By Robert Turner
I traveled through Spain a year ago last September looking for a pig. Not just any swine, but a special pig that holds a distinctive place in a cultural landscape where grass, pigs, acorn trees and people have lived together in a mutually dependent relationship for hundreds of years. This is the story of the black Iberian pig, a grassy plain, the great oak tree and farmers in the dehesa.
Pronounced de-hey-sa, the rolling grassland of central and southern Spain is scattered with oak trees that have become part of a three-way symbiotic relationship between pigs and trees and the people who inhabit the place. Acorns from the trees feed the pigs and the manure from the pigs fertilizes the acorn trees. The pigs’ hooves break up the dry, hard soils, and that helps the grass and the trees. The pigs, in turn, feed the people who planted and maintain the trees and provides them with a source of income.
Men and women have planted the oak trees on the grassy plain over hundreds of years, and, in doing so, they gave the pigs a rich source of fat and protein, which also added to the quality and flavor of the meat. The meat from this unique ecosystem, a cured ham that is cut so thin you can almost see through it, is known as jamón ibérico, and it’s coveted by chefs around the world for its rich flavor. I’ve seen it on the menu at Cúrate in downtown Asheville.
Planting trees in pasture is a regenerative practice known as silvopasture, and while this system has been going on for hundreds of years in the dehesa, there is a great deal of recent research about how trees and livestock and grass work together in mutually beneficial relationships.
But trees also play another vital role in the ecosystem. They sequester massive amounts of carbon, which can help to mitigate climate change and the effects of global warming. These pig farmers in Spain had no knowledge of or concern about carbon when they planted the oak trees in pastures; many of the trees were planted 200 years ago. But trees have an extraordinary ability to capture tons of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, limbs and roots, and in the soil around them. There is no better machine that man or woman can invent for pulling excess carbon out of the atmosphere.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that it will be impossible to reach the goals set in the Paris Agreement by just reducing emissions—we must also capture carbon from the atmosphere and return it to the soil.
Planting lots of trees is one way to do that. The other way we sequester carbon is by using regenerative farming practices such as cover crops in winter, crop rotation, reduced till or no-till farming, and rotational grazing strategies for livestock, which means getting them out of confined animal feeding operations. The secret to climate change is right beneath our feet. It’s healthy soil with lots of organic matter.
These regenerative and sustainable practices rebuild soil health by increasing organic matter and microbial life while improving the soil’s capacity to hold water and reduce erosion. Healthier soils also help farmers fight the effects of climate change, such as drought and extreme rains. Unfortunately, only about six percent of farms in the US use cover crops. That must change.
Over the past several months, I’ve been planting carbon sequestration machines: fruit and nut trees, maples and conifers, woody shrubs, and blueberry and raspberry bushes.
My friend Charlie Hughes from Mountain Green helped me put them in the ground. Charlie’s landscape company plants a lot of trees.
When I asked him what he thought about what I was doing—carbon farming—he smiled and said, “Cool. Any money in that?”
I said, “Yeah, about as much money as regular farming, which ain’t much.” He laughed and shook his head.
“Want to know how to make a million in farming?” I asked as a setup to my favorite farmer joke.
“Yeah, how?” he asked.
“Start with two million.”
No one’s getting rich farming. But if done right, agriculture happens to be our most cost-effective way to fight climate change. Everything is connected: the soil, the plants, the trees, the animals, the atmosphere—and us.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.