynthesis to pull carbon out of the air and could potentially sequester 1.85 gigatons of carbon per year — equal to the annual emissions from the global transportation sector.

To support healthy soils using regenerative agriculture, farmers use cover crops, crop rotations, and intercrops. The use of cover crops in the off-season helps to keep weeds at bay without the use of pesticides and adds nutrients to the soil when the land is not being used for crops. Crop rotation ensures the nutrients in the soil stay balanced because different plants provide and use different nutrients in the soil. And, intercrops allow the farmer to plant crops within and between other crops, which can help keep weeds under control and reduce the use of resources on the farm. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to managing the land, and farmers are continuing to find new, innovative ways to implement these methods.

Our Denver branch of the American Conservation Coalition has worked with two local farms — The Urban Farm and Cottonwood Farm — paving the way for regenerative agriculture in Colorado. These farmers are dedicated to sustainable practices, but the high up-front costs of switching from conventional to regenerative agriculture is still a significant obstacle. Farmers have to sacrifice a high crop yield in the beginning of this transition, and that is just not a viable option for most farmers who depend on their crop yield each year to sustain them financially.

The Urban Farm relies on volunteers to help soften the blow of these costs because the farmer can only afford to pay for one employee on the small farm. Cottonwood Farms chooses not to use volunteers because they need specialists, and volunteers can result in a net loss for their farm if the job is not done right. Both farms stay resilient in the face of these challenges because they are committed to a brighter agricultural future. Still, this industry needs more support if it is going to become commonplace.

Farmers who are switching over to regenerative agriculture need economic incentives to do so. The initial years after the switch can be difficult, and farmers cannot expect to receive their average yield as they restore the health of their soil. To support these farmers, we need to continue to find places in the market to provide an incentive for regenerative practices.

In Colorado, a few local governments have implemented a program called Restore Colorado that offers an optional 1% fee at participating restaurants that goes into a fund to support farmers that are making the switch. In addition, Cottonwood Farms received a grant from Boulder County that helped them buy tractors that support their regenerative agriculture methods. On a national level, the Growing Climate Solutions Act will create a market for sequestered carbon for farmers that are using regenerative agriculture. The farmers can sell their sequestered carbon to emitters that want to offset their emissions.

Farmers are taking the initiative to protect our environment despite their challenges, and we need to support them. I’m attending COP26 as a climate activist this year, and I plan to use my voice to advocate for natural climate solutions such as regenerative agriculture that I see right in my own back yard.

Sarah Jensen is a master’s student at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the branch leader of the American Conservation Coalition’s (ACC) Denver branch.

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