A Skeptical Science member’s path to an experiment on carbon sequestration

During what now seems like another era entirely- back in February of this long year- Skeptical Science regular RedBaron (aka Scott Strough) mentioned in a discussion thread here that he’d been working on an idea for no-till cultivation of vegetables, was seeking to quantify what appeared to be promising results. Scott was a bit stymied on raising a modest amount of funding to defray expenses in connection with a formal experimental method. We suggested he try the crowd-sourced science funding organizer experiment.com.  Despite the singular travails of this year 2020,  Scott’s application there (resembling a grant application to such as NSF in many ways) has panned out and he is now in the final days of completing his funding drive. Scott Strough experiment.com

Scott’s story of how he arrived at this juncture  is a bit reminiscent of our own Bärbel Winkler’s path to Skeptical Science; life affords ample opportunities for observation, and those observations often compel us into action.

Scott describes himself as a conservative capitalist skeptic- skeptical in the true sense, we note. As he’s a properly skeptical inquirer and member of Skeptical Science with a story to tell about how he’s applied genuine skeptical thinking to the good, we feel it worth highlighting his work. 

We’ve taken a bit of Scott’s time to explore a little more about where he started from, how his skepticism served a useful roll in formulating his concept,  his extended effort to refine what he’s discovered about sequestering carbon while raising food,  how he’s seeking to quantify that. As well, Scott tells us some useful things about applying for funding and the persistence required for success. Finally, for home gardeners and cultivators Scott has some practical advice to offer on gardening or raising vegetables in a “climate friendly” way. 

And again, Scott is currently seeking to complete funding for his project, so if you’re excited by his approach do lend some support. 

Quantifying capture of carbon in soil is not a typical retirement activity. Your career was as a marine engineer— how did you find your way to this specialized interest?

I traveled a lot as Marine Engineer. And I loved it too. I saw and experienced things in far off places people usually only dream about. But after a while I longed for stability and to retire and spend the second 1/2 my life as a small market farmer, just selling tomatoes and peppers and assorted other vegetables to my neighbors. I had an opportunity to move to Oklahoma and settle down. So  I took it.

I grew up on a small rural homestead in the middle of corn country north central Indiana. I was very active in 4H and most my early jobs were working for my Dad, or the farmers and big agricultural companies in the area. So I had a pretty good foundation. But it had been years, and I was a bit rusty. So I first started reading and watching videos, joining farming and gardening forums etc.. and got to work.

Most influential was Joel Salatin, although he mostly does animals rather than vegetables. The way he approached farming was and is very influential to my thinking. It would have stopped there though if I had not seen Allan Savory’s Ted Talk. I was extremely skeptical. But like any true skeptic, I was unwilling to dismiss it out of hand. The basic concept of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil was something that rang true.

So what does a skeptic do when faced with something that rings true but has limited evidence? I set about collecting every scrap of evidence I could find both for and against his claims. I took a holistic management course offered by HMI so I could know more precisely what it was all about. Then I took a climate science course to understand in greater detail what that was all about. I took a soil science course. Next step was to take this idea of mitigating AGW with soil carbon sequestration to the skeptic and climate change sites. Real Climate, Skeptical Science, International Skeptics Forum, etc. You have probably seen my posts over the years here.

Your focus on your project has been sustained and has clearly required a lot of effort. What has kept you going through this years-long process? 

I sell tomatoes and peppers at a roadside stand in front of the house to offset some of the costs involved. As far as what motivates me to continue? When I was traveling around the world I saw many countries.

One in particular is embedded starkly in my mind, Haiti. Here is an example where unsustainable agriculture combined with poor energy solutions to fossil fuel use completely collapsed the environment. You can literally see the border between Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was appalling. Clearly the combination of just reducing fossil fuel emissions alone, without replacing those with sustainable agriculture and modern renewable energy is not acceptable. (In Haiti they mostly use charcoal and deforestation, collapsing the whole ecosystem and society is the result)

I wrote a little about my experiences here: Scott Strough’s answer to What would happen to world food production if all pesticides and GMO foods were banned? – Quora

For others considering engaging with experiment.com, as a new veteran of the vetting process what words of advice do you have for others thinking of the same path? 

It is a painful process to negotiate with the scientists reviewing the project. They are very critical of how you word things and also very limited in the number of words you can use! Almost a catch 22.

It is really tough to describe complex things in very few simplified words. You have to follow their structure to the letter. I can’t tell you how many edits I made! It took 2 months! Then there was the covid delay that took another 6 months! They actually are on your side though. They just wont allow anything sloppy by them. 

I would encourage anyone who has the patience to focus their mind laser sharp on something overlooked by the larger research organizations to take a stab at it. If anything it will certainly improve your critical thinking skills, and who knows? Maybe you can turn some anecdotal evidence into something usable as real evidence for the larger scientific community! After all is said and done well worth it.

What feature of your experimental method has preoccupied you most, has been the most challenging to address, caused sleepless nights pondering how to overcome?

How to take those soil samples and what soil tests to use on them. I even considered taking a course to become a certified soil testing lab myself! That would cost $5000.00 and a whole lot of additional studies! Then of course the sampling protocol to use gets more and more expensive the deeper into the soil profile you sample. Even the hand tool I purchased cost almost $100, and maximum can take samples 1 foot deep.

Luckily the Nobel Foundation has accepted my application to be a cooperator, and has helped tremendously with this issue. I can send samples to them and they will have them tested without bias at already certified labs using standardized protocols.

