Agricultural producers concentrate on achieving maximum net profits from their efforts in order to advance their operations.  Most also are concerned in varying degrees about what happens to their land and other assets used in farming (e.g., water, air, equipment and facilities) in order to leave them in better shape than when they began farming.

Last week’s Farm and Ranch Life article took a look at how agriculture currently affects the earth’s carbon cycle.  Annual crops produce a small but measurable increase in oxygen, along with a reduction of carbon during the summer, and a small accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during winter.

Today we consider how U.S. farmers and agricultural producers everywhere can improve the earth’s atmosphere and reduce global warming even more than the small net advantages afforded by current agricultural methods.  We take a look at options besides forms of “carbon farming,” which propose tax credits to those who undertake methods of sequestering carbon.

Carbon farming has been debated and implemented in a few countries, but mostly only discussed in the U.S. thus far.  There are many beneficial agricultural practices that reduce carbon emissions and improve air, water, soil, and human life, which is today’s subject.

Perennial crops.  Perennial plants like bamboo, trees and prairie grasses are generally more efficient than annuals at producing oxygen and storing carbon over time.

That’s why methods of raising perennial wheat, corn, and other annual crops are being scientifically evaluated, besides their potential savings on seed costs and soil tillage.  An example is the nonprofit Kansas research organization, The Land Institute, which has been working on the development of strains of perennial wheat for 40 years.

Thus far, perennial grains can’t match the yields expected from annual crops.  Could gene insertion techniques move the area of perennial food production along while improving our planet’s oxygen and CO2 levels?

A Growing Culture is another organization that conducts most of its sustainable ecological research and demonstration projects in Southeast Asia, such as–but not limited to, growing moringa trees that produce more vitamin A and C than orange juice, more calcium and protein than cow’s milk and more potassium than bananas.  The trees also furnish oil, medicines and several soil nutrients.  The results are promising but more research is needed.

The Stone Barns Center is a further example of an organization that conducts agricultural experiments, mostly in the U.S., which are aimed at improving the earth’s ecological health while farming sustainably.

Plants differ in their production of oxygen and carbon.  Initiated a couple decades ago, the biological research I reviewed has elucidated plant processes and specific plant species that provide the most benefit to earth’s atmosphere, giving farmers choices of what to raise.  Over Thanksgiving I also consulted a Ph.D. house guest who does research on these matters.

In greatly simplified fashion that purposefully neglects huge biological complexities, certain plants metabolize CO2 into oxygen and carbon, as well as contribute to food and fiber supplies more than others (www.cropsreview.com).  Most perennials convert radiant energy (sunlight) and CO2, while assisted by soil nutrients and water, into more oxygen and carbon than other plants; many yield consumable food, fiber and fuel.

Plants like peanuts, grapes, potatoes, cotton and most fruit trees, as well as hardwood forest trees and prairie grasses are among the most beneficial CO2 converters.  Cool season grasses like rye, orchard grass, timothy, bluegrass, and wheat tend to become dormant during hot dry periods, but contribute measurably.  The best converters, called C3 plants, predominate about 90 percent of earth’s plant-life presently but are decreasing as rain forests are converted into growing crops and as our planet currently warms.

Certain plants, called C4 plants, are favored by warm moist environments.  They include: corn, crab grass, amaranth plants like pigweeds and relatives that are developing resistance to glyphosate as well as some which are consumed as foods.  Other C4 plants include the sorghum family like millet and sugarcane, but also poison oak, poison ivy and wild parsnip.

Another group of plants called CAMs don’t contribute much to CO2 conversion, like cactus, sedum, agave and pineapples.

They like hot dry conditions.

The experts I consulted suggested several recommendations for agricultural producers who want to reduce C02 and methane, while enhancing oxygen production.

  • Planting perennial crops such as alfalfa, orchard grass and timothy for hay and grazing, while not necessarily permanent, last for 3-4 years in rotational cropping patterns and allow water and carbon to penetrate into the subsoil.
  • Perennial prairie grasses that can be grown as cellulosic material may benefit the planet more than growing corn for the production of ethanol in the long run.
  • Livestock producers should consider collecting methane from manure storages for fuel; it is profitable and releases less carbon than coal and oil when burned.

These are many more proven useful ideas.