ST. ALBANS — Improving soils and climate was the subject of the first Soil Fest in Taylor Park on Saturday. About 200 people stopped in to enjoy a grass-fed burger from Bob’s Meat Market, listen to speakers, and visit with the various exhibitors.
The keynote speaker was Judith Schwartz, author of “Cows Save the Planet.” Schwartz has interviewed scientists and farmers around the globe about soil and its connection to global warming, the water cycle, biodiversity and human health.
“Carbon is what we want in the soil, but it’s gone into the air,” said Schwartz. In her book she quotes from multiple scientists who believed that with proper soil management, it is possible to turn the world’s soils back into a system for sequestering carbon instead of releasing it.
Organic matter in soil is 58 percent carbon, and it is organic matter that allows soils to hold water, preventing erosion and allowing water to sink deeper, recharging aquifers.
Climate change has focused on the impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, while ignoring the world’s natural systems, in Schwartz’s view.
Greenhouse gases function like the walls of a greenhouse, trapping energy on the planet instead releasing into space, the same way the walls of a greenhouse trap energy.
As a result, 97 percent of scientists agree, the earth is getting warmer and the change in temperature is altering weather patterns around the globe.
Living things are also part of the world’s climate and can change it, argues Schwartz. “Climate is about biology, not just physics,” she said.
Soil has been a source of carbon dioxide in the air since the mid-19th century as areas that were previously covered in vegetation were removed and the soils exposed. Modern farm practices, particularly the overuse of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and the lack of cover crops, are continuing the trend, according to Schwartz’s research.
Restoring soils means using plants to turn carbon dioxide into glucose while restoring the fungal and microbial life in the soil. In healthy soils, plants trade the glucose with the fungi and microbes, transferring carbon from the atmosphere to the soil.
Schwartz sees hope in this process. By focusing on living systems, “we create a possibility for everyone to be engaged in healing the land,” she said.
“Nature’s tendency is to want to heal itself,” added Schwartz. “We can ally with nature’s desire to heal itself.”
Some people are listening. The United Nations has declared 2015 the year of soils, and in France, the country’s agricultural minister has launched a national campaign to build carbon in the soil, she said.
Locally, Tim Camisa, of Vermont Organics Reclamation, has taken up the cause, broadening his company’s focus from water quality to include climate change.
Camisa, one of the primary organizers of the event, began his remarks saying, “I am a carbon broker.”
His company takes manure solids and uses them to create soils for farms and gardens.
For 800,000 years the amount of carbon in the atmosphere fluctuated between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm). “For the first time we are at 320 ppm,” said Camisa.
“As a public, a farming, growing, food-consuming public, we can start a conversation not just about water, but about air and soil,” he said.
“Soil is the foundation,” said Camisa. “Without health soils, we don’t have health land bases or vegetation.”
“We must stop overlooking the obvious,” he added. “Plants are the only mechanism we have for scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere.”
“Air, water and soil should be personal for all of us,” said Camisa. “Air, water and soil is about what we put into our bodies.”