Carbon Regenerative Agriculture

Prime Future 129: Feature, not a bug.


I hate voicemails. To keep that savagery out of my life, I keep my voicemail box full. Since 2013 a full voicemail inbox has been a feature of my personal system, not a bug.

Now for a slightly unseemly example…Howard Schultz grew his caffeine juggernaut on the then-novel idea of a coffee shop as the third place: home, work, and Starbucks. This required predictability of the customer experience from Starbucks to Starbucks, which obviously required a high degree of standardized SOPs to create that consistency. Doesn’t it seem notable that a company whose stores around the world function so consistently, yet globally its restrooms are so consistently disgusting?

My theory is that Starbucks wants you to walk in the doors for the third-place effect but they don’t want you to linger too long. They need a subtle way to convince customers not to stay too long. IMO, they solve this by not cleaning the restrooms often enough, in a way that is built into company SOPs.

Ergo, disgusting restrooms at Starbucks are a feature of the business model, not a bug.


Anyone who grows things for a living, or took even a smidge of soil science coursework, knows that soil is one of those topics that seems simple on the surface but is more complex even than the Alameda/FTX relationship.

Here’s my beef with the carbon sequestration conversation happening across boardrooms and ag conferences everywhere:

It is costly to measure soil carbon. Without a low-cost high-reliability carbon measurement tool, most carbon programs are based on a model, a forecast. To be clear, a model/forecast is just a spreadsheet with calculations built off assumptions…many, many assumptions.

My concern is that these models tend to reduce complex ecological systems' capacity to sequester carbon to the same type of model you might use to forecast widget production in a widget factory.

Say it with me: complexity is a feature of nature, not a bug.

There are likely many factors that affect how much carbon can be sequestered on any given acre of land, including uncontrollables like rainfall.

But a glaring gap in this evolving discussion is the impact of soil type on carbon sequestration. Doesn’t soil type just HAVE to have a huge impact on the amount of carbon sequestered? Yet I don’t hear it discussed as a variable in the carbon convo.

The problem is if carbon models effectively ask something like “are cover crops or <insert management practice> being used on a field?” when the more indicative question is something like “are cover crops or <insert management practice> being used on a field with clay soil and xyz soil properties?

All soil is not created equal, so there’s zero chance all soil will sequester carbon equally.

If these types of questions aren’t answered in ways that pass both the scientific and common sense smell tests, my concern is that it will be producers who suffer the eventual fallout. (Others in the value chain would suffer that fallout as well but my primary concern is about the impact on producers and consumer perception.)

I asked on Twitter who is working on the connection between soil type and carbon sequestration. The good news is there are definitely folks working on this question, the bad news is that work doesn’t seem to have yet made it into the real world. (Here’s the link to the replies, especially the few scientific papers folks suggested…in case that’s your jam.)

I was originally thinking about soil type as the basic categories of soil texture (sand/clay/loam) but smart folks pointed out that “soil type” is too broad; there are multiple soil characteristics that could impact sequestration.

@JanetteJoyB @R_C_OConnor @hnw2 @dphuber @brookebosborne Things that come to mind to link soil type and C sequestration are 1) moving beyond texture to explore physical attributes that dictate/predict soil C storage, 2) thinking about C chemistry/type in addition to total amount (including inorganic C) and 3) ensuring we go deep enough”

Not only are those characteristics likely to individually impact carbon sequestration potential, but it seems reasonable to hypothesize that the combinations of individual characteristics would also impact carbon sequestration potential.

“🚜Paul McGill ☘🐑🌳🐂🌾🏏🌽🌲🏉🏇🏽🥐🥩🍻🧶🎾♥️🌏 @PaulBMcGill
@JanetteJoyB Look at it from all the more valuable parts of soil & farming – water holding capacity. Soil structure, drainage, biology, nutrient storage, micro-organism feed source etc etc. ‘Carbon Sequestration’ is just part of all the different processes of soil organic matter”

My biggest takeaway from the replies was that because there's still much we don't understand about individual soil characteristics, there's MUCH we don't understand about the interaction between soil characteristics and production practices that could sequester carbon.

*CDR = carbon dioxide removal

But this might be the punchline:

Chris Tolles @chrismtolles “@JanetteJoyB @LWR_Inc “How do we account for _____?!” is the central Q of almost everything in soil CDR. 😛 TLDR we need to 100x govt investment in fundamental science maybe kinda like this:… cc @carbon_180 @cristelzbq

I haven’t read the entire proposal about the Soil Carbon Moonshot but I *loved* the framing of the Executive Summary:

Experts estimate that globally, soils could store up to 5 billion metric tons of CO2 per year, an amount equal to 13% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions. For producers, storing carbon in soil is a pathway to increased revenue, better yields, and strengthened climate resilience.

