Sweeping carbon under the soil

Yukon farmer Garret Gillespie places more value on what he puts into the soil than what he harvests from it. For years, as cars and power plants spewed carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Gillespie's Tagish-based Wild Blue Yonder Farms has been stowing it away.

Yukon farmer Garret Gillespie places more value on what he puts into the soil than what he harvests from it.

For years, as cars and power plants spewed carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Gillespie’s Tagish-based Wild Blue Yonder Farms has been stowing it away.

Through photosynthesis, plants naturally absorb carbon. Plant remains, either in the form of compost or animal excrement, are then absorbed into the ground, forming a layer of black, nutrient-rich soil known as humus.

The humus boosts soil fertility and locks up carbon.

“Most current agricultural practices are soil depleting,” said John Streicker, a Yukon climate-change researcher. “But if you reverse those practices, then you can slowly build up the soil.”

Carbon-sequestering farmers see themselves as scrubbing the world’s air.

At the very least, they are restoring a dying resource—soil fertility.

Of all the carbon released into the atmosphere since 1850, nearly half has been put there through soil tilling.

Plowing the world’s fields has exposed centuries of accumulated humus, releasing millions of tonnes of carbon as easily as a child letting go of a balloon.

Carbon sequestration makes farming more profitable, said Gillespie.

“Here’s an opportunity for farmers to add value to what they’re already doing,” he said.

The success of the endeavour hinges on changing the way society views carbon.

Emitting carbon hurts society, but trapping it in the soil is a benefit, they say.

By assigning a price to carbon emissions—such as a carbon tax—emitters can be taxed, while the sequesterers can be paid.

The true cost of climate change is no longer an abstraction.

In March, US insurance companies started measuring the financial risks of climate change.

“As we transition out of a fossil-fuel economy, we will look for ways to promote local economy, and this is a smart, simple one to do,” said Streicker.

Sequestration funding may boost small-scale farming in Canada.

Between 2001 and 2006, Canada’s population grew by 1.6 million. Meanwhile, the population of Canadians living on farms dropped by 45,145.

Nearly 20,000 Canadian farms have closed their doors in the last eight years.

If farmers were suddenly reaping a financial benefit for environmental stewardship, “just think what it could do for the planet and our food system,” wrote Gillespie in a May 20 e-mail.

Carbon sinks aside, local food production also means trucking up less produce from the south, another way to reduce emissions.

“(Carbon sequestration) buys us time to identify and implement viable alternatives to fossil fuel,” reads a recent paper by carbon sequestration researchers at Ohio State University.

“Just think of all the interest groups that would see this (carbon sequestration) as a threat, and would wish to see it buried,” wrote Gillespie in his e-mail, referring to fertilizer, agriculture and oil companies, among others.

Why not just plant a forest?

“Growing food, you’re getting a carbon uptake every year. You grow a forest, you get the carbon uptake once,” said Whitehorse-based environmentalist Lewis Rifkind.

“Compared to growing a forest, doing it by farming regeneration is actually more intensive,” said JP Pinard, a Whitehorse-based alternative-energy consultant.

Grasses and other plants grow faster, absorbing carbon at a faster rate—speeding humus generation.

“Just because trees are bigger doesn’t mean they grow more each year,” said Streicker.

Gillespie’s farm could sequester up to 3,000 tonnes of CO2 per year—roughly equal to the energy bills from 500 homes.

At a price of $5 to $45 per ton, the farm could yield anything from $15,000 to $135,000 per year.

“Never mind selling vegetables, just the carbon sequestration on their land could generate enough money to support their lifestyle,” said Pinard.

It may be years before a carbon tax finds its way onto the federal balance sheet.

In the meantime, Pinard has pushed for the Yukon to establish its own carbon fund.

Yukoners looking to voluntarily offset emissions could pay $50 per tonne of carbon into the fund. At an average of seven tonnes of carbon per person, this would round out to $350 per year.

The Yukon government, aiming to become “carbon neutral” by 2020, would have to be a key contributor to make such a fund work here.

Ironically, a warming planet may be the strongest bulwark against the Yukon’s crop of would-be carbon collectors.

Longer, warmer summers may suggest better farming conditions. However, unpredictable and torrential rain could douse those dreams.

“Climate change may not turn out to be a benefit here,” said Streicker.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com