Jean-Paul Courtens | Real Organic Project Symposium | 03-02-2019


So I was asked to speak on climate change because when Linley visited the farm I passionately spoke about you know 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 think that this wonderful human being, what’s the world going to look like in 2100? So will she have a viable future? And the big question I ask myself is like what what do I as an organic farmer either contribute or not to help her to have a more livable planet. 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, loss of biodiversity, are just two things that happened. Actually land use has contributed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and actually 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, groundwater so the question is can farming change from having a negative impact on the environment to becoming a positive contributor? So I actually believe that the solution will not come from technology, or there will be some technological solutions, but I actually believe that maybe the change that is needed needs to come from people who work with the natural world, including organic farmers. 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 create, allowing nature and helping nature to come back in the equilibrium that we have disrupted. So 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. So 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, it discriminates what comes in and it discriminates what goes out to the semipermeable membrane. And it’s really the membrane that allows it to have integrity. So a more complex barrier is actually our own skin and healthy skin you know protects us from the environment. Now if we view the farm as a self-contained you know individuality what the analogy of all that what I 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 for most of my life and I’ve opened up the soil quite a bit, but I have actually concluded that doing that isn’t it like every time I open it up isn’t it like opening up the skin, right or somehow allowing that membrane to be violated. Now the rapid depletion of organic matter on the prairies that gives us plenty evidence of what happens when you open up, you know that skin. When the settlers took the land and started ploughing it up, there was you know indication of 15% organic matter. I mean if you go out to the Midwest if you find five, you know then that’s pretty good. The other thing is that it doesn’t just reduce organic matter, it also reduces or even eliminates mycorrhizal fungi that Linley was talking about and how incredibly important they are. Now this particular study that was done recently actually proves that arbuscular mycorrhizae that they inoculated in soil it was actually in dune sands, reduced nitrogen and phosphorus losses under heavy rainfall because this mycorrhiza acts like a filter, so again it’s his way in which the soil allows these nutrients to hold, so if you want to have integrity in your soil and you don’t want to wash your nutrients away you need these mycorrhiza and disruption of the soil eliminates that. So isn’t it safe to conclude that a healthy farm has most of its land covered at 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. So and 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 put into, allowed to remain for biodiversity purposes. So here’s the question: Why can we do this 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. 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 you know better about this. So alternating pasture with cropland it’s definitely an important step of making agriculture part of the solution instead of the problem but how are we going to grow all these human food consumption crop because you know I don’t know about you but I don’t live of grass 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 that everything should be no-till and USDA will say that no-till that’s the gold standard. All right let me make this clear no-till is not the gold standard. All right might be a little shocking here no-till keeps the soil maybe 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 it is a responsible tillage in which way we do that. And some of the things that we do at Roxbury is mulching after we till so you protect the soil again. Incorporating full standing crops of green manures it actually has found that we really can build soil. Not inverting the soil by moldboard ploughing, 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. But I wanted to push the envelope 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 and you cannot do it for all vegetables, so 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. 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 like, “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 so 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. So we’re actually at an interesting point in history of mankind I think. You know 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 about everything else, that we can turn that around. We know we can do different. So I wanted to see like okay so what impact do we have actually 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 crop 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. And so this is also the sliver where we will have the most impact and I’m not talking about the impact we can have on planting trees but just 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 I did a little bit of the back of the envelope you know numbering like okay so what happens we we were 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 tonnes of carbon dioxide. So that little sliver of land represents four billion acres and so 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. 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 also fills an enormous important role in preserving biodiversity and also protecting our water resources. I believe the real change that needs to happen, that we actually as people all of us start realizing that nature is just not “out there.” The real future thinking that is needed here is that, “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 we can not only secure our source of nutrition but make a contribution to climate change and to greater biodiversity and you know as it’s a personal issue for me ensure that our children and grandchildren have a better future. Thank you. [Applause]

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