Supercharging farm-soil to hoover up atmospheric carbon


Originally published at:


There are so many good technologies like this for carbon capture and/or emissions reduction, and all of them are dead in the water without an actual market for carbon offsets.

Unfortunately, offsets are hated by almost everyone – on one side because ‘cap and tax’ and ‘global warming is a myth’ and on the other because ‘you shouldn’t be allowed to buy indulgences for your sins.’ Ever since Kyoto we’ve been marching in lockstep away from any kind of market-based solution for global warming while the world burns around us.


This is good news, especially since soils are expected to start producing large volumes of carbon as temperatures continue to climb.


This reminds me of terra preta, rich soil in the Amazon made by biochar or charcoal production.


In many places, “to hoover” means to clean via suction. However, in the US, “to hoover” connotes the abuse of power in order to surveil, infiltrate, intimidate and oppress political enemies. If we can get soil to do that to atmospheric carbon, I would be pleased.


So, enriching soul with compost has knockon benefits and can help limit atmospheric carbon? This was well-known well before this study. The problem isn’t the intentions of the agrarians, it’s the entire methodology of agriculture which is mandated by giant agribusiness concerns. Unless Monsanto can own the patent on compost, the vast majority of agriculture will continue to be painted into a corner by their capitalist overlords. Most farms don’t have anything like the equipment required to apply and properly turn in compost, let alone the infrastructure to create or transport the compost. It’s not the farmers who have created this situation. It is agribusiness coupled with land grant university extensions that have promoted an ever-reactive methodology that relies on constant inputs from agribusiness entities.


Where’s the link to the actual study. The NYT piece didn’t even have the citation.


What sort of machinery is necessary to properly turn compost that most farms don’t have?


Well, first of all it’s important to note that the majority of agricultural land is monocrop and worked with large machinery. Compost application requires manure spreaders and more traditional tillage equipment. These pieces of equipment are on the scale of a small to medium tractor as opposed to a combine. I guess, in theory, some of the larger equipment could be used to turn compost into the soil, but it’s not economically viable to spread that amount of compost, let alone even have a source for it.

There is a great analogue to this that has really taken hold in the plains states that involves “green manure” and “no till” equipment. Very simply, cover crops are cut into the soil to similar effect and instead of traditional tillage which actually tosses and homogenizes soil horizons, the soil is aerated and seeds are “dibbled” in. Traditional tilling is a major cause of soil degradation and, in turn carbon loss. No-till is a huge step that allows the larger plains-state farmers to employ the scale of equipment they already use.


The two most relevant publications seem to be this one and this one.


I just re-read your post to make sure I was answering it correctly and may have missed something. Compost must be “turned” while being created to integrate carbon- and nitrogen-dominant components and ensure proper decompostion. Compost must also be “turned” into the soil after field application. My last post was referring to the latter, but I would bet that most plains-states farmers also do not have the equipment necessary on the scale to create proper compost, let alone the volumes of inputs necessary to achieve it. Even then, it would be uneconomical compared with dumping fertilizers. NPK (fertilizer) application is targeted and would almost certainly have to be adjusted after compost application (with fertilizers) because the soils are so deficient to begin with.


Tillage? I knew we were going to have problems when the test site for this study was described as a farm. The whole thing is talking about pastureland not cropland But if we are talking about cropland, tillage is what you want to get away from because it destroys soil structure, destroys the microbiome especially fungal hyphae, and causes erosion. You should not be turning compost in. That’s counterproductive. I thought when you were referring to turn in compost you meant turning the windows for faster decomposition which just requires a front loader.


Right, I should differentiate between “tillage” and “tilth” and agree that tillage is a major, if not the major cause of soil degradation as you describe. However, compost does need to be integrated with the top horizon of soil or covered with green manure to avoid a lot of the issues inherent in tillage such as runoff and bio-availability. Now, there is a lot of valid discussion about truly no-till practices that apply successive layers of compost only to the top of a bed and allow the soil to reestablish true tilth, but it’s a decades-long process and I’ve usually seen it done with cover material anyhow.


Soil farming 101:
#soilmicrobiome, #polyculture, #notillfarming, #soilmycelium, #soilcarbonsequestration

Alan Savory, Paul Stamets


Where you say “covered with green manure” do you mean cut, or in place of turning can you plant green manure seeds in that top layer of compost?


Iirc it’s a bit more complicated that just charcoal/biochar. It also requires the addition of animal manure. Especially chicken shit, pottery shards, And some specific soil bacteria/microflora.

Basically the char brings carbon, the shit brings nitrogen, the two react with each other to basically create saltpeter (a pretty damn good fertilizer). And get the pH of the soil where it should be. And the pottery creates drainage and fosters proper soil structure. That gets mixed in with leaf litter/compost/decomposong vegetable matter and the soil itself. And that gets you healthy soil microflora. The whole system leading to healthy too soil that grows over time, And sucks up carbon from the atmosphere.

It’s always surprised me how similar that is to what my grandfather used on his farm. A mixture of chickenshit/bedding, the remains from his burn barrel (mixed charcoal and ash), And oyster shells (some of them run through the barrel). Spread on the fields and topped with composted years waste mixed with composted horse shit. As far as he was concerned it was the best fertilizer you could get. Though he may have just loved it because it was free.


compost is expensive and requires energy to produce

?? Our local council(s) in UK take green stuff at the dump and turn it into compost. I do the same in my back garden. Almost zero energy (it generates its own heat!), and not very expensive.


I’ve usially seen it cut in, but my experience is mostly with small-scale diversified farms and my more limited knowledge of large-scale monicropping of my youth (and some innovations since then). The truth is that there is a huge diversity of application and I doubt you can find two farmers that do things exactly the same way.


In places that get heavy snow one can actually heat green houses or enclosures with plants during the winter with compost piles. Just make sure to have proper ventilation but it allows people to grow some food during seasons that are typically not crop friendly.

Learned about this from a gardening channel some years back but i live in Texas :stuck_out_tongue:


Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase ( is a peer-reviewed science text which delineates many of the currently available techniques which can draw carbon down from the sky and sequester it in the soil.

I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve recommended this book here.

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate has been organizing conferences on geotherapy for about 5 years now and ALL of its proceedings are available at their website:

I think this is the second or third time I’ve recommended them here. Maybe if I worked for the NYTimes Boingboing would pay attention.

PS: Did you know that solar lighting and phone charging is now practical, affordable, and available around the world IF ONLY WE F*CKING RECOGNIZED IT? Such devices are produced today for about $1 per unit production cost and sell at retail for as little as $5 per unit. Basic electricity is available for everyone but we don’t have the imaginations to grasp it. Add a bicycle generator and you have a reliable supply of basic electricity - light, phone or radio, maybe a computer, the ability to charge extra batteries - without recourse to the grid.

There’s a possible economic revolution there, especially if placed within a Gandhian economic context of swadeshi, local production.

PPS: Tom Goreau, lead editor of the Geotherapy book, also can show you how to protect, preserve, and possibly expand coral reefs through biorock. You can reach him at the Global Coral Reef Alliance ( if you care to. But then you could wait until the NYTimes covers this idea in another few years.