Creating a Carbon-based Local Economy

by Rebecca Burgess

How can local economies value carbon farming practices in finished consumer goods? Fibershed represents a 160-member producer community, spanning from the Oregon border to San Luis Obispo and from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra foothills, that is managing working landscapes strategically to sequester carbon. Burgess gave this talk, transcribed and edited below, as part of the Bioneers Carbon Farming Series.

How do basic human needs – food, fuel, flora, fiber – get met within an economically and ecologically strategic geography?

There are 25 million hectares of rangelands in California and a key question is whether we can manage them to help lower Earth’s temperature. Most rangeland systems have very low amounts of carbon. California has lost around 40% of its carbon in its rangelands due to the loss of perennials. These soils are in a massive carbon debt.

Fibershed is organizing place-based economies around carbon. As Carbon Farming practices become implemented, it becomes apparent how heterogeneous soils are. Organizing your farming system for carbon is specific to place.

You can look at local places through the lens of carbon, through the lens of watershed health, through the lens of fiber systems, and food systems. Pick your immediate organizing principle and you can start to focus on the restoration of your community.

I wore clothing for one year–underwear, bathing suits, socks– everything was made from animal fibers and plant fibers, including the dyes, that came from 150 miles from my front door. I used myself as a guinea pig to find out if I could I live in a fibershed. Could I be comfortable physically and socially? The reality was an affirmative yes. There was nothing more visceral then getting rid of everything I owned and boxing it up to experience the necessity of clothing.

We can’t go many days without water, we can’t go many days without food, but how many of us would even survive a night or two in the winter outdoors without any form of shelter? Its function is so fundamental, just as the necessity of clothing is so vital to our ability to survive. So fibersheds are about survival, but they are also about thriving. Fibershed’s intention is to have a thriving, regional and regenerative fiber system.

Connecting Urban Consumers to Rural Working Landscapes

The principle I based the local wardrobe on is about connecting urban communities with rural communities. Part of how we’re going to see carbon farming take hold on the landscape is by generating conscious urban communities that know how to compost, that care about the fate of their materials, and care about what they’re consuming from working lands. Are they consuming from regenerating and restored landscapes? Is the material that they consume going back to these landscapes at the end of use?

Are food scraps going back to the landscapes? Can you compost your clothes and return that compost to the landscape? We are looking at all of these questions about the cycle of carbon systems. The urban connection is so critical. You need the cooperation of urban and rural communities to make these place-based economies work.

Fibershed works with one hundred sixty producers who are land managers, contract grazers, farmers both in annual and perennial systems. They are artisans who actually metabolize the materials coming off of these farms and ranches. They are small manufacturers. All these people networked together can produce clothing.

Everything that we are growing in this fiber system is on farms and ranches that are primarily making their money from food. 99% of the income for a sheep rancher is the meat and, in today’s economy, the wool is considered a by-product. Even in the cotton industry, 20% of the farmer’s income is from the seed. Cotton seeds go into the feed for dairy cattle and make cottonseed oil that goes into fast food. These systems are intertwined. We have to consider a whole vision of agriculture as we’re rebuilding these local economies.

Agriculture is a food, fiber, fuel and flora system. As we re-envision local economies, let’s not discount the capability that working lands have for generating biosphere-based economies. They’re very much designed to do so and if we’re going to re-envision, we need to stack a lot of functions within these working lands.

Wool and the Carbon Cycle

Managing grasslands for carbon requires adaptive managed grazing, planting windbreaks, and developing silvopasture. A lot of the people who are going to be doing the work to sequester carbon are the people who manage flocks of sheep. We have to build a bridge between the science and the people on the ground.

The grass that sheep eat is approximately 40% carbon by weight. That’s carbon dioxide that grass turned into a carbohydrate. Sheep are able to metabolize the carbohydrate, and turn it into a protein. That’s a protein you wear.

