Agriculture produces about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But 80 miles east of Seattle, a small farm along the Yakima River is proving that agriculture can store carbon in the soil, instead — in a big way.
Spoon Full Farm is jointly run by four determined young farmers who are out to grow produce and meat in ways that maximize their taste and nutrition — while strengthening and enriching the soil with large quantities of carbon.
One of those farmers is Mericos Rhodes. He was studying philosophy at Williams College in Massachusetts when he attended a lecture by an innovative cattle rancher. “He was running around on stage yelling about soil microbes,” says Rhodes, “and describing how rotational grazing of bison built soil fertility and massive stores of carbon in the Midwest. This guy really loved his life. I wanted what he was having.”
A few years later, Rhodes’ mom and stepdad bought what is now Spoon Full Farm. “I’d been serving the Kool-Aid of carbon farming to them,” he says. “After they’d owned the land for about a year, a few friends of mine and I moved out there and started farming.”
The soil was badly depleted from being used to grow hay for 30 years — with liberal applications of synthetic nitrogen and Roundup. Rhodes and his fellow Spoons set out to remedy the damage with “Whole Earth Farming” as they grew both produce and beef cattle.
The produce is grown in a three-acre garden that is planted without tilling, as tilling tends to release large amounts of carbon dioxide. “When you don’t till,” says Rhodes, “it allows the soil microbes and fungal networks to proliferate. They thrive when they’re not disturbed.”
Spoon Full Farm rotates crop from different plant families in each row, and leaves roots of finished crops in the field between plantings. “Each plant family supplies different nutrients and biological benefits around its roots,” says Rhodes. “We have biodiversity both above and below ground.”
All this is done on a relatively small scale and is quite labor intensive. But Rhodes says it has several benefits. “The soil microbiology and fertility increase as we continue to harvest. The produce is incredibly nutrient-dense and flavorful. And new data show that these practices increase soil organic carbon — potentially doubling it within a few years.”
What will really move the dial in terms of carbon sequestration, Rhodes says, is the 100 acres of pasture on which the farm grows grass to feed its cows. That may sound counterintuitive, since cows are often cited as a significant source of greenhouse gases. But Rhodes says the pluses of storing carbon in the soil far outweigh the minuses of bovine methane burps, which are also neutralized by feeding the cows a kelp supplement.
“Among regenerative farmers, cattle and other ruminants like bison and sheep are our most effective soil-building tools, if managed properly,” he says. “Our main goal with cattle was more to build soil than to raise beef. The beef started out as a nice byproduct that could support our continuing to farm and build soil. Since then we’ve had a lot of people express their appreciation for the beef and the way we treat our cattle.”
Spoon Full Farm endeavors to mimic the biology of grassland ecosystems. “Think about the way the bison evolved with grass on the Great Plains,” says Rhodes. “Huge herds would eat grass, poop, trample the soil and move on. The grass evolved to be intensively disturbed, then rest. The lowest layers of roots would then die off and decay, nourishing the soil fungi and bacteria. The carbon that the grass absorbed is now under the ground. That’s the model for what we do.”
The farm sells its produce through farmers’ markets and its beef online. The farm’s website explains how grass-fed cattle are a much healthier source of nutrition than cattle raised on feedlot corn. And, of course, Rhodes points out that buying and eating Spoon Full’s products is one way you can help the environment.
“It’s pretty easy and common to feel like there’s nothing you can personally do about climate change. Actually, you can make a tangible and beneficial choice every time you eat food. The key is to know where your food comes from. Make sure it didn’t travel too far and was grown in a way that improves soil health. That’s one of the most important tools in our kit to improve climate change.”
Spoon Full Farm accepts small groups for private tours, and offers guided group tours in the summer and fall. You can reach Mericos and his friends at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their information-rich website at spoonfullfarm.com.