PHOTO: USDA / Colorado State University
Stephany Wilkes
November 1, 2017

You might have a hobby farm or what you consider not much more than a glorified garden, but small acreage and tiny flocks can add up to big change in your soil, your bank account and the world. Two handy online conservation planning tools can help quantify those benefits.

Created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Colorado State University, Comet-Farm quantifies the soil carbon, energy savings and other benefits of farm practices (grazing included) according to your region and land area.

If you plan to farm but haven’t started (or just want a fun online distraction), Comet-Planner is the better tool to start with. It’s easier to use. Unlike Comet-Farm, Comet-Planner does not require registration and makes it easy to plug in different land practices. Enter your state and county, select the Grazing Lands icon and then select relevant grazing practices and acreage. Comet-Planner then approximates the carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reductions of the combined data you entered.

Here are the reasons I find these tools useful.

1. They Show How Beneficial Grazing Can Be

Grazing (and the livestock that do it) are woefully misunderstood. Sheep have unfairly become synonymous with overgrazing and methane emissions. But land needs living, organic matter. No manure and no trampled plants means no living stuff. Healthy soils are usually dark, and that dark color comes from soil organic matter, of which carbon is a measurable part. In addition to building soil, grazing keeps fire risk (and emissions from the same) down, without the use of pricey fuel or heavy tractors that compact soil. What’s more, manure-producing sheep reduce the need for off-farm fertilizer inputs.

2. Carbon Is Money

We know this, experientially and intuitively. I pay to fill up my car, after all, and every egg shell and coffee ground in my compost bin makes more I don’t have to purchase. Healthy, carbon rich soils reduce many farm costs. They increase agricultural productivity and the nutritional content of forage and meat products. Richer soil can also create longer growing seasons, reduce feed costs for livestock and increase water-holding capacity.

3. Wool Is Carbon

I don’t know why this lesson blew my mind, but it did. We know, of course, that carbon is signified with “C” on the Periodic Table and is one of Earth’s most abundant elements. It exists in pure or nearly pure forms—like diamonds and graphite—but also combines with other elements to form molecules. Those carbon-based molecules are the building blocks of humans, animals (hold this thought), plants, trees, soils, fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.

Plants absorb and convert atmospheric carbon dioxide to carbon during photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use the sun’s energy and chlorophyll (the green color in their leaves) to feed themselves. Plants convert carbon dioxide, water and inorganic salts into carbohydrates (“carbo” as in carbon, and “hydro” as in water) to create the plant materials they grow: longer stems, leaves, buds and so on.

The carbon in wool is derived from carbon in the pasture. Sheep eat those carbon-storing plants and convert the carbon they consume to wool. In fact, 50 percent of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon. When we knit, crochet, or purchase a wool garment, we are buying carbon sequestered from the atmosphere one or two years earlier. Y’all: A wool sweater is a carbon sink, even before we wear it out and compost it.

4. Humans Can Help

It’s easy to feel beaten down and overwhelmed by all the negative things we messy humans do. Getting a quantified sense of how farm work helps makes for a refreshing contrast. The Comet-Planner identifies new farm practices to add, should you wish to build on existing efforts. Seeing data about your work to sustain soil as well as animal and human life makes a neat family science project, too.

All Creatures Great and Small

Together, hobby farms and glorified gardens add up to a lot. Your efforts are neither insignificant nor unimportant. You might not farm hundreds of acres or run thousands of sheep but, as these two tools will show you, your work matters to a great many beings in and on the soil.


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