Friday, March 11, 2011

One Small Step for Pinwheel, and Mankind, and the Planet

About 11 years ago, we enrolled 2.3 acres of our approximately 12-acre farm in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a Riparian Buffer Strip. Setting aside some adjacent odd corners that weren't eligible for the program gave us a total of about 2.5 A (20% of the farm!) that is "set aside". We receive a modest annual lease payment for maintaining this land by keeping it free of noxious weeds and cedar trees, and by mostly just leaving it alone. We are not even supposed to walk in the same place all the time, but the deer don't know that, and we tend to follow their trails on the rare occasions we traipse around out there. We do sometimes mow a path along the slope that isn't in the CRP proper.

In aerial views (try Google Earth for 1480 N. 1700 Rd., Lawrence, KS 66044), you see a shaggy-looking diagonal band on the west of the pasture, and along the north. It is 150 feet wide: 50 feet we planted to trees that would look beautiful, while providing food for wildlife, and eventually for us, and 100 feet we planted to native Kansas tallgrass prairie grasses and forbs (wildflowers) that would provide excellent habitat for wild creatures of all kinds, while slowing any run-off (and erosion) from our farm into the Maple Grove Tributary to the west, and the unnamed drainage channel to the north.

This land was eligible for the CRP program because it had been in row crops--corn and soybeans--when we bought it. On a certain sloping area, in a 100' diameter circle, not even weeds would grow, and the corn would get maybe a foot or two tall, producing nothing. The ruts between rows of corn were as deep as the plants were tall. Old-timers tell us that the 1951 flood left a "sand boil" there--like a sinkhole, but filled with pure sand. Indeed, the soil there is nearly pure sand. No wonder nothing grows.

Not even the trees we planted took hold there, but a few species of the tallgrass mix we planted made themselves right at home. Amidst the little prairie of 10' tall Big Bluestem and Indian Grass, there is a circular amphitheatre of Little Bluestem and Sideoats Grama, spanning both the 50' "tree" band and the 100' "grass" band.

In another part of the area seeded to grasses--near the south end, the highest ground--the taller grasses have done well, but thousands of elm trees have sprouted into an impenetrable woods.

On the low north end, many different tree species that we didn't plant have found their way to the farm by wind and birds: ash, sycamore, ornamental pear, mulberry and cottonwood. The pears are lovely in the spring, provide flowers for bees, and produce lots of tiny, inedible fruit that the birds love in late winter.

Our planted trees and shrubs include wild plum, redbud, buffalo currant, burr oak, walnut, and pecan.

Periodically, the Farm Service Agency or Conservation Service folks have come out for an inspection. We always have a nice hike, and they have approved what they saw. Our "management plan", as far as I knew, was "natural succession", which means that instead of trying to keep it the same for ever and ever, we would let nature take its course and "evolve" into whatever the land wanted its ecosystem to be (minus noxious weeds).

This year heralded a change: satellite imaging good enough that they could sit in the office and "walk around" the farm. I received a satellite photo in the mail with angry red circles: trees in the area that was supposed to be grass.

But I thought we were doing "natural succession"????

"No, you are not, not in the grassland, only in the tree band," I was told. After all these years, cutting down about an acre of trees would take longer than the April 15 deadline "or we will demand a refund of all payments plus penalties and interest"...even if I didn't have sheep shearing, lambing, spring planting, plumbing, policy work, and a full-time off-farm job.

They grudgingly offered that maybe they could change the management plan, if the board approved the change.

After a week on pins and needles, I found out today that they approved the change! The trees can live!

This is great news for me, just in terms of not having to do the work of cutting them down to avoid a payback I couldn't afford. But it's really much bigger than that.

Compared with the original corn/soybeans, or even with the tallgrass, those trees have sequestered a LOT of carbon...meaning that they have taken it out of the atmosphere and stored it in their trunks and roots. CO2 (carbon dioxide) is the "greenhouse gas" that is causing global climate change. Our atmosphere currently has about 388 parts per million (ppm) CO2. Scientists have said for decades, and continue to affirm, that this is TOO MUCH CO2 for life as we know it to continue. We need to get the CO2 level down...down to 350 ppm or below. We need to do this as soon as possible. (for more information see

But how? Well, all the yucky stuff about using less energy in our daily lives, of course. And switching to renewable energy...but not just any renewable. Burning anything releases CO2 into the atmosphere, so though it conserves fossil fuels, burning firewood to heat our homes and ethanol or bio-diesel to run our cars isn't going to solve the problem. Solar and wind--and ironically, nuclear--are good energy alternatives, as well as hydroelectric and geothermal where they can be effectively used.

There's a happier, really green side of getting the CO2 levels down, too: trees. We all need to plant lots and lots of trees, and preserve the older trees we have! Trees to reforest lands slashed and burned to produce lumber and increase conventional cropland. Trees to fill vacant lots and odd corners of land, like the slope along the west edge of my land. Trees around our houses and along our streets.

Trees do so much more than just capture CO2! The CRP trees have nearly obscured most of the lights and much of the noise from commercial and industrial areas nearby, as well as the highways. Lumber is one way of sequestering carbon...using trees without burning them to release their carbon back to the atmosphere. Trees can also reduce energy needs by cooling our houses and slowing wild winter winds. And they can provide food for us and the rest of creation.

I don't know whether the FSA board took all this into account when they decided to let my CRP keep its trees. But these are many of the happy outcomes of their decision. Long live the trees! So that if we're lucky, long live us!


Thomas said...

I am still not clear on burning biomass. Perhaps you or your readers have som insights on this. When one grows something, e.g. trees in a tree lot it sequesters CO2. Good. Then when one burns those trees for fuel, the CO2 is released. That seems different from fossil fuels, where the carbon captured in the dim past does nothing to help our current atmosphere. So, just in terms of CO2, does growing biomass and then burning it just break even?

-TRM, Manhattan

waywardpaw said...

I agree. We mostly heat our homes with energy that is sourced from fossil fuels. Wood is part of the renewable carbon cycle. Fossil sources are not, and nuclear energy has incredibly high risk, depending on imperfect humans to perform perfect design and execution of artificial systems that are still subject to natural disasters, in re Fukushima. We will always increase atmospheric carbon until we quit using fossil fuels.

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