More Layers of Life Per Acre: Creating a Rich Farm Ecology by Paul Muller

By Paul Muller

Paul Muller, a partner at Full Belly Farm in California’s Capay Valley, has been farming organically for 33 years. Full Belly Farm is designed to maximize the layers of life per acre–plant, soil microbes, insects, and animals–while harvesting as much sunlight as possible and growing over 70 different fruit and vegetable crops. Paul explains how Full Belly Farm is working to sequester soil carbon as part of Bioneers Carbon Farming series.

California’s environment is incredibly complex, with a great variety of agricultural expressions. When thinking about carbon, there’s a set of solutions that may have a common feel in grasslands. However, in irrigated agricultural or orchard systems, or growing corn and soy in the Midwest, your approach to carbon ends up being very different. We know from the work of the permaculturists that rainfall, temperature, everything that influences the soil all determine how you manage your environment to sequester more carbon.

I’ve been practicing organic farming for 33 years and some of the knowledge that we now know about soil systems–how plants take in CO2 through photosynthesis to build their own plant tissue, as well as how they deliver carbohydrate exudates into the soil to feed micro life– are all new ways to look at what we are doing during our tenure on this planet and how we manage the vegetation on it. I think the arc of the universe is moving, inevitably, toward the understanding that we can not violate nature for very much longer

Most landscapes have been degraded by human use. We must now try to keep as much energy in the system as possible. In the last 150 years in this country, the knowledge of managing systems in a way that is scale appropriate to human beings who were intimately tied to a place has been diminished, and that has destroyed rural America. Who is going to manage carbon on the farm? The human component of that kind of management system has to be regenerated.

In the changing landscape of California agriculture, increasingly there are people who don’t actually farm the land, who are landlords and who hire someone else to farm. Oprah Winfrey owns a good deal of land in the Dixon area where she’s farming almonds. It’s doubtful that she does a lot of almond farming herself. TIAA-CREF is a large institutional retirement fund who is growing 25-30,000 acres of almonds. People like that need to develop the tools and the consciousness of stewardship. But they only see it as an investment. There are hundreds of thousands of acres being farmed by people who are only trying to maximize their return. Carbon doesn’t fit in that equation. What fits in that equation is how many nuts or how many tons of hay or whatever crop you are harvesting off of that piece of ground.

Modern farming systems are based on the plough. All the science and tools came from the notion that to turn the soil was the way you made agriculture productive, and that the best way to manage land is to keep it bare. The opportunity being missed is that bare land does not harvest sunlight. The bare field is not taking CO2 out of the air, the soil micro life is not being fed, life is not being supported in the soil. We have a lot of work to do to convince farmers that they’re losing money if the rainfall that hits bare ground doesn’t infiltrate because of poor soil structure due to lack of microbial life. Agriculture is a fairly violent form of livelihood, if you don’t think about all the life in the farming environment. We have to think about solving for a different pattern. We have to think about how we value carbon, how we measure it, how we begin to put that into the economic equation.

Agriculture can come to the rescue and be part of solving the problem of how we deal with carbon in the atmosphere. How we structure that in terms of policy is very important, because the food system contributes approximately 30% of the annual greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re going to need new thinking about how we create and defend the biological depth and richness with farmers who are dedicated to place; people who are noble. As a farmer for 33 years, I am tied intimately to my land even in a physiological way. My very gut bacteria are tied to the processes that I’m doing on my soil, and everything that I eat from it. That’s true for every person who is eating product from my farm. They are tied to me in an intimate way. We continually give customers the information about how they’re helping us defend the biological richness of our farm, how they too are responsible for the activities on the farm.

At Full Belly Farm, our primary goal is to is grow soil. I’m not a scientist, but I see a lot of life in the soil, there’s flocculation of the system. Through observation, I find that soil fungus and bacteria have a certain smell. So in a very visceral way, I understand what soil looks like when my farming practices are are treating the land well.

We look at our farm in terms of layers, we always try to have something blooming. When thinking about the complexity of the farm, we keep in mind the carbon accumulators that serve other forms of life. Carbon accumulators can be mustards and arugula plants growing to seed. All the bee life and the avian life and other living things need pollen and nectar to thrive. We design our system so that carbon sequestration feeds other life forms on the farm.

The place I learn the most from is the bench below our farm where you can look at native soils. We live in oak woodland. Underneath that oak woodland is an understory of all the duff and leaves and things that accumulate under those trees. If you scrape that away, there are layers of decomposition occurring. There are macro-digester, earthworms, beetles, and other things in one layer. There are different levels of microbes all the way through. By understanding a little bit about how nature organizes itself, we can begin to manage our farm and our cultivation to grow crops where we’re going to do some tillage, but do the least amount of damage.

We know why we should till soil less. Tillage releases CO2, so soil structure is generally improved when you don’t till. You have better water-holding capacity, better rain infiltration and a steady release of water in the soil, especially important when we get climate fluxes. Soil organic matter is more stable, fungal populations and other micro life in the soil can be managed and they can be less disrupted. There will be less evaporation, greater soil stability and less erosion. There are lots of benefits to not tilling, but it’s hard to grow carrots without tilling. It’s hard to grow radishes without tilling. We’re still trying to figure that out.

We grow cover crops as a primary piece of our rotation. Every bit of ground will have at least one cover crop, sometimes two cover crops a year, along with the food crop. A winter cover crop of vetch, oats, barley and different cultivars that have different root systems. A summer cover of Sudan grass with cowpeas and buckwheat. The buckwheat flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects, the cowpeas for nitrogen, the Sudan Grass for carbon. We experiment with different forms of cover crops to see what will work with our roll-down no till system.

We mow down some cover crops to get in that field earlier. We till lightly, and then have a seedbed that has had the benefit of nitrogen fixation, carbon accumulation, and all the pieces that we need for building fertility with what’s indigenous to the farm.

We can also flail mow, but when you flail mow you’re chopping things up pretty fine that digests really quickly in our environment. So flail mowing is not the best tool for keeping carbon in the ground.

If we mowed flowers in bloom, all the beneficial insects would disappear. So we use sheep to browse and move them around gently. They are defecating and peeing, which helps accumulate carbon.

At Full Belly Farm, we grow some tree crops and a wide variety of vegetables year-round. We plant for insect diversity. We’re trying to create a rich ecology on the farm by having as many forms of life and as many layers of life as we can, and still pay the bills and have a farm that’s productive and grows high-quality food.

We think about more layers of life per acre. What we’re trying to do in those layers is grow understory plants for harvest, while harvesting as much sunlight as possible. We’re working to have insect life and soil micro life all thriving in the system.

As part of our multiple-layered systems, we have livestock on the farm, which is a biodynamic concept. They inoculate the soil with their defecation, and they move themselves. You don’t have to get a spreader out, they spread themselves. They work without any workman’s comp and they eat 24 hours a day and they provide inputs just about as often. They are wonderful components in our system. They become part of the farm soil’s digestion process, and they’re creating a stable form of carbon, as opposed to carbon that’s a nutrient that may move more quickly through the system. They’re probably doing a little bit of both depending on how we manage them.

Every day we want to harvest the maximum amount of sunlight. We do that by growing more layers on the farm. In the springtime, there’ll be flowers blooming that will be an incredible hive of insect activity that can exist in an understory of an orchard, provide nutrients for the orchard, and allow rain to infiltrate.

In the end, we want to create more vibrant places where people are inoculated with the very nature of the farm, and that includes our customers. We want to grow places that are beautiful. That’s part of the solution in thinking about carbon, that we’re going to rethink beauty. And we’re going to seduce the next generation with good food.

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