Ground Talk: Conversation with Courtney White

Courtney White is a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who has been at the forefront of educating farmers and the public about the connection between soil health and the climate. You can learn more about his work and purchase his books at jcourtneywhite.com.

1. Briefly explain the “why” that got you involved in carbon farming and regenerative agriculture?

I came to carbon farming via my work building bridges between environmentalists and holistic ranchers in the Southwest, which led to a program of ecological restoration of degraded creeks and streams in the region that I implemented at our nonprofit organization, which led to our management of a 37,000-acre ranch near Santa Fe, which led to our involvement in the production of local, grass-fed beef, which led to the realization that all of the above could help sequester carbon in soils and thus mitigate climate change (a journey described in my book Grass, Soil, Hope). The next step is to put it all together in regenerative agriculture (though we need a better word than “agriculture” or else the public won’t pay much attention, I think).

2. Are there certain crops, crop systems, or crop practices that do a better job of sequestering carbon than others and what are they?

Yes: no-till (without herbicides), planned grazing, cover crops (all year, if possible), multi-species intercropping, including on pastureland (employing as much diversity as possible), the integration of livestock into farming systems, and the restoration of degraded creeks. Anything that improves soil health will sequester carbon.

3. Can animal agriculture, no matter how regenerative, really restore the carbon cycle? I’ve been led to believe that cattle and the methane they produce can only result in increased production of greenhouse gases.

There’s an old saying in organic agriculture: Nature never farms without animals. Grass and grazers have a tight, mutualistic relationship which can easily be mimicked by domesticated livestock. The carbon cycle, I would argue, leans a lot on this mutualism. Yes, cows produce methane, but so do rice paddies. Are we going to ask two billion people to stop eating rice? Let’s be positive instead. Cows can be a force for Good, as has been repeatedly demonstrated.

4. Would regenerative farming on land be able to help lower the acidification of our oceans due to the absorption of CO2? If so, could the oceans rebalance themselves?

Good question. I don’t know anything about oceans, but I suspect that anything that pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere will help them. The simple answer would be to reduce fossil-fuel CO2 emissions pronto!

5. Do you think that the majority of “traditional” farmers will be willing to try out no-till and other regenerative methods? What are the best ways to incentivize traditional farmers to transition?

Farmers are moving to no-till slowly but steadily. There are lots of reasons why, including the ‘pull’ from ecologically-minded consumers. However, the #1 incentive is, and will always be, the bottom line. Farmers and ranchers need to make a profit. If a practice cuts their costs (as no-till does) or improves their productivity (ditto) then they will consider making the switch, though this decision has political and social dimensions as well. They won’t do it, I bet, to ‘save the planet’ however. That’s perceived as an urban issue, so the challenge becomes how to engage in common ground – what we call the radical center’ – between urban and rural on these issues. The answer: soil!

6. Tell us about a moment that made you think “regenerative agriculture is possible, this can really work!”

I knew it would work twenty years ago when I heard a holistic rancher talk more knowledgeable about the environment than anyone else I knew (myself included). He understood how soils worked and the role livestock could play in restoring and maintaining land health. It made so much common sense!