By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
There is a high school science textbook used by physics teacher Tom Franklin which features a double spread of a skinny cow, fenced in by barbed wire, under the subject “factors affecting climate change”.
“It looked like the cow was in jail!” recalls Franklin, an advocate for sustainable agriculture. “I thought this textbook material was biased and inaccurate, and completely anti-agriculture,” says Franklin who is a teacher and beef farmer, has a master’s in biochemistry and is a vocal proponent of carbon sequestration and climate change solutions.
He considers that text book graphic and movies such as Cowspiracy the “low hanging fruit” for people who want to blame agriculture for climate change.
Franklin, who describes himself as a good listener and a good reader, ramped up his goals to create a farm where carbon sequestration is a reality. He believes science and real-life farming prove that pasturing cattle is an ideal method to sequester carbon, increase biodiversity and improve the planet.
Franklin is sharing his thoughts on the subject inside the driveshed at the Kincardine-area farm he shares with his wife Christine and three daughters — Katie, Jenna and Abby. Rain is thundering on the steel, adding to the wet conditions of the land, but it pleases the buff ducks waddling down the laneway. They plunk themselves down in the middle of it, refusing to move even as Christine drives away. She is forced to go around them. When the rain stops, layer hens peck at the grass in their enclosure and later, we visit the hefty Simmentals in one of the pastures behind the barn. When they see Franklin, the cows come to the fence and Franklin reaches over to playfully rub the head of a favourite cow. She is eager for attention and to move into fresh grass. More wandering takes us to the market garden behind the shed, featuring long rows of vegetables grown by his oldest daughter to raise money for her post-secondary education. Here is where Franklin will plant a plot of perennial wheat. Behind that is the hayfield grown to accommodate both bobolinks and his hay crop.
There is a lot going on here and Franklin admits he is very, very busy. That’s what happens when your convictions lead to actions. With many contacts in the research community and a constant need to read about ideas and opportunities to improve soil health and carbon sequestration, Franklin is always eager for a new project. He wants to share it all! Much was said during this interview. Following are some of the highlights.
Carbon Credits: Regenerative farmers and market gardeners are very keen to connect how they grow crops with the result of sequestering carbon towards an eventual goal of being able to sell carbon credits. That’s all well and good, says Franklin, but are they really? Certainly, regenerative agriculture improves soil and is far better than “industrial” cropping, says Franklin, suggesting that on many farms, plants are supported by soil that is merely a placeholder for all the fertilizers dumped in. However, there is not a straight line between soil quality and carbon sequestering, says Franklin.
“All of the methods to improve soil health lead in the right direction,” says Franklin. “But inputs from turkey manure as compost that increase soil carbon come at the expense of other ground on that turkey farm. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
When, however, a farm creates its own inputs then the farm has created a closed nutrient cycle and can legitimately claim they are increasing and sequestering carbon on their farms.
Life-cycle Analysis (LCA): This is an academic term Franklin prefers to use. LCA is a method used to evaluate the environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle starting from the extraction and proceeding with processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, recycling and disposal. This is a way to make it measurable and is something Franklin is very keen on. Though measuring carbon in the soil is not so hard, tracking an increase in carbon is very difficult. There is debate in the scientific community as to how deep soil needs to be measured. As such, Franklin has not measured carbon increases on his own lands. Franklin is eager to delve into this subject and starts using terms like “labile” and “Co2 cycles” but I do not have a masters in biochemistry so I suggest we move the conversation to more practical methods of sequestering carbon. If someone wants to call him and get more definitive, they are welcome to do so, says Franklin.
Deep Roots: To really improve soil health and sequester carbon, crop farmers need to plant perennial crops with deep roots, such as alfalfa. The roots of perennial crops can grow beneath the plow pan, metres down into the soil.
Rotational Grazing: Having already stated he likes to read and research, Franklin shared information from Michigan State university revealing a life-cycle analysis of rationally-grazed pastures, which included all inputs, indicating the carbon stored in these fields equals 3.6 tonnes per hectare. “This is my goal … something I can do to improve the climate on this planet,” says Franklin.
To meet that goal, Franklin created 26 paddocks averaging two acres each into which his herd of 20 Simmental cows moves with their calves every one to three days, depending on conditions. “I call them and they know they are moving to grass that has been growing for 40-odd days.”
The paddocks used to be quite weedy and aware of what conventional farmers might think, Franklin used to cut them neatly after grazing. He doesn’t any more. “The weeds go away as the ground improves,” he says.
When it’s time to spread manure, he adds a coffee can of trefoil and red clover seed to the spreader (clover seed is also added to the cow minerals) to encourage natural seeding. It works very well, says Franklin. “Trefoil is my favourite and this method is great to add legumes to the pasture.”
As they eat, the cattle are literally creating conditions for underground composting. Franklin explains that chewed plants are set back a bit which kills some of their roots. As the roots die, they exude sugars and compost in the soil. This creates an ideal climate for microorganisms which feed off the sugars and create a community of fungi and microbes. As this community grows and matures, they bring minerals to the root systems in a symbiotic relationship between microbes and plants, which translates into healthier soil and carbon sequestration. The deeper this happens, the safer the carbon is because it gets locked-in below the depth of tillage systems.
Bobolinks: These grassland birds are an indicator species for biodiversity. So Franklin decided to reserve 20 acres of hayfield and develop a cutting strategy that would allow bobolinks to raise their young before the hay fields are cut. “While I don’t have evidence for it, it’s likely that wherever you see bobolinks, that field is able to store carbon,” he says. Franklin has partnered with Bird Ecology and Conservation Ontario (BECO) to track bobolinks and researchers found 14 males in his field, indicating this was a very successful project.
Sharing Information: “I am a teacher with one foot in agriculture and one foot in academics and I am passionate about sharing this information,” says Franklin.
Soil Regeneration Area at School: Merging his farming and teaching status, Franklin created a soil regeneration project at Saugeen District Secondary School where he teaches. Students from Grade 9 and 10 are brought to the patch beside the rugby field to take soil temperatures, test for water infiltration, examine soil tilth and set insect traps. Cover crops are discussed which leads into opportunities to teach about soil health, deep roots and soil carbon. “The kids love it. At some point, they realize they can play a role in solving climate change,” says Franklin.
Instead of hearing “don’t eat meat” as a climate solution, Franklin teaches that “it’s not the cow, it’s the how” referencing the difference between cattle raised in feedlots versus cattle raised on pasture and grasslands.
Perennial Wheat: Always looking for something else to learn and experiment with, Franklin will be test planting 10 pounds of perennial wheat as a pilot project. The next stage will be to find 20 acres to rent to grow a larger stand. The goal is to determine if perennial wheat has value for craft breweries, if it can serve as an ingredient in baking, if the straw is useful to livestock operations and if the stand will also attract nesting Bobolinks.
Franklin believes that fields and soil across North America are depleted and that the time is now to learn and implement old and new ways to protect soils, improve soils and ultimately, store the carbon that years of tillage (and mining and forestry and other climate evils) have released to reverse the effects of climate change. ◊