We conducted an analysis that quantitatively and qualitatively mapped all of California’s wool – the first analysis of this type in the US. We learned that California has quite a lot of wool that’s not being utilized at all and about a third of it is highly underutilized. All the sheep are on grass systems and therefore wool is a grass-fed and finished fiber. The sheep are often integrated onto crop stubble. They’re in pear orchards. They’re in vineyards. They’re part of an integrated crop system. Without having to change very much, sheep already fit into this contract-grazing system very nicely. A lot of young people are able to get into agriculture by having flocks of sheep that they contract-graze into perennial systems. Sheep already fit into a positive agricultural narrative in California.

Sheep’s wool cycles through the carbon pools very nicely. Have you ever had a wool sweater that goes back to the soil by way of moths or some other kind of deterioration? I cleaned out a storage bin recently and moths had gotten into pretty much all of my historic wool pieces. But that’s a beautiful thing. That wool is temporal. It doesn’t last. We need to think about our material culture as not being impenetrable. We’ve been trying to create material culture that lasts forever and it’s actually what’s killing us. We need things that decompose back into the cycle. People ask me, “Do natural dyes last as long as synthetic dyes?” My answer is “No, and that’s in your best interest.”

Re-Localizing the Economy

The model that we’re working with is a soil-to-soil model, meaning we’re thinking a lot about the whole system. Who are the rangeland managers? Who are the farmers? How are we going to get carbon farming implemented? How are we going to build these regional economies that support these land managers to revalue the materials coming off their farms and ranches?

We can wear nettle, we can wear hemp, we can wear ramie, we can wear flax. We can blend these with sheep’s wool to take the scratch out of the wool. We can do an incredible amount with biodynamic organic cotton.

Fibershed focuses on fiber and dye processing. We do economic feasibility studies because since 1994, NAFTA and CAFTA and FTAA, all those fun trade agreements, have left our country bereft of manufacturing. California produces 3.1 million pounds of wool, but how many people wear a California wool-based layer? California grows 200 million pounds of cotton, but how many people wear a California cotton T-shirt? How many people wear leather boots that came from a grass-fed and finished operation?

There is a lot of work being done on access to food, but not much of a focus on access to fiber. Part of the reason is that the capital costs of bringing manufacturing back are real and present, just like when people tried to reform the food system and bring back abattoirs and slaughterhouses. The dirty, messy stuff that’s between the farm and your plate is something a lot of people have a hard time investing in. It doesn’t have to remain that way, but historically manufacturing is a difficult thing to bring back.

The other segments we work with are designers and makers. This is the urban sector. How do we get young people in the making culture focused on local materials? We spend a lot of time with fashion students to figure out how they can work with a farmer.

Garments are where you come in as the wearer. We need you to start wearing compostable clothing, we need you to buy local when you can, we need you to buy less and higher quality. We need you to think about your clothes as a necessity and not just a statement. Public consciousness is the hinge for all these other pieces to be implemented.

Investors and philanthropists can drive the value-chain by giving farmers and ranchers low-interest loans and investments to help build carbon in their soil. Investors and philanthropists can invest in the mills where they make local clothing, places where the farmers can send their goods for a higher value. Consumers buy it because of the higher value, and the money cycles through the local economy.

It will take about $100 million to revitalize fiber systems in California. It’s a one-time investment that could last for many hundreds of years. The Schmidt Family Foundation helped with a public-related investment to the first weaving mill in California since 1892. This mill opened its doors in May 2017. The Foundation wrote into the loan contract that the mill had to work with climate beneficial wool and organic cotton.

We are working with a Carbon Farm Plan for a 40,000-acre ranch. This ranch can sequester enough carbon to offset the emissions of the wool production, so every pound of wool represents nine pounds of carbon sunk into the ground. If we implement the practices of the Carbon Farm Plan, we can have climate beneficial clothing production with a net-negative carbon impact.

We can do this. We can wear clothing that has a net-negative impact on the climate and we can also support our local producers in the process.

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