I have not listed the soil sampling protocols yet in the lab notes because if I go over, I will be able to take deeper samples and afford better tests. However, I can still get useful results as long as I reach the minimum 100% funded.

Presuming that your preliminary observations and hypothesis are borne out in experimental results and replicated so as to broadly boost confidence in the organic no-till method, how do you see the technique being promoted in the agricultural world?

I am a conservative capitalist businessman at heart. I firmly believe that the only way to make this work worldwide is to first develop a profitable business model and run a “proof of concept” at a scale usable for any farmer, from the backyard gardener to the large commercial farmers, and everyone in between. That was the second most difficult thing to develop and caused many a sleepless night. Luckily years ago I developed a way of problem solving involving studying hard, then getting a good nights sleep. In the morning I often had the solution worked out by my subconscious.

As a matter of implementation details, how broadly can this method be applied? Would it extend as far as grain crops?

As a matter of fact it is already worked out for grain production. I actually to some extent borrowed the concept from Colin Seis’s pasture cropping technique. It has already gone under rigorous soil carbon testing by Dr. Christine Jones too, in ten year trials. The results can be found here: Liquid carbon pathway unrecognized  [PDF reprint of Australian Farm Journal article].

I am sure that my own modifications can be used in a variety of annual vegetable and fruit crops and even vineyards and orchards with almost no modifications. However, there are many other researchers working on various other crops. I have identified a whole range of methods already developed for almost every agricultural product worldwide, and written about them here: Scott Strough’s answer to Can the global climate change be reversed or halted? – Quora

For people gardening or cultivating at home, how may they be mindful of carbon retention and capture as part of their activity?

Part of the business model I developed for the “proof of concept” I mentioned above does include teaching gardeners how to do this very thing! The best place for this is at the place they buy their seeds, plants and gardening supplies in my opinion. This goes for farmers too.
That’s a lesson I actually learned from the big industrial guys like Monsanto. When they develop a product, the people that sell that product to the farmers actually teach the farmer how, when, and why to use it. This is a big part of how they gained market share so quickly.
So a big part of how this could become a common practice on a wide range gardens and farms would involve community interaction locally right at the point of sale, as well as seminars, videos and classes sponsored by each “hub” as part of a modular autarky business model.
But for those reading this now, who can’t wait for a new hub near them, I would suggest a general rule of thumb. The five keys to soil health: 
  • The first key to soil health is least amount of soil disturbance possible, preferably no-till.The soil disturbance should be limited to the hole made by planting the seeds or seedlings, and the hole made by harvesting root crops. I even limit pulling weeds, preferring in many cases to cut them at ground level or even let them grow as long as they don’t shade out my crop. You’ll be amazed how many so called “weeds” are actually beneficial companions when the soil food web is functioning properly. 
  • The second key is no bare soil. EVER if possible. Grow cover crops in the off seasons to have a living root in the soil as long as possible. Plants are the foundation of the soil food web, and their roots feed a whole complex network of beneficial soil life. At minimum cover that soil with mulches when something isn’t growing. Never allow bare soil anywhere. If you see bare soil, even between rows of plants, cover it!
  • Key three is diversity; nature never has monocultures.Part of the reason I allow grasses and forbs to grow between my rows is to insure a tomato field has something besides tomatoes growing in it. There are tremendous benefits to the soil food web when you have a diversity of plants growing together, from nutrient sharing, to pest prevention, to drought resistance, to attracting beneficial insects and pollinators and more.root cooperation
  • Fourth, keep a living root in the ground for as long as possible.Roots have exudates that feed the whole soil food web. Think of something like tree sap, but that flows down through the roots instead of upwards to the branches and leaves. Many beneficial symbiotic soil microorganisms like arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) require a living root to feed them or they die. They trade key nutrients, water and pest resistance compounds for those root exudates. This is another reason for the grass between my rows. They are perennials and their roots will keep the AMF networks alive even through winter. Mycorrhizal Fungi: The World’s Biggest Drinking Straws And Largest Unseen Communication System
  • The final key is animal impact. I am not testing this particular key to soil health in this particular experimental trial. I am just simulating a grazing animal’s impact with a mower to simulate grazing, and a compost pile to simulate manure. But to go to scale, this must reform animal husbandry practices just as much as it reforms crop production. But certainly many home gardeners could benefit from even something as simple and beneficial as a backyard chicken flock, if integrated properly and allowed by zoning regulations.

Thanks very much to Scott for taking the time to answer our questions so usefully. Readers interested in helping Scott see this investigation through to completion: pay a visit to his page at experiment.com and kick in some funds. For the price of a deluxe pizza you can help to make the world a better understood, better to live in place, permanently and with no impact on your waistline. 

(root illustration from Introducing Perennial Grain in Grain Crops Rotation: The Role of Rooting Pattern in Soil Quality Management

Building Health Lab

Architect since 2002, experienced in healthcare environment design. Master in public health sciences from the Charité Medical University in Berlin. Evidence-based Design researcher at TU-Berlin, helping ensure that urban & architectural design projects build positive health effectively. Founder of the Building Health Lab. BHL Building Health Lab Is a think tank that develops urban concepts for neighborhoods as strategy to build a sustainable healthy city. Our mission is to help government, industry, and citizens develop projects with social impact that protect people and planet health. With our expertise in health and design, we support health promotion and disease management through people-centred and climate adaptive designs.