Book Review: The Carbon Farming Solution

The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security

Written by Eric Toensmeier
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016

Reviewed by M.L. Altobelli

First things first – Eric Toensmeier ’s new book was fun to poke around in. I do realize that sounds almost blasphemous since the subject of climate change is so serious and essential for current eco-landscapers to get a handle on, but I think it helps that the information in The Carbon Farming Solution is so easy to access. Eric is a permaculture specialist with a deep understanding of applied ecology and that shines through the entire book. He’s also hopeful that we humans can make changes to clean up our world and stabilize its ecology and climate and that optimistic message can also be a tonic of its own kind in these current times.

Don’t mistake – the science is there, as is the complexity of a true and wide-ranging plant selection. In fact, you might spend more time on chapter three than almost all the others. This chapter is where Toensmeier outlines the carbon sequestration potentials of the different agro-forestry models. He definitely comes down on the side of carefully mixed poly cultures, but he doesn’t ignore the gains that can be made with no-till agriculture and well-designed mob grazing patterns in animal management – models much easier for conventional farmers to access.

At this point you might ask what the strategies Toensmeier recommends have to do with traditional landscaping, but a bit of extra thought can make that clear. At its heart (and at its best), landscaping is a carefully designed and maintained polyculture. This means that landscapes and the people who manage them can make a positive contribution to the planet by working with the land they manage in order to pull carbon into plant structures and the soil and hold it there. And while landscapers are managing the carbon, they are also making a contribution to their own bottom line and the aesthetic pleasure of their clients. Talk about a win – win – win! Three wins is almost unheard of these days.

Granted that most homeowners are not going to be interested in mob grazing their back lawns (see chapter 7), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use some of that information as you manage your lawns. The model is based on mixed grasses and forbes (broad leaved perennials like the hated – or beloved – dandelion) that are “mobbed” eaten (cut) down and the soil compacted with a fertility layer applied (manure!) then the system is given a rest period to allow the soil’s macro and micro-organisms to effect a recovery. Most Americans will remember this concept from school when they learned about the sweeping herds of buffalo and the formation of the deep soils of the Midwest. This model can be translated by using a mixed palette of plants in the lawn, understanding how an organic fertilizer might help after a major homeowner event and striving at all times to keep the soil macroorganisms and microorganisms functional.

The same goes for the no-till information (chapter six). Definitely an easier translation here – the less soil disturbance you can manage, the more you can keep the soil covered and the more fungal hyphae you can leave intact, the more carbon will be held in the soil and the more stable your plantings will be.

After you’ve worked your way through the first two parts of the book that explain the theory and practice of carbon capture in the managed landscape (and any piece of land that has a human looking after it, however poorly, in a managed landscape), then you can just enjoy the rest of the book. It has all sorts of details on all kinds of plants and what they can do and points out whole groups of plants that can provide essential parts of our current economies – like industrial oil production from specific high oil seeds. This is where the book pulls away from what’s directly useful to landscapers unless your client base is heavily oriented towards permaculture, but it doesn’t invalidate the rest of the information in any way – and may cause you to dream a little bit. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the amazing breadth of what it means to be a plant. Every plant grabs and holds carbon (the basics of photosynthesis after all). Some are better at it than others, but ALL plants, managed well (our job after all!), can sequester more carbon in their tissue and in the soil than they release through transpiration.

To wrap up, it might be worth looking at a quote from the book’s introduction (back to front so to speak) about the potential value of carbon farming: “to establish production systems that are resilient to prolonged droughts, excessive rains, floods, or abnormal frosts…. Although carbon farming practices aren’t necessarily, by definition, adaptive, in practice almost all of them are.” Anyone noticed how weird the weather has become? It points out the real need to find better ways to manage any piece of land that humans are involved in and that totally puts landscapers in the same boat as the farmers. We’re all in this together, and Toensmeier’s book provides a huge dose of information as well as hope. So, read The Carbon Farming Solution and get inspired!

About the Reviewer

M.L. Altobelli has been creating and maintaining fine gardens for over 25 years and brings a strong commitment to creating sustainable soils for healthy people, flower, trees, and grass to all of her sites. With a B.S. in Animal Science, M.L. has read widely about plants and soil, and she experiments to find ecological and organic solutions that suit the individual site. She was a founding member of ELA. She currently works at Woody End Farm and Greenery in Motion and is involved with her local agricultural commission.