A Regenerative Orchard
What does it mean to be a regenerative orchard? How does farming with nature cultivate a different relationship with creation? The word agriculture has roots in an ancient relationship humans have with their world. Agriculture is simply the culture we create with our landscape. And culture is about sustained, patterned relationships. Consequently, farming is about relationships. But how do we form these relationships? Let’s answer that question by thinking about carbon.
Carbon sequestration is a growing tagline in modern agriculture. There is a growing sector of marketing firms and general bandwagon behavior that may obscure what we really are talking about. For a more nuanced and genuine look at carbon farming, we like to focus on the purpose of carbon and how our relationship with soil carbon modifies our practices.
Carbon, Plants and Soil
Think of carbon as energy. Carbon is the basic building block that energizes the natural world. Consequently, we want to keep carbon flowing through our farms. Like most natural systems, carbon starts with plants. Without plants, time erodes soil carbon, and the soil slowly loses energy. Like an old battery, the energy leaves the system. Our amazing trees, blackberries, clovers, grasses, wildflowers, and other herbaceous perennials take the majority of light-energy and convert it into simple carbon compounds—sugars. Carbon production in the leaf then begins a journey into the deep. A bulk of plant photosynthate is sent down into the soil. Above-ground energy production goes down to feed an underground jungle—the rhizosphere. The rhizosphere is an ecosystem. However, there is emerging evidence that plants actually take some of the absorbed light and pipe it down into the root hairs to shine infrared light into the darkened soil to excite nutrient cycling and microbial life. The root zone is truly a magical place Think of the roots like miniature jungles—complete with a light source, architecture, and living beings. Among these roots are all manner of animals. Instead of monkeys, birds, elephants, and insects, the rhizosphere houses thousands of species of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and microarthropods. The root pumps carbon compounds called exudates into the rhizosphere to feed these critters. Like a jungle, each specie has a function and role. Some are grazers. Some are predators. But let’s follow the carbon. The carbon embedded in the exudates goes into the bodies of bacteria and fungi. The carbon changes hands. It gets complexed. Some carbon continues to cycle in the rhizosphere through normal ecological patterns of life and death. However, some of the carbon goes into more and more complex carbon chains. These compounds get super-stable and begin shifting the environment of the soil. These compounds are food stores for soil critters, but also provide structure for the soil. This process can continue down into the depths of the soil. How deep? We really aren’t sure. However, we know through research that roots can go down to great depths…much deeper than we anticipated.
But the carbon cycling isn’t just happening in the rhizosphere. Plant leaves and plant bodies fall back to the soil and decompose turning into organic matter with the help of soil biology. And carbon composes over half of organic matter.
Trees are great carbon pumps. Plants are factories of energy conversion and habitat stabilization. Water and sunlight from the heavens energize the process, but trees structure that energy. Trees even create their own micro-climates. Remember that image of the hydrological cycle you learned in middle school? Well, we are missing a major contributor. Over half of all the precipitation begins with micro particles that are generated by trees and released into the air. Forests actually create their own precipitation.
What does this mean for carbon sequestration? We cannot sequester carbon at any meaningful scale without plants and the microbes that plants relate to in the rhizosphere. Our small orchard canyon plays a role in the great planetary cycle in which plants absorb carbon. On a global scale, watch what happens to CO2 levels in the northern hemisphere when plants begin to photosynthesize:
Carbon belongs in the soil and in plant bodies. So why is so much up in the air right now? In short, CO2 levels are the highest they have ever been in human history because of a break in relationship. Our agri-culture—our relationship with the landscape—has been broken. When we chop up the soil and its ecosystem through excessive tillage, carbon moves up into the air. When we decimate soil biology with synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, carbon moves up into the air. When we destroy plant life and leave the soil bare, carbon moves up into the air. But the opposite is also true. When we reconnect our farming culture to all of the inhabitants of our land, we become stabilizers of plant and soil communities. When this happens, carbon returns to the land.
Consequently, our orchard cultivation is based on the following principles and founded on the operating goal to think like plants:
- Maintain live plants and live roots as much as possible throughout the year.
- Cover bare ground with plants and mulch.
- Return dead wood to the earth.
- Feed the soil microbiome.
- Use transport and electricity that works with the sun and not with fossil fuels.
- Do not use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
These goals are monitored by concrete tangible measurements we make every year:
- Organic matter percentages for every fruit block.
- Biomass measurements of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa.
- Aggregated volumes of organic cover material.
- Solar energy usage
These measurements combined with specific farming practices such as perennial plantings, no-till seeding, and rotation grazing of our chickens provide key numbers that we use to calculate carbon cycling and sequestration through the national Comet-Planner metric. Stay tune to see our 2021 annual calculations from USDA “Comet-Planner” for our orchard.