People visiting our tradeshow booth are always impressed by the photo display of the roots on this rye plant. We love referring to this marvel as a great example of a root’s potential.
As with so many good things in life, everyday phenomena like plant roots are under-valued, misunderstood, and often taken for granted. Perhaps it’s because so much of what goes on under our feet is undetectable and hidden from our senses. Lots of folks think of roots as “that end of the plant we stick in the soil to hold the plant up”, or, “that end of the plant for the plant to uptake fertilizers”. Sadly lost in these definitions is the deeper appreciation of plant root contributions to our health and the health of the Earth especially in terms of carbon storage, climate change mitigation, plant and soil nourishment, and preventing erosion.
Hidden from our senses is the possibility of storing vast amounts of atmospheric carbon in the soil. However getting carbon to ‘flow’ to the soil requires plant roots, soil microorganisms, and soil management system to support it. The two must co-exist as it is through their partnership that carbon is transferred through plant, plant roots, and then to the soil microorganisms. Somewhere between 85 to 90 percent of the nutrients plants require for healthy growth are acquired via this carbon exchange, that is, where plant root exudates provide energy (carbon) to microbes in order to obtain minerals and trace elements otherwise unavailable to the plant. So encouraging carbon exchange is a good thing and with the right soil management system, colonies of carbon rich microorganisms (bacterial and fungi) would be incented to set up permanent residence along the root site.
A handful of farmers have put this system into practice. Carbon farming is focused on improving soil carbon content each year, and includes pasture management practices that mimic natural grazing cycles of intensive grazing and pasture grass recovery. Managed well, this system sets up carbon rich soil microorganisms for long term success. Residencies can establish because perennial grasses root structures make wonderful partners for soil microorganisms to hang out and set up shop. Just look at root structure on these perennial grasses. Root growth of 8’ to 14’ is impressive!
Armed with knowledge about these root systems and recent field research on carbon farming by folks like Dr. Richard Teague, I am encouraged about the possibilities for prairie grasslands and intensive multi paddock pasture management systems to sequester carbon at deep soil levels. It’s a win for farmers and a win for the planet towards resolving the atmospheric C02 pressures. As Dr. Teague and local farmers showed us at the Western Canadian Holistic Management & Organic Alberta Conferences this February, turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon results in huge benefits: on soil and soil structure, influencing soil water-holding capacity and water quality, reducing soil erosion, with greater crop productivity. All this with the tools and resources already available on farms namely: sunlight, rain, plants, livestock, countless microbes, and well-directed human management.