Despite the potential, there is virtually zero dedicated funding for soil carbon research today and related efforts across the federal government are fragmented. While soil carbon is gaining momentum with policymakers, private companies, and farmers alike, many knowledge gaps remain, and reaching scale will require strategic investments in research.

What remains most acutely unknown is the measurement and verification of carbon stored in our soils from acre to acre. For one, few rigorous soil carbon protocols exist, making it difficult to reliably ensure that carbon stays sequestered over long periods of time.

Existing protocols, to fill in a complete picture of an operation’s soil storage potential, often rely on models informed by insufficient source data to predict soil carbon.

Measurement aside, soil carbon research to date has neglected to explore the economics and real-world implementation challenges that farmers face and has stopped short of developing best practices for the diversity of regions and operation types that makeup US agriculture, including specialty crop, dryland, livestock, and small-scale operations.

If we can advance our understanding of soil carbon — with practices embraced by farmers, tools that accurately measure climate benefits, and incentives grounded in science — the US will be positioned to develop and deploy the next generation of climate solutions for the agriculture sector.

To meet this challenge and scale soil carbon in a science-driven way, we need an ambitious, interdisciplinary, coordinated interagency research program: a Soil Carbon Moonshot (SCM). Only a moonshot program can marshall the necessary resources from across the federal government to pursue ground-breaking research and speed up innovation where solutions may not yet be profitable or scalable.

We’ll return to this soon because the whole ag research economy is something I’ve been exploring, both the history and potential future scenarios.

One last thought. The question of soil complexities & carbon potential is relevant to our recent discussion about the Dust Bowl:

There is a lesson in the Dust Bowl: no matter how much we think we know, we need a heaping dose of humility when it comes to nature and our collective understanding of nature’s systems and complexities.

There’s all that We Know We Don’t Know. Think of how limited our understanding is in many areas of science from the human brain to soil health to human & animal microbiomes. Then there’s all that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know.

But perhaps most humbling, are all the things We Think We Know That Are Yet To Be Proven Wrong.

Like folks in the 1920’s plowing up ground with the confidence of “the rain follows the plow” and the confidence that wheat prices would continue up and to the right. In hindsight and with modern meteorology and agronomy, we know that idea couldn’t have been more wrong.

It’s easy to think how much smarter we are as a society today but I have to assume there are things that we accept as true today that in 100 years, society will laugh at how silly we were for believing some things.

When we're dealing with nature, it's risky to assume away complexity or the interdependencies of ecosystems.

Ecosystem complexity: brilliant feature, not a bug.

(If you can fill in some gaps on the interaction between soil characteristics and carbon sequestration potential, hit reply and shoot me an email with your comments – would love to learn more.)

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Prime Future 96: NFTs have entered the chat.


“Buy land. They aren’t making any more of it.”

It seems like every farm kid across the entire face of God’s green earth grew up hearing some variation on this idea. Farmland has historically appreciated ~12% annually.

While farmland has been a reliable investment class over time, many would say that’s true of the broader real estate market.

So this tweet caught my eye:

If you’ve never felt older than after reading that tweet, you are not alone.

What non-physical things are ‘young crypto investors’ investing in? The obvious is cryptocurrencies, but there are also DAOs (which we’ve briefly touched on) and NFTs.

“A non-fungible token (NFT) is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger, that can…

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Blockchain Emerging Tech

Prime Future 79: Blockchain…all dressed up but where to go?


Technology only has a fighting chance in agriculture when it definitively improves producer outcomes🤑 and/or consumer outcomes😃. Tech for the sake of tech is a road to nowhere.

Moreover, I get reeally skeptical when seemingly overnight cult-like obsessions form, as has happened in the second half of 2021 in the tech world with DAOs.

Unpopular opinion: DAOs are just blockchains all dressed up & looking for something to do on a Friday night.

What’s a DAO? Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. (Oh that wasn’t self-explanatory? Weird…)

Constitution DAO is probably the most public example, recently formed to purchase a copy of the US Constitution that was going up for auction. The group raised ~$40M which wasn’t quite enough to snag the prize, so the DAO was dissolved.

One definition of a DAO is, “a group organized around a mission that coordinates through a shared set of rules enforced on a blockchain.” Hmmm. Here’s another perspective:

“Formal definitions are…

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