The Next Regeneration

New York wants to fight climate change through good farming. Here's the dirt.

photo-Grist / Amelia Bates / Greta Moran

Didi Barrett, a New York state assemblymember, has visited Stone House Grain, a farm in the Hudson Valley, enough times to be a seasoned tour guide. That’s what it felt like, at least, as we drove in a Jeep down a narrow road, through fields blanketed by cover crops and perennial pastures spread out like a gold-and-brown checkerboard. It was mid-March, a time of dormancy for most plants in the region. Poplar trees, bare of any leaves, lined either side of the road. But the farm was already teeming with life.

From behind the wheel, Ben Dobson, the farm manager, explained why his farm was unseasonably busy. “The basic premise of what people are now calling ‘carbon farming’ is that the earth’s surfaces were made to photosynthesize,” he said, eyeing his fields with a relaxed confidence.

It’s all part of a natural cycle: On warm days, Dobson’s crops pull carbon dioxide from the sky and release it into the soil where it nourishes developing plants. Even in the dead of winter, the fields are full of roots working to keep carbon in the soil. This is one of the ways that Dobson’s farm is able to keep carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, in the ground.

Dobson’s work drew the attention of Barrett a few years back. In 2015, she toured the farm for the first time and asked him for advice on how to incentivize climate change–thwarting farming practices. “It just seemed like a no brainer,” Barrett said. “New York can lead on this.” The resulting pilot project, included in this year’s state budget, will test out different methods of farming in a way that promotes soil health and fights global warming.

At one point, we stop the car to look out over rows of the dried, golden-brown remains of a soybean crop. “You see that green just creeping in?” Dobson asked.

I could just make out the flecks of green, sprouts of a rye cover crop that will grow this spring. Later, he’ll spread clover seed into that rye, he told me. When the rye dies, it will start releasing carbon dioxide, but the next crop, the clover, will be there to soak it up before it’s freed from the soil. Then, the clover will fix nitrogen — when microorganisms attach to roots, converting nitrogen into natural fertilizer for next year’s corn crop.

This constant succession of plants puts carbon to good use. Dobson calls it “building carbon momentum.” On most farms, just the opposite happens: The soil, plowed up and exposed to the air, unleashes carbon into the atmosphere. This comes with a serious toll — agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of greenhouse gases in the U.S., according to the EPA’s latest data, though some of that comes from livestock and gas-powered equipment too. The key to reversing this trend lies in taking care of the